The developer of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project from Russia to Western Europe received a fillip in the face of new sanctions threats, with Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz throwing his support behind the scheme.

“I welcome that Germany’s government continues to stick with Nord Stream 2,” Kurz told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag in an interview.

“It is a European project. Whoever thinks it is only in Russian interests is wrong.”

According to Kurz, the European Union would be in “danger of weakening itself” if it were to oppose the pipeline link at the current advanced phase of its completion.

The threat of further sanctions against the project from the US and elsewhere has intensified in the wake of Russia's crackdown on opposition leaders and protests in the country over the jailing of prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

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Earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the country’s government has not changed its positive stance on Nord Stream 2 despite a Russian court ruling sentencing Navalny — an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin — to almost three years in a labour camp.

With the EU apparently unable to agree upon new sanctions against Russian authorities, France’s President Emmanuel Macron had earlier called for Germany to join calls from Poland and other European states to halt the Russian gas export pipeline project.

However, Macron has not reiterated his earlier pronouncement on Nord Stream 2 following his meeting with Merkel at the end of the last week, with Merkel reported as saying that both presidents “share the opinion that European countries should not become unilaterally energy dependent on Russia”.

Josep Borrell: High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy during his visit to Moscow, Russia, last week Photo: RUSSIAN FOREIGH MINISTRY/AP/SCANPIX

EU's Borrell in Moscow trip

In another indication that Europe remains divided on what it may do to react to any new attack on freedoms in Russia, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell undertook a three-day trip to Moscow.

That happened as the Kremlin announced its decision to expel three diplomats of Germany, Poland and Sweden for attending recent opposition rallies in Moscow.

Borrell said in Moscow that no EU member state had proposed extra sanctions on Russia. Other EU officials were reported as saying, however, that this was not accurate.

The operator of the Gazprom-owned pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, said that the Russian pipelay barge Fortuna is moving forward with a pre-approved plan and has resumed pipelay work on the first uncompleted segment of the project in Danish territorial waters in the Baltic Sea.

“All work is being done in compliance with received permissions,” the operator told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

Longer segments of Nord Stream 2 in Germany, Sweden, Finland and Russia were completed during 2019 but pipelay work halted after the US slammed sanctions against the project.