A senior German government official on Friday agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin's criticism of new U.S. sanctions aimed at punishing Russian aggression around the world.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel suggested Friday that the United States is using the sanctions bill as an opportunity to boost American energy companies by barring Europeans from doing business with their Russian rivals. The remarks endorse a key plank of Russia's position, despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel's posture as a leading European critic of Putin.
"Sanctions policies are neither a suitable nor an appropriate instrument for promoting national export interests and the domestic energy sector," Gabriel said.
Putin made a similar accusation, as Congress took the final steps to send the bill to President Trump's desk. "I would call them particularly cynical because they amount to an obvious attempt to use one's geopolitical advantages in the competitive struggle in order to protect one's economic interests at the expense of one's allies, as in this case," Putin said Thursday while traveling in Finland.
That charge was just one part of the Russian defense against the sanctions, as the Foreign Ministry paired it with a statement that U.S. concern about Russian aggression is a fiction.
"It is common knowledge that the Russian Federation has been doing everything in its power to improve bilateral relations, to encourage ties and cooperation with the U.S.," the Foreign Ministry said. "Meanwhile, the United States is using Russia's alleged interference in its domestic affairs as an absolutely contrived excuse for its persevering and crude campaigns against Russia."
U.S. intelligence officials in President Trump's administration and the Obama administration agree that Russians were behind a series of cyberattacks and document leaks targeting Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Leaked National Security Agency documents also revealed an effort to hack state election systems, although they didn't succeed in altering the vote on election day. Russian officials also harassed U.S. diplomats, according to the State Department, including one incident when a policeman outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow assaulted an American official trying to enter the building.
"For too long, the message to Vladimir Putin has been that Russia can invade its neighbors, threaten U.S. allies, intensify its cyber-attacks, and interfere with foreign elections with very little repercussion," Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said in June when the bill passed the upper chamber. "Unless and until Russia pays a price for its actions, these destabilizing activities will continue."
The new sanctions aim to punish Russia by barring companies that do business in the United States from working on energy projects with significant Russian ownership — defined in the law as a one-third stake. The most significant example is Nord Stream 2, a major new gas pipeline that a company owned by the Russian government is trying to build in northern Europe.
The pipeline would strengthen Russia's hand with respect to Ukraine and Europe, but several major energy companies from Germany and other Western European nations are involved in the deal.
U.S. lawmakers took a variety of steps to alleviate those worries in the final version of the bill, including measures that would allow for U.S-European coordination over the implementation of the sanctions.
"It's critically important that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our European allies in countering Russian aggression," House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce said as lawmakers prepared to pass the legislation. "That's why, in the bipartisan, House-Senate negotiations, we secured important changes to improve transatlantic cooperation."
Gabriel acknowledged those concessions, but signaled Germany intends to take a firm line in defending German-Russian energy cooperation.
"It is good that Congress has now explicitly stipulated that consultations must be held with the United States' European partners before further measures can be taken," he said. "Our stance remains that we will not accept any extraterritorial use whatsoever of these US sanctions against European companies."