President Biden’s national security team worked hard this week to defeat a GOP congressional effort to sanction a Russian-German energy project that will strengthen the hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin and weaken Ukraine at the worst possible time. This is only the latest in a series of moves that show how the Biden administration’s actions are actually working to save the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, even though Biden’s officials publicly claim to oppose it.

As early as Wednesday afternoon, the Senate will vote on a bill by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that would mandate U.S. sanctions on the company that owns and hopes to soon operate Nord Stream 2 — also known around Capitol Hill as the “the Molotov-Ribbentrop pipeline,” a derogatory reference to the 1939 nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. The analogy is imperfect, but it does highlight what’s at stake if the pipeline comes into operation. Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is ill-advisedly calling for a “new beginning” with Russia that includes moving forward with the pipeline at the exact moment Putin is poised to re-invade Ukraine.

The Biden team is opposing the bill because it doesn’t want to hand Cruz a win and because it wants to preserve the administration’s diplomatic flexibility. The administration also seems to be prioritizing Germany’s concerns over those of the Ukrainian government, which is warning that if the United States doesn’t act now to stop the pipeline from becoming operational, Russia will gain the ability to bypass Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, removing perhaps the last obstacle to a Russian military invasion. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly asked U.S. senators to vote for the Cruz bill.

As my Post colleague Seung Min Kim reported on Wednesday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland and State Department energy special envoy Amos Hochstein have been personally pressing Democratic senators to oppose the Cruz bill. Meanwhile, administration officials worked with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) and other Democrats to introduce a competing bill that would authorize a larger package of sanctions, including sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but only in the event of a Russian attack.

In exchange for Cruz releasing his holds on Biden diplomatic nominees, Schumer promised him a stand-alone vote on his Nord Stream 2 bill. The Schumer-Menendez legislation isn’t scheduled for a vote. Introducing it now seems geared to provide Democrats political cover to reverse their previous support for pipeline sanctions.

Some Democrats, including Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), will still vote for the Cruz bill, arguing that imposing sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has always been a bipartisan effort in the past. The sanctions were passed in both the 2020 and 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which Democrats overwhelmingly supported.

“Countering Russian aggression is critical to American national security, which is why I have consistently supported sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline,” Cortez Masto told me. “That was my position under the Trump administration, and it hasn’t changed during the Biden administration.”

But several other Democrats who have previously supported Nord Stream 2 sanctions are likely to vote against the Cruz bill. That will deny the GOP a political reward for holding Biden nominees hostage. The losers, however, are not the Republicans but the Ukrainians. On Tuesday, Ukrainian civil society representatives publicly asked the Senate to pass the Cruz bill.

The Biden administration insists it opposes the pipeline, but over the past nine months its actions have called that into question. In May, the United States waived sanctions on the firm in charge of the project, Nord Stream 2 AG, a Swiss company wholly owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom — even though Secretary of State Antony Blinken had promised during his confirmation hearing he was “determined to do whatever we can to prevent that completion.”

In June, Blinken then said the pipeline was a “fait accompli.” In July, the United States and Germany issued a joint statement pledging not to allow Russia to use the pipeline to cut out Ukraine and tighten its grip on Europe. But last week, standing alongside new German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (who opposes the pipeline), Blinken argued that the pipeline provided leverage against Putin. If Putin invades, he said, Germany might not turn it on.

The Cruz bill “will undermine our efforts to deter Russia and remove leverage the United States and our allies and partners possess in this moment all to score political points at home,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne told me Wednesday. “And it would come at a moment where we need to be closely united with our European partners, including Germany.”

GOP Senate staffers point out that Scholz, who surely wants the domestic economic benefits Nord Stream 2 promises, has never promised to kill it if Putin invades, rendering a future threat of sanctions on the pipeline empty. In fact, Berlin would become even more dependent on Nord Stream 2 if a Russian attack on Ukraine were to cut off that country’s gas transit routes. The Ukrainians similarly don’t agree that Nord Stream 2 should be stopped only if Putin invades — and after the invasion they fear it might be too late.

Blinken and Nuland actually once supported imposing sanctions on Nord Stream 2, according to reporting by my Post colleague John Hudson, but were overruled by the White House. So did most Senate Democrats — at least until this week. By enforcing loyalty and deftly working the Hill, the White House might have won the domestic political battle in Washington. Unfortunately, that small victory might come at the cost of giving Putin a much more significant one.