Ukraine hits back at pressure from Biden administration over gas pipeline
Kyiv feels it is once again being held hostage by Washington — this time by the Biden administration.
A Ukrainian government adviser lashed out on Wednesday against pressure from the Joe Biden administration, which is trying to strong-arm Kyiv into supporting a deal between the U.S. and Germany on the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.
The angry reaction came as Derek Chollet, a counselor in the U.S. State Department, was in Kyiv in an effort to persuade the Ukrainians to go along with the deal, with plans to later head to Warsaw to drum up support among Polish officials also critical of the Russia-to-Germany pipeline in their backyard.
The U.S. and Germany have long fought over the pipeline, which will bypass Ukraine, allowing Russia to ship gas directly to Europe without paying billions in transit fees to Kyiv. But U.S. officials have signaled they’ve given up on stopping the project and are now scrambling to contain the damage by striking a grand bargain with Germany.
“The U.S. and Germany in bilateral negotiations can resolve any issues that relate to their interests,” said Mikhail Podolyak, an adviser to the chief of the Ukrainian presidential administration, Andriy Yermak. “But when it affects the interests of other nations, it is impossible to decide anything behind their backs.”
Chollet’s trip to Kyiv included meetings with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Head of the Presidential Office Andriy Yermak and Deputy Foreign Minister Yevhenii Yenin — but a brief readout from the State Department on Wednesday offered no indication he had persuaded the Ukrainians of the merits of the U.S.-Germany deal.
“Counselor Chollet reiterated our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations … [and] discussed our shared concerns about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and U.S. commitments to ensure Russia cannot use energy as a coercive tool,” it reads.
Biden’s team is pushing to finalize an agreement before August 19, when the next legally mandated sanctions report on Nord Stream 2 must be delivered to Congress. The president came under heavy fire from U.S. lawmakers in May for waiving penalties on Nord Stream 2 and affiliated companies in the name of national security — and is eager to avoid a repeat.
The pressure campaign by the Biden administration, reported by POLITICO, had included a refusal to confirm a date for a visit to the White House by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, despite Biden issuing a personal invitation. On Wednesday after reports that the visit was being held up in the talks over the gas deal, the White House announced it would take place on August 30.
Zelenskiy confírmed the date in a pair of tweets, saying he looked forward to a fruitful visit to Washington next month as well as discussing the “serious security threat” the pipeline poses to Ukraine.
In the race to reach a deal, negotiators in Washington were in overnight talks Monday to Tuesday, seeking to get Berlin to commit to a plan involving green energy investments in Ukraine, Kyiv’s inclusion in the Three Seas Initiative for regional energy security, and potentially having the U.S. and Germany take over responsibility from Russia for paying Ukraine’s lost gas transit revenues through 2024, several people in Washington familiar with the talks said.
Ukrainian officials had been initially told to expect a U.S. deal announcement between July 24-29 — with the State Department then leaking to U.S. media it could be presented Wednesday, just hours after Chollet’s meetings in Kyiv.
That approach, perceived by some as riding roughshod over Kyiv, has raised the hackles of anti-pipeline senators in Washington, who have already begun denouncing the deal.
“It was negotiated without the participation and consent of key allies like Ukraine and Poland, and does not guarantee a single concrete consequence if Russia uses Nord Stream 2 as the geopolitical weapon it is,” said U.S. Senator Jim Risch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and sanctions legislation co-author.
“Regardless of the foreign policy outcome the administration thinks it has achieved, there are still mandatory sanctions the administration has not imposed and it has not consulted with Congress on the waiver of these mandatory sanctions under both the Protecting European Energy Security Act (PEESA) and the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA),” Risch added.
Push for a deal
The €9.5 billion Russia-to-Germany link under the Baltic Sea — Moscow’s second — would significantly increase the amount of natural gas able to be sent directly to the EU without paying the billions in annual transit fees to use Ukrainian pipelines.
Berlin has sought to blunt that financial blow to Kyiv — and ease the way for Nord Stream 2’s acceptance — by helping broker a minimum gas transit agreement guaranteeing Russian payments to Ukraine through 2024.
Last year that netted Ukraine €2.1 billion, but the figure is far below the historic revenues Kyiv received before the first direct Nord Stream pipeline came online.
“The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is a threat not only to Ukraine but also to Poland and Lithuania,” Podolyak told POLITICO. “So the problem must be solved in transparent communication between all partners — and not only in negotiations between Washington and Berlin.”
In a Ukrainian briefing document obtained by POLITICO, stated goals include mandating that EU gas liberalization rules apply to all incoming pipelines — which in practice would prevent both Nord Stream pipelines from operating, given the gas export monopoly granted to Gazprom by Moscow.
Podolyak repeated Ukraine’s fierce criticism of the Nord Stream 2 project and its insistence that Washington prevent its completion.
“Nord Stream 2 is a specific tool for Russia to maximize opportunities for destabilizing the Eastern European countries,” he said. “The USA will have to deal with the consequences of this Russian ambition anyway. But to do it now, by stopping the project, is easier and cheaper than later when Russia is better prepared.”
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers told POLITICO they are considering blocking must-pass appropriations legislation this fall if the Biden administration continues to withold sanctions on the project.
Construction on the pipeline is 98 percent complete, but Nord Stream 2 would still need safety certification and regulatory approval — which U.S. sanctions could bring to a halt.
The public allegation that the White House is trampling on the interests of allies along the Russian border reflected the deepening dismay in Kyiv over Ukraine once again being held hostage by American political interests. In December 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached then-President Donald Trump, accusing him of abuse of power by trying to force Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son, Hunter, ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Before the White House announced the date of the visit, Podolyak said: “We look forward to a meeting between Presidents Zelenskiy and Biden to coordinate our actions and understand how the United States can fulfill its repeated promises to protect Europe and Ukraine from further expansion of Russian aggression.”
Betsy Woodruff Swan, Andrew Desiderio and Alexander Ward in Washington contributed reporting.
This article was updated after the White House announced a date for a visit with Volodymyr Zelenskiy.