WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House said on Wednesday it has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to meet with President Joe Biden next month, but the visit will come later than Kiev had hoped, reinforcing the perception in Ukraine that a country under pressure from the last US president also gets less than the privileged treatment of the new one.
Zelenskyy had publicly called for an in-person meeting with Biden ahead of Biden’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June. Instead, Zelenskyy received a phone call with Biden and subsequently tweeted that he was invited to visit the White House in July.
But no July meeting in the Oval Office has taken place, and the session is now set for August 30, the White House said. Administration officials, meanwhile, have denied accusations that they have warned Ukraine against public criticism of Biden’s handling of a controversial Russian gas pipeline or have postponed any meeting between the leaders.
Ukraine had high expectations for Biden’s presidency after facing demands from former President Donald Trump, who suspended military aid while calling on Zelenskyy’s government to dig up the Biden family to help win his re-election. The episode led to the first impeachment of Trump, who was acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate in February 2020, and dragged Ukraine into bitter US partisan politics.
But Biden stunned Ukraine in May when his administration chose to lift sanctions on the company and the CEO overseeing the construction of a Russian gas pipeline to Europe, a project which Ukraine and its members vehemently oppose. neighbors of Eastern Europe.
Despite repeated objections from Ukraine, as well as a bipartisan group of lawmakers, Biden has refrained from moving forward with sanctions designed to prevent the completion of the project, known as Nord Stream. 2. The administration said this decision would allow time to work out. a compromise agreement with Germany, which supported the pipeline.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration and Germany announced a deal to soften the blow from the pipeline that will bypass Ukraine, but the deal immediately came under heavy criticism in Kiev and elsewhere.
Opponents of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, including Ukraine and Poland, blasted the deal on Wednesday, saying it would leave Kiev vulnerable to Russian coercion.
In a joint statement, Ukraine and Poland said the deal had “considerably deepened” the “crisis”.
“Unfortunately, the proposals so far to cover the resulting security gap cannot be considered sufficient to effectively limit the threats created by NS2 [Nord Stream 2]”, the statement read.” We call on the United States and Germany to respond adequately to the security crisis in our region, of which Russia is the sole beneficiary. “
Officials in the Biden administration have defended the deal and their approach to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, denying accusations they tried to pressure Kiev to refrain from publicly criticizing the deal or making pressure against him in Congress.
U.S. officials have said they want to avoid disrupting relations with a key ally, Germany, which has supported the pipeline.
By bypassing Ukraine, the pipeline will deprive Kiev of lucrative transit charges for gas transported through its territory.
The Biden administration said on Wednesday that the deal with Germany would help soften the pipeline’s effect on Ukraine and include investments in “green energy” in Ukraine.
John Herbst, former US ambassador to Ukraine, said Kiev felt “a sense of betrayal” because of her treatment by Biden, especially after what she experienced during Trump’s tenure.
“This is a very weak diplomatic performance of the Biden administration,” said Herbst, a member of the Atlantic Council. “In five months of negotiations [with Germany], they got nothing. “
The White House said Biden looked forward to welcoming Zelenskyy to Washington in August and that “the visit will confirm the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of ongoing aggression. of Russia “in eastern Ukraine, as well as cooperation on” energy security “and support for” Zelenskyy’s efforts to fight corruption. “
According to Herbst and two congressional advisers with direct knowledge of the matter, administration officials have in recent days warned Ukraine not to publicly criticize the US-Germany deal and to avoid opposing the deal when meetings with members of Congress.
“They were told to shut up and swallow it,” Herbst said.
Zelenskyy’s visit in August will take place when Congress is unlikely to be in session.
Officials strongly denied reports that the meeting was originally scheduled for early summer or that it was delayed due to friction between the two governments over the pipeline.
Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, said the administration never asked Ukraine to remain silent on Nord Stream 2.
“I would like to repeat that here we have not taken any action to silence Ukraine. Ukraine is a sovereign nation and will speak for itself on this,” Nuland said at the hearing. before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During the Obama administration, Nuland was a senior diplomat overseeing Ukrainian politics after Russia’s incursion into the country’s Crimean Peninsula.
As part of the US deal with Germany, Nuland said Berlin is committed to taking action if Russia attempts “to use energy as a weapon or to commit other aggressive acts against it. ‘Ukraine’.
“Germany will take measures at national level and push for effective measures at European level, including sanctions, to limit Russia’s export capacities to Europe in the energy sector,” said declared Nuland.
The United States and Germany will support an extension of the annual $ 3 billion gas transit agreement between Russia and Ukraine beyond 2024, Nuland said. Washington “will seek, lobby and use leverage to try to ask for another 10 years,” she said.
But it was unclear how the Biden administration and Germany could persuade Russia to extend the current gas transit contract which expires in three years.
“Look, this is a bad situation and a bad pipeline, but we have to help protect Ukraine, and I think we’ve taken some big steps in that direction with this deal,” Nuland told lawmakers.
As part of the deal, Germany also agreed to invest in a new $ 1 billion fund to help Ukraine switch to cleaner energy sources and improve energy security.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who suspended all State Department candidates until the Biden administration sanctions the pipeline company and its CEO, said he was not convinced by the arguments administration.
“This is a generational geopolitical error from which, decades from now, future Russian dictators will reap billions of dollars in benefits each year,” Cruz said during a Senate hearing. “And will use this pipeline to exert economic blackmail on Europe decades from now.”
The US-German deal will not change Cruz’s position and he did not intend to lift the grip on all State Department candidates, according to a source close to the senator’s point of view on the matter. . There are dozens of candidates awaiting confirmation by the Senate for State Department positions.
Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who had called on the Biden administration to take action to prevent the pipeline from being completed, said she was not convinced the US-Germany deal would work.
“While I look forward to being briefed by the administration on the final details of the deal, I am skeptical that it will be enough when the key player at the table – Russia – refuses to abide by the rules, ”Shaheen said in a statement. declaration.
As German and US officials worked to craft the final outlines of the deal over the past week, senior State Department official Derek Chollet visited Ukraine on Tuesday to discuss the deal.
During a State Department briefing with reporters, spokesman Ned Price said it was clear that the sanctions would not succeed in stopping construction of the pipeline, and that is why the administration decided that it was not in the interest of the United States to weaken “the relationship we have with our ally Germany” on the project.
Members of the Green Party in Germany called the US-German deal a “bitter setback for climate protection” that would hurt Ukraine and help Putin.
“As Putin exerts massive rhetorical and military pressure on Ukraine and once again challenges the country’s sovereignty, Washington and Berlin are sending the wrong signals to Moscow,” said Oliver Krischer, vice chairman of the group. party parliamentarian, and Manuel Sarrazin, spokesman for Eastern European politics, Reuters reported.
In a joint statement, the United States and Germany said they were “steadfast in their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence and chosen European path.”