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Nord Stream 2 and Ukraine – the view from Washington

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(es) December 8, 2021. Vienna/ Washington DC

This report from the AEJ’s Ukrainian in Washington, Askold Krushelnycky, signals how crucial the still-unopened Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline may prove. Will the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sanction blocking it after all, as so many have advocated? More on this soon from Berlin. ES

Virtual summit – warnings of real-world punishment
by Askold Krushelnycky
US American President Joseph Biden has spelled out to Vladimir Putin the consequences if Moscow launches a fresh invasion of Ukraine, with penalties much more severe than Washington’s delayed and tepid reaction in 2014.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan told journalists: “President Biden looked Putin in the eye and told him today that things we did not do in 2014 we are

Jake Sullivan, US National Security Adviser

prepared to do now.”

The two leaders’ two-hour virtual video summit on December 7 focussed on the massive, weeks-long buildup of an estimated 175,000 Russian troops around Ukraine’s borders. Photos from US and other intelligence reports show huge arrays of Russian tanks, other armored vehicles, missile carriers, and artillery close to Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders.
Russian forces have this year twice held massive “exercises” in Belarus, on Ukraine’s northwestern frontier, leaving much of the equipment in place after the manoeuvres had supposedly ended.
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has long made clear the Kremlin can use his country as a launchpad for aggression against Ukraine. Russian military units, helicopters, warplanes, and landing craft in occupied Crimea are perfectly deployed to erupt into Ukraine’s mainland.
2014 all over again?
Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014 and its regular troops and “separatist” proxies – all created, financed, and controlled by Moscow – occupied a large swathe of Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Intense conflict in 2014 and 2015 left 14,000 dead, a flawed ceasefire still yields an unrelenting toll of deaths and injuries.
Biden was then vice-president to then-president Barack Obama, who was criticised for failing to supply weapons to Ukraine, fearing it would “provoke” Putin to even greater aggression. Biden’s advocacy of lethal weapons for Kyiv was overridden.
Before becoming president in 2020, Biden pledged to increase military support, including supplies of lethal weapons, for Kyiv. His administration has provided sufficient aid to infuriate Russia –  but not enough to prevent it from menacing Ukraine.
A White House statement and a short press conference by national security adviser Sullivan gave only bare outlines of the Biden- Putin meeting. But it was clear that Biden was determined to convince Putin the costs of further aggression would be far-reaching.
Sullivan said Biden “reiterated support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and warned Putin that in case of an escalation  America “would provide additional defensive materiel to the Ukrainians, above and beyond that which we are already providing.” Biden warned that the US and European allies would fiercely ramp up economic sanctions.
Getting personal with Putin’s people
Sullivan did not go into detail. He did not want “to telegraph our punches,” he said. However, in the days before the meeting, US  officials and analysts suggested there could be new sanctions.
Some would likely hit large enterprises such as the Russian energy exporters who underpin the country’s otherwise primitive and parlous economy. Other sanctions could be imposed to cripple Russia’s banks and fiscal institutions, including using the “nuclear option” of blocking Russia from the SWIFT international payment system, as Reuters has just reported.
….and that gas pipeline
Sullivan suggested the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, bypassing the existing Russian gas transit system across Ukraine, could be suspended if Russia attacks Ukraine. He said gas is not currently flowing through NS2 “which means….. it’s leverage for the West because if Putin wants to see gas flowing through that pipeline he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.”
…and NATO membership
Before the Tuesday meeting, Moscow had again demanded assurances that Ukraine would not be allowed to join NATO – a constant sore point in Moscow. Sullivan said Biden “made no such commitments or concessions and stands by the proposition that countries should be able to freely choose who they associate with.”
Sullivan said that the two leaders held a real discussion with “a lot of give and take” rather than merely reciting prepared speeches. The Kremlin readout about the summit said the “predominant” focus was on Ukraine. The two leaders also discussed other issues such as how to improve the functioning of their embassies in Moscow and Washington, whose staff have been depleted by tit-for-tat expulsions of each other’s diplomats, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
 The Kremlin called the meeting “frank and businesslike” but said it did not yield any breakthroughs. In its account Putin accused NATO of “making dangerous attempts to conquer Ukrainian territory” and “building up its military potential at our borders.”
“This is about European va1
Putin blamed Ukraine for its “destructive stance” and “provocative actions” in Donbas. Biden reported on the meeting to the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy and is due to speak to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky tomorrow (Dec. 9).
“The Ukrainian community since 2014 has consistently and rightfully called upon U.S. officials to enact severe ramifications for the Kremlin’s invading forces,” said Michael Sawkiw, executive vice-president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America. “Such an agreement should manifest itself by providing increased military training and those capabilities to truly defend its territory.”
He went on: “It’s a wonderful opportunity for America to demonstrate it understands that Ukraine is not only defending its own territorial integrity and independence but is actually defending all of Europe and its values and democratic principles.”
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