Posts Tagged ‘Ukraine’

Lawmakers to President Trump: End Putin Summit Mystery

July 21, 2018

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin may use his one-on-one meeting with President Trump in Helsinki to drive a wedge between NATO allies by claiming secret side deals with the United States.

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Congressional Republicans are urging the White House to get ahead of the Kremlin by defining what was and wasn’t agreed to. What was said between the two leaders, they admit, remains a disconcerting mystery.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) says he has “no idea” what Russian ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov meant when he said Wednesday that Trump and Putin had entered into “important verbal agreements.”

Corker expressed concern about talk that the White House and Kremlin are “setting up a second meeting so they can begin implementation” of these mystery agreements.

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Bob Corker

Other Republicans pointed to the lack of transparency as problematic.

“I don’t know what happened privately, nobody does,” said Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), adding that Trump needs to publicize whatever efforts he made to push back against Putin in their private meeting.

“It’s not enough just to raise it privately because everyone is watching, including our allies, including the people of Russia, including our intelligence agencies,” he said of any grievances Trump may have aired with Putin.

Members of Congress worry that Russia will use the Helsinki summit to undermine U.S. relations with NATO allies, especially with former Eastern Bloc and Soviet states that Putin views as within his country’s traditional sphere of influence.

Antonov said this week that Trump and Putin reached verbal agreements on two charged issues: Syria and arms control.

“The White House better get out in front of this before the Russians start characterizing this,” warned Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and frequent Trump critic. “The Russians will use this.”

“There’s so little trust of this president, our president, among our allies,” he added.

U.S. security officials recognize that undermining NATO is one of Putin’s top foreign policy goals.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford warned Congress last year that Russia “every day is undermining the credibility of our alliance commitment to NATO and our ability to respond to NATO.”

Republican lawmakers worry that Trump may be unwittingly advancing that strategy by criticizing allies sharply at a NATO summit in Brussels and then embracing Putin in Helsinki.

Flake noted that in a recent trip to Latvia he and his colleagues witnessed a concerted Russian propaganda campaign to convince Baltic states that “NATO is weak” and “America is an unreliable ally.”

Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank said that while Russia’s remarks about the outcome of an international summit wouldn’t normally be viewed as credible, Trump’s unorthodox style creates an atmosphere of uncertainty.

“In normal circumstances I would say that statements by Russia about their inferences about particular meetings are not especially credible or important or right or destabilizing,” she said. “The problem is because our president is himself so loosey-goosey about his leadership, about these meetings, about fundamentally everything that we can begin to worry.”

But agreements entered into solely by the president don’t carry a lot of weight, she said, pointing to former President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran that largely circumvented congressional approval.

“If the president has verbal discussions with anybody and no one else is there, no one can reasonably be expected to act on them,” she said.

Even so, congressional Republicans aren’t taking any chances about how the optics of the situation may affect bedrock international security arrangements.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the unusual step of telling European Union allies Tuesday that Republicans in Congress value NATO and view Russia as a hostile adversary.

“We believe the European Union counties are our friends and the Russians are not,” McConnell told reporters. “We understand the Russian threat.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) warned on the Senate floor Thursday that the president and senior U.S. officials should be careful not to undermine Western alliances.

“Words matter. And what Americans say can bolster or shake confidence in the United States,” Moran said, adding that a recent trip to Moscow, Norway and Finland left him “unconvinced that that Russia is prepared to change its behavior.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, said concern that fallout from the summit could weaken U.S.-NATO relations “is warranted.”

But he said “it shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.”

NATO alliances don’t depend on the president alone, he noted.

“If, for example, Trump promised somehow to abandon an ally, first of all he really couldn’t if a treaty binds us to them, and second of all, the ally would presumably raise this issue with us the minute the Russians whispered some threat in their ear,” O’Hanlon said. “At that point, Trump would have the chance to deny or correct or repudiate whatever the Russians were saying.”

Nevertheless, longtime U.S. allies have been unsettled by Trump’s foreign policy stances, even before he met with Putin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned in May that Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement “damages trust in the international order,” and that Europe could no longer rely on the United States to provide for its security.

“It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands,” she said.

Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), a Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, said “we shouldn’t be just guessing on the statements of the Russian ambassador” about what was agreed to at the summit.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has demanded the U.S. government translator who attended the private Trump-Putin meeting be made available to testify before Congress.

He and other Democrats also want the White House to turn over contemporaneous notes from the summit.


In a letter to Trump this week, Democrats asked what “suggestions” Putin made to the president, whether the two leaders agreed to any changes in international security agreements and whether they made any commitments about the future presence of U.S. military forces in Syria, among other questions.

They also asked if the president discussed sanctions relief for Russia, NATO military exercises in the fall, U.S. security assistance to Ukraine or made any other commitments to Putin.

Republicans say they hope to learn details about what Trump discussed and may have agreed to when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifiesbefore the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

If questions remain after his appearance, Corker said he would consider asking for notes or testimony from the American translator who was present at the meeting with Putin.

But he cautioned it would be a last resort.

“It feels a little out of bounds,” Corker said. “I’m open to listening. I’d rather address it after the Pompeo hearing on Wednesday and see how transparent that ends up being.”

“I’m not going to say no, no, no,” he added. “If there’s no transparency, maybe we’ll revisit it.”

So far, Flake is the only Senate Republican to back Schumer’s call for the White House to turn over notes from the summit.

“I would hope that those notes — all interpreters take notes — would be turned over,” he said Thursday. “We need to know.


Pentagon to provide $200 mn to Ukraine in security funds

July 21, 2018

The US Defense Department said Friday it would give $200 million to Ukraine to help the war-torn nation bolster its military’s defensive capabilities.

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Ukrainian serviceman monitors the positions of Russia-backed separatists

The amount is part of a series of Pentagon payments now totaling more than $1 billion to Ukraine since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.

Ukraine is fighting a separatist insurgency in its Russian-speaking eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

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All of the military aid, which comes from the Pentagon’s security cooperation funds, will be non-lethal in nature.

“The added funds will provide equipment to support ongoing training programs and operational needs, including capabilities to enhance Ukraine’s command and control, situational awareness systems, secure communications, military mobility, night vision, and military medical treatment,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The announcement came days after US President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin sparked outrage at home, where even some Republicans said the US leader had been far too conciliatory to his counterpart.

More than 10,000 people have been killed since the Moscow-backed insurgency broke out in April 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of funneling troops and arms to the pro-Moscow rebels across the border. Moscow denies the allegations.

The conflict has become a focal point of stresses in the Washington-Moscow relationship, with the US hitting Russia with stiff economic sanctions.

© 2018 AFP

Trump’s Russia policy lets Putin ‘punch above his weight’

July 20, 2018

US President Donald Trump faced a deluge of criticism for siding with Vladimir Putin against his own intelligence agencies on Monday before backtracking. After a week of US diplomatic missteps and reversals, only the Russian leader emerged unscathed.

Trump confounded both his backers and his critics on Monday by standing beside Russian President Vladimir Putin and announcing that Putin’s “powerful” denials of election meddling had convinced him, despite the US intelligence community’s unanimous assessment that Russian efforts sought to influence the 2016 vote.

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump told a joint press conference in Helsinki. “But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

The US president offered a clear juxtaposition between what his administration has told him and what Putin said privately in their one-on-one meeting in the Finnish capital.

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“[Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, and some others. They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump said.

His announcement ignited a firestorm of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, including accusations of “treason”.

Republican Senator John McCain said the statement was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”.

“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” McCain said in a statement, adding: “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”

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Former director of national intelligence James Clapper called Trump’s statement “an incredible capitulation” while former CIA director John Brennan said on Twitter that it was “nothing short of treasonous”.

John O. Brennan


Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???

But Trump wasn’t done yet. Putin told the Helsinki press conference that he would allow US investigators probing allegations of Russian election meddling under Special Counsel Robert Mueller to question 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted in the case last week. But in exchange, Putin wanted Russian officials to interrogate those Americans whom he accuses of involvement in unspecified “illegal actions” on Russian territory, notably prominent Putin critic Bill Browder, former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and others.

“I think that’s an incredible offer,” Trump said, sparking a new round of widespread and bipartisan outrage that Trump would even consider turning Americans – including former diplomats – over to a foreign power for questioning.

By Tuesday the White House was in full defence mode, with Trump telling the press he misspoke in Helsinki regarding Russia’s election interference. When he said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, he had actually meant “wouldn’t”.

“The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia’,” Trump said. “Sort of a double negative.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also later backtracked on Putin’s proposal to swap citizens for questioning, saying Thursday that Trump “disagreed” with the plan.

Hours later, Trump risked courting controversy anew by asking staff to invite Putin to Washington in the autumn.

Making Russia great again

Trump’s week of diplomatic U-turns left many observers scratching their heads, wondering if he had an overall strategy for dealing with the Kremlin. Some attributed his compliance to a personal history of relying on Russian money for many of his business ventures. Others have suggested, more darkly, that Trump’s obeisance is linked to Russian attempts to swing the 2016 election in his favour.

Whatever the reason behind it, Trump’s amenable stance on Russia is at odds with the rest of the US establishment, rendering it difficult for the United States to pursue a consistent, coherent policy towards Moscow.

“Most of the US government is hawkish and suspicious of Russia,” observed Dr Jacob Parakilas, deputy head of the US and the Americas Programme at Chatham House. “Congress, which can barely agree on anything across party lines these days, has repeatedly passed sanctions against Russia and other related measures by overwhelming, veto-proof margins. There is little to no support for what Trump might call a ‘good relationship’ with Putin in the US military, the intelligence community, or the diplomatic corps.”

And yet Trump, as the head of state, “sees things quite differently and is willing to disregard the advice of virtually everyone in the government he leads”, Parakilas said. “But his power is far from absolute, and he can’t compel them to take his view. That inevitably stands in the way of [policy] coherence.”

Parakilas said that while Trump might not have an overarching plan for his Kremlin policy, “instinctually he wants to lower tensions with Russia and focus on creating a more adversarial economic relationship with the EU and China”.

Such goals may be impossible to realise, however.

“Given what’s arrayed against him internally and externally, I think there’s very little chance of that happening, and I don’t think he has a backup plan,” Parakilas said.

“So he’ll keep trying to find opportunities to ingratiate himself with Putin where he can, but those [efforts] will contribute to growing political blowback at home.”


Playing a weak hand

Putin, for his part, has proved his expertise in parlaying relative weakness into strength.

According to James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the announcement that Putin has been invited to the White House in the autumn is “another win for Kremlin”.

“[I]t once again sets Russia up as a major league power – above and beyond all others really,” Nixey said in an email. “This is in direct contrast to Russia’s direction of travel. It is NOT a modernising, economically improving power. So Russia, once again, punches above its weight.”

As other foreign policy observers have noted, Trump’s seeming acquiescence to the Kremlin is baffling given Russia’s geostrategic importance. The United States has by far the world’s strongest military and the largest GDP, while Russia does not even crack the world’s top 10 economies, according to the World Bank. And yet Trump appears keen to grant Moscow international footing equal to that of Washington.

Russia is geographically sprawling and has a lot of Soviet legacy relationships…” noted political science professor Robert E. Kelly in a Twitter post“[B]ut it’s actually rather sluggish and being surpassed by cleaner, more globalized states you wouldn’t think of as out-running Moscow.”

Russia’s GDP is smaller than that of either Brazil, Italy or Canada, he noted. So for all its nuclear “bluster” and “fatiguing trouble-making” along its perimeter, Russia is “basically a stagnant, over-sized middle power”.

“It’s amazing how well Putin plays a weaker hand than most people recognize,” Kelly wrote.

Robert E Kelly


As Trump rushes to build a Russo-US “special responsibility for maintaining international security,” recall that Russia’s GDP is now smaller than that of Brazil, Italy, Canada, and S Korea, states we normally think of as middle powers. I’m not sure most people realize this; /1

But Russia seems to be taking a long-term view, willing to bide its time to reap any benefits. Moscow is hoping to amass what Nixey called “mini victories” from the US president, always “with the possibility of more substantial victories down the line”.

“The Russians are patient with Trump,” he said, “as they spot opportunity in his weakness and vanity.”

In an analysis for Chatham House, Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme, said that for all the surprises on offer in Helsinki, Trump’s Putin meeting could have turned out much worse for America’s European allies.

Trump had “demonstrated his willingness to make sudden unilateral concessions that compromise the security of his allies” at his June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by announcing the suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea, long a point of contention with Pyongyang.

Against this backdrop, there was a real danger that, “left to his own devices, he might have been persuaded by President Putin to do the same in the Baltic states and Poland”, Giles said. And such a move “would have provoked an immediate crisis between the United States and its NATO allies”.

Despite the consternation that followed the Helsinki summit, he wrote, “both the United States and its European allies may have got off lightly”.


Merkel: ‘Good for all’ that Trump, Putin plan to meet again (Angela Taking The High Road)

July 20, 2018

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Meetings between the US and Russian presidents should become the “normality”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday, adding that it is “good for all” that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin plan new talks.

“That talks are held is basically good for all, in particular between these two countries,” Merkel said at her regular summer press conference.

“I find that meetings between the US and Russian presidents must return to normality,” she said.

Trump is planning to host Putin for talks in Washington later this year, after a first bilateral meeting in Helsinki on Monday.

Trump has come under fire following the Helsinki talks for what many saw as his unsettling embrace of the Russian strongman — and his seeming disavowal of his own intelligence agencies and their assessment that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election.

© AFP/File | German Chancellor Angela Merkel says it would be good for all concerned if US President Donald Trump (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) were to meet regularly after their Helsinki summit

The talks in the Finnish capital were closed-door and with no one else present but interpreters.

The US president on Thursday listed the topics discussed as “stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more.”

Putin was last invited to the White House in 2005 by then-president George W. Bush, while former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev visited in 2010.

Pressed by reporters on how she viewed her relationship with Trump in light of his repeated criticism of Germany’s asylum policies, defence spending and trade surpluses, a diplomatic Merkel stressed the importance of transatlantic cooperation.

Ties at the moment are “under strong pressure”, she acknowledged.

“Nevertheless the transatlantic working relationship, also with the US president, is central to us and I will continue to maintain it.”

She also expressed hope that a trade war with the US could be staved off, ahead of European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker’s visit to Washington next week to try and negotiate a solution.

Merkel said the European Union was “ready” to respond if Trump makes good on his threat to slap steep tariffs on foreign cars, a move that would hit Germany’s auto industry particularly hard.

But tit-for-tat retaliation would be “by far the worst-possible solution”, Merkel warned, describing the current trade tensions as “very serious”.

The potential car tariffs would not just violate the rules of the World Trade Organization, she added, but could also “endanger the prosperity of many people around the world”.


Russian ambassador: Trump made ‘verbal agreements’ with Putin — Does Russia have Trump by the “reset button”?

July 19, 2018

Russia’s ambassador to the United States on Wednesday said President Trump made “important verbal agreements” with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their private conversation in Helsinki on Monday.

Russian envoy Anatoly Antonov listed cooperation in Syria and arms control as two issues the world leaders had agreed on, according to The Washington Post.

But the Post reported that the highest-level Trump administration officials still do not know what Trump promised Putin during their one-on-one meeting, which lasted more than two hours.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Wednesday both listed general topics that the two discussed, but neither provided much detail.

Nauert said the State Department is assessing “three takeaways,” which include a working group of American and Russian business leaders, an expert council with thought leaders from both countries, and follow-up meetings with Russian national security council staff.

“These are certainly all modest proposals,” Nauert said. “The president had said going into this that we wouldn’t solve all the world’s problems in one meeting.”

Sanders was vague as well, telling reporters during Wednesday’s press briefing that Trump and Putin discussed “Syrian ­humanitarian aid, Iran’s nuclear ambition, Israeli security, North Korean denuclearization, Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea, reducing Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals, and of course your favorite topic, Russia’s interference in our elections.”

The Post reported that officials are scrambling to figure out what Trump agreed to.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marina Zakharova said on Wednesday that the Kremlin is already working to implement agreements from the summit, according to the Post.

“A lot of what the president of the Russian Federation talked about is now being worked through,” she said, according to the Post. “Relevant instructions are being carried out, and diplomats are beginning to work on the outcomes.”

Putin during Monday’s controversial press conference said the conflict in Syria could present a starting point for bilateral agreements. He also claimed he and Trump agreed on securing Israel’s border with Syria, eliciting praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Antonov on Wednesday said Moscow is “a hostage to the domestic political battle” in the U.S.

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Anatoly Antonov

“When I return from Moscow, I will have the very clear-cut and lucid determination to go knock on every door at the State Department and the National Security Council to understand what we can do together in order to realize the agreements, the ideas, that the two presidents supported,” Antonov said.

“Even in talking with you now, I am afraid to say something positive about the American president,” he said, “because when American journalists or policymakers read my interview, they’ll say Russia is again meddling and helping Donald Trump.”

Lawmakers have raised concerns about what Trump told Putin during their private conversation. Multiple Democrats have called for testimony from the interpreter who was present during the private meeting between the two leaders in order to get details of the conversation.

Nauert said Wednesday that such a proposal is unprecedented, but added, “we always seek to work with Congress.”

EU to curb steel imports after Trump tariffs

July 18, 2018

The European Union will launch measures on Thursday designed to prevent a surge of steel imports into the bloc following the U.S. imposition of tariffs on incoming steel and aluminum, the EU’s official journal said.

EU manufacturers of the products ranging from hot and cold rolled sheets, plates, coated steel and tubes include ArcelorMittal, Voestalpine and Tata Steel. (Reuters)

The European Commission has proposed a combination of a quota and a tariff to counter EU concerns that steel products no longer imported into the United States would instead flood European markets.

The measures are the third part of the EU’s response to U.S. tariffs. It has also imposed tariffs on 2.8 billion euros ($3.3 billion) of U.S. imports, including bourbon and motor bikes, and has launched a legal challenge at the World Trade Organization

The quotas for 23 steel product categories have been set at the average of imports over the past three years, with a 25 percent tariff set for volumes exceeding those amounts. These quotas are allocated on a first come first serve basis.

The main exporters of steel to the EU are China, India, Russia, South Korea, Turkey and Ukraine.

The Commission said that the EU steel industry was “in a fragile situation and vulnerable to a further increase in imports”, with U.S. tariffs reducing its capacity to sell there making them even more vulnerable.

“In the absence of provisional safeguard measures, it is likely that the situation will develop into actual serious injury in the foreseeable future,” the EU official journal said.

European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said in a statement that the bloc was faced with no choice given the threat of serious harm to EU steelmakers and workers, but that EU markets would remain open with traditional trade flows.

The Commission will continue its investigation, which was launched on March 26, until the end of the year. The provisional safeguards can be in place for up to 200 days.

Imports of 28 products increased by 62 percent from 2013 to 2017, most noticeably in 2016 and with further rises this year. However, for five products, imports did not increase, leading the Commission to exclude them from its measures.

For 12 steel product categories, imports from countries including China, Russia and Ukraine are already subject to anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties. The Commission said it would consider suspending or reducing them to avoid the imposition of “double duties”.

EU manufacturers of the products ranging from hot and cold rolled sheets, plates, coated steel and tubes include ArcelorMittal, Voestalpine and Tata Steel.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

How Russian gas became Europe’s most divisive commodity

July 17, 2018
Nord Stream 2 will pipe energy to Germany but critics warn of political tensions
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© Getty
By Tobias Buck in Lubmin

Lubmin is a picturesque resort on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast that boasts a long stretch of sandy beach bordered by soft dunes and a lush pine forest. Located a few hours north of Berlin, the town offers tourists a postcard version of seaside tranquility. Or it would, were it not for the fleet of excavator barges that sails out from the local port every day, and the large building site hiding behind the pines.
Both are part of a fiercely contentious project that has split Europe down the middle, and set Germany on a collision course with some of its closest allies. Out in the sea, the excavator barges are digging a massive underwater trench that runs in a straight line towards the building site on land. If all goes to plan, that trench will soon hold a pipeline filled with the most explosive commodity in European politics today: Russian gas.The Nord Stream 2 pipeline has been in planning since 2015, and is due for completion in late 2019. Its defenders argue the project makes perfect commercial sense: the pipeline will connect the world’s biggest exporter of natural gas with the largest economy in Europe, doubling the capacity of the existing trans-Baltic link, Nord Stream 1 that has been operational since 2011. Together, the two pipelines will eventually be able to carry 110bn cubic metres a year of natural gas, enough to meet almost a quarter of total demand across the EU.

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The Nord Stream landfall facilities in Lubmin, northeastern Germany © Alamy

Critics regard the pipeline — and Germany’s role in it — as an act of betrayal and a geopolitical folly of the first order. Countries such as Poland and Ukraine have denounced it as a blatant attempt to marginalise their own gas pipelines — and a reckless move that will leave them and the rest of Europe at the mercy of Moscow. The European Commission is another opponent of Nord Stream, arguing the project undermines its push for greater energy independence and more diversified supplies.
The most formidable adversary, however, sits in Washington. President Donald Trump has made clear repeatedly that he wants to stop the €9.5bn project — and that he is ready to impose tough sanctions to achieve that goal. Last week, Mr Trump launched a blistering attack on the new pipeline at the Nato summit in Brussels, warning that Germany had become “ captive to Russia, because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia”.Kirsten Westphal, an energy analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, likens Nord Stream 2 to an “onion” — you peel away layer after layer of controversy only to discover that the next one is more contentious still. At its core, however, the pipeline poses a simple but crucial question: should the west trust Russia or not?

“Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in Ukraine have changed everything,” says Ms Westphal. “For many people in the west, the idea that Russia is a dependable partner has gone. There is doubt: given all the geopolitical tensions, should we further expand our energy relationship with Russia? Should we make a bet, despite it all, to keep the channel open?”

For reasons of history as well as naked economic self-interest, that question tends to find a different answer in Germany than in other European countries and the US. It is summed up neatly by Axel Vogt, the mayor of Lubmin and — like most locals — an enthusiastic backer of Nord Stream. “For us, Russia has always been a reliable business partner. And we don’t see any sign that this is changing despite all that is happening on the big political stage,” he says. “For Lubmin, Nord Stream means jobs, it means contracts for local businesses and it means more business taxes,” the mayor says.

He adds that this affection for Russia goes beyond economic gain, and reflects ties forged in the time when Lubmin was part of communist East Germany. “Before reunification there was a very close relationship with Russia . . . and they want it to stay that way.”

For now the project enjoys the official support of the German government (as well as the unconditional backing of the Kremlin). But the chorus of critics in Berlin, including inside the government, is growing ever louder.

Officials at the 2011 opening ceremony of Nord Stream 1 in Lubmin, including chancellor Angela Merkel, former chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev © Getty
“Nord Stream 2 has divided the EU, and that cannot be in Germany’s national interest,” says Norbert Röttgen, a senior member of parliament for the ruling Christian Democratic Union. “The most important role that Germany has is to bring Europe together, not to divide it. But without Germany, this division would not exist.”

Earlier this year, German chancellor Angela Merkel signalled a subtle but important shift in official rhetoric. Nord Stream 2, she said, was “not just an economic project”. Political factors also had to be considered, she added, not least the need to preserve Ukraine’s status as a transit country for Russian gas. Kiev earns as much as $3bn in transit fees a year, according to Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state gas company, money the embattled government badly needs. The gas link also acts as motivation for the two countries to keep their military and political conflict from spinning out of control. When the gas stops flowing — as it did, briefly, in 2006 and 2009 — both sides stand to lose.

After meeting his US counterpart on Monday Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president said Moscow was willing to “extend this transit contract if the dispute between [Gazprom and Naftogaz] is settled”.

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Yet circumventing the Ukrainian network is precisely what Nord Stream is about, as Russian officials have made clear. The new pipeline will allow Russia to cut out the middleman for much of its westbound gas shipments — and to avoid the kind of disputes over payments and conditions with Kiev that have flared up in recent years. The fact that Ukraine’s pipelines are in urgent need of repair and investment provides an additional incentive.

For the Russian-European consortium that is bearing the cost of the project, Nord Stream 2 is, above all, a promising investment. Unlike Nord Stream 1, which was a genuine Russian-European joint venture, the new pipeline will be owned entirely by Gazprom, the Russian gas group that controls Russia’s pipeline exports. Half the financing, however, is provided by five European companies: Uniper and Wintershall of Germany, Austria’s OMV, Engie of France and Royal Dutch Shell.

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Nord Stream’s backers are making a simple bet with potentially huge rewards. They know the pipeline will come on stream in 2019 just as supplies of European gas from the North Sea are starting to dwindle. The consortium estimates that even if overall gas demand is stable or declines slightly over the coming two decades, Europe will have to find an additional 120bn cubic metres a year of natural gas by 2035. That gap will be filled by shipping large volumes of liquefied natural gas from countries such as Qatar and the US, or through pipelines from Russia.

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US liquefied natural gas ready for export from Texas © Bloomberg

The looming gas shortfall has sparked a rush to build infrastructure, as suppliers jostle for position. Not far from Lubmin, on the other side of the Polish border, stands one of several new LNG terminals that have popped up on Europe’s coastline in recent years. Most are working well below capacity, reflecting the fact that pipeline gas is as much as 25 per cent cheaper than LNG.
Some German business leaders and officials suspect this is one of the core reasons for the opposition to Nord Stream 2. The US, they say, is simply trying to boost the commercial prospects of LNG. That was the central complaint in an open letter signed by a cross-party alliance of senior German lawmakers earlier this year.“It is not the job of the EU to keep potential competitors off the backs of US companies that want to market their . . . natural gas in Europe,” it said. “American liquid gas is welcome on the European gas market, but it has to face the competition just like others.”


Why should German and European consumers and companies pay a premium for non-Russian gas? The obvious answer, say critics, is politics. Moscow, they argue, is engaged in a broad campaign to split the western alliance, destabilise European democracies and reassert Moscow’s influence in eastern Europe and the Baltics. One of the most potent weapons in that campaign is Russia’s control over energy resources — and Europe’s dependency on them. Concern over what might happen if Russia turns off the taps has weighed heavily on European minds for years. Nord Stream 2 will make those concerns even more acute.

“Last year, Germany received slightly more than 40 per cent of its gas supplies from Gazprom. If we now double the capacity by way of Nord Stream 2, we will see another significant increase in supplies from Russia,” says Mr Röttgen. “I believe this pushes us into a danger zone, both in terms of energy policy and foreign policy. We will lose some of our independence.”

There is, he adds, another consideration: “The whole Putin system rests on two pillars: the military and the export of energy resources. By stabilising that second pillar, Germany is also stabilising the Putin regime.”

Gazprom says that given that its newer gasfields are in Russia’s north-west, Nord Stream 2 will save 2,100km of transit compared with the Ukrainian route, and cut emissions by 61 per cent.

A natural gas pipeline in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine © Getty

Russia has also warned that US threats against it are illegal. “We believe that any sanctions against companies involved in an international project would not be legal,” Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this month. “This is an exclusively international, commercial project devoid of any political motives, based on the principles of commercial gain for the countries that participate in it.”
The geopolitical case against Nord Stream 2 is made with particular intensity in eastern European capitals such as Warsaw, where fears over a Russian-German carve-up have a strong historical resonance. That sentiment was expressed in blunt terms by Radoslav Sikorski, the former Polish foreign minister, who likened the Nord Stream project to the 1939 deal between Hitler and Stalin to divide eastern Europe.In Berlin, however, officials prefer to point to a different historical antecedent: the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt, the German chancellor who pushed for rapprochement with the Soviet bloc in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In economic terms, the policy gave rise to a “gas-for-pipes” deal between West Germany and the Soviet Union. Against fierce US opposition, the Germans agreed to ship steel and pipes to the USSR, in exchange for natural gas imports.

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Excavators work on a discharge channel of the new Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline in the Bay of Greifswald © Alamy

The first Russian gas arrived in Germany in 1973, and imports rose steadily in the decades that followed, undisturbed by the cold war. For supporters of Nord Stream 2, that experience holds a crucial lesson. They see the gas relationship not as one of western dependence on Russia, but of mutual dependence between buyer and seller. Moscow needs western payments as much as the west needs Russian gas.
“I see Nord Stream as a stabilising factor for the relationship between Russia and the West,” says Matthias Platzeck, a former leader of Germany’s Social Democratic party and now the president of the German-Russian Forum, a Berlin-based association designed to foster bilateral ties. “Even at the high point of the cold war the Russians always delivered their gas. Why should that change now? After all, they need the money.”As the political argument continues to rage, the project itself is making steady progress. Over the past two years, the consortium has amassed vast stockpiles of concrete-coated steel tubes, and deposited them at various points on the Baltic Sea. A few weeks from now, workers will begin welding the 12-metre-long pieces together at sea and lowering them into the water. With much of the investment already made, and all but one regulatory permit for the project granted, even critics admit that it will be hard to stop it now.

As long as the project does not hit fresh political and technical turbulence, Gazprom is planning to open the taps at the Russian end of the 1,200km long pipeline in late 2019. The impact at the other end, however, is already being felt.

“In commercial terms, there is a case to be made for Nord Stream 2,” says Ms Westphal. “In political terms, however, it is clear that Germany will pay a heavy price.”

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Moscow and Helsinki


Putin Says Nord Stream II Won’t Hurt Ukraine, Gets No Criticism from Trump

July 17, 2018
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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin hugs Gerhard Schroeder, chairman of the Shareholders Committee of Nord Stream 2 AG and former German chancellor, at the opening of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Trump criticized Germany for investing in the project while chastising Russia as a political foe up to no good in Western Europe. Trump said U.S. companies will challenge Russian gas in Europe with American LNG. (Photo by Alexei DruzhininTASS via Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin said that President Trump shouldn’t worry about the Nord Stream II gas line into Europe shutting out Ukraine from its traditional position as transit route.

“Donald told me his thoughts on Nord Stream II and said that he is worried that we will use it to no longer rely on Ukraine,” Putin said during a press conference after a closed-door meeting with Trump in Finland on Monday. “We want to extend our contract with Ukraine, but it is based on what the Stockholm arbitrage rulings look like,” he said about the years-long legal battle being waged between Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftogaz.

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The two sides have been locked in a legal tug of war since 2014, with Naftogaz winning as many fights as it loses. The legal case disputes transit contracts and payments. Should Russia lose this case, it will make a new transit contract more complicated for Naftogaz. If so, Nord Stream II critics will be proven correct as Gazprom would likely seek to avoid working fully with Naftogaz if hit with massive legal fines.

Nord Stream II pipes are now being placed right alongside the existing Nord Stream pipeline. The pipeline connects Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. Gazprom is the majority owner of the venture, with German partners Wintershall and British giant Royal Dutch Shell counted on as partners.

Gazprom expects Nord Stream II to be completed next year.

The gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine is legion. It is the origin story of the entire Russian sanctions story, and marks the beginning of the major rift between Russia and the West. It started in 2014 when then-president Viktor Yanukovych reneged on an EU trade deal in favor of cheaper natural gas from Gazprom. Hundreds of thousands of people protested, leading to Yanukovych’s ouster. When Russia discovered phone conversations between two American officials in Kiev and Washington talking about who should replace Yanukovych, Russia took what close Putin watchers say were evasive actions. Shortly after Washington’s pick Arseniy “Yats” Yatsenyuk took over for the displaced Yanukovych, the Kremlin reportedly orchestrated a secession referendum in Crimea and later annexed the southeastern penninsula. Critics charge that the entire referendum was a sham as Russian masterminds simply used the pro-Russia vote as a way to shove democracy in the faces of Western leaders. Crimea is, and always ways, home to Russia’s only warm water Navy port, making it of strategic importance to the Russian military. The U.S. and Europe sanctioned Russian companies beginning in the summer of 2014, four months after Crimea’s annexation. Relations have deteriorated since.

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Putin says Ukraine will still be a transit route for Russian natural gas. But he warned that a new deal between them depends on an ongoing court battle in Stockholm. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Putin’s comment today that Ukraine will still be part of Gazprom’s plans was by no means an olive branch being offered by the Russians. Much hinges on Swedish judges.

Putin met with Trump for a little over two hours on Monday. There was no official agenda, and the two supposedly made one up on the fly. A press conference was held shortly afterward.

Trump said the U.S. considers Russia a “strong competitor” in the oil and gas markets. He added that U.S. LNG exporters will work hard to increase their market share in Europe. Both Russia and the U.S. have become direction setters for world oil prices, surpassing the previous importance placed on OPEC members.

Topics of discussion surprised no one, however: election meddling, nuclear disarmament and Syria dominated.

Over the last 72 hours, Trump faced the ire of members of the media, particularly pundits advocating for Democratic Party positions. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said Trump should cancel his meeting. Even Republican friendlies over at Fox News questioned the wisdom of Trump’s trip following last week’s indictment of 12 Russian spy agency staffers discovered to have been behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee servers in 2016.

“During the tensions of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia were able to maintain a strong dialogue. Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Trump told reporters today. “That’s changed as of four hours ago. Nothing would be easier politically to refuse to engage, but that would not accomplish anything. I cannot make decisions on foreign policy based on pundits’ opinion,” Trump said.

At summit, Trump refuses to confront Putin on vote row

July 17, 2018

 President Donald Trump refused to confront Vladimir Putin over meddling in the US election at their first face to face summit, publicly challenging the findings of the US intelligence community and triggering bipartisan outrage at home.

The US and Russian presidents came out of their meeting in Helsinki Monday expressing desire for a fresh start between the world’s leading nuclear powers and more talk on global challenges, after discussing an array of issues from Syria, Ukraine and China to trade tariffs and the size of their nuclear arsenals.

There were indications of an arrangement to work together and with Israel to support a ceasefire in southern Syria, suggesting that the US administration is backing off its demand that Moscow’s ally Bashar al-Assad step down.

If that is anathema to many in Washington, Trump’s apparent concessions to Putin over the election controversy drew stinging condemnation from across the political divide.

Standing alongside the Kremlin boss at a joint news conference, Trump acknowledged that his intelligence chiefs believe Russia hacked and leaked Democrats’ emails containing politically damaging information about his rival Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But, insisting he had won the race fair and square, the wealthy property tycoon said: “I have President Putin, he just said it is not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Friday’s US indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence agents exploded with embarrassing timing for Trump as he prepared to meet Putin. On Monday, officials said another Russian agent had been arrested for seeking to influence US politics.

But the US leader insisted that his counterpart had delivered a “powerful” denial of any Russian manipulation, and that the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller was proving a “disaster” for the United States.

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In his own interview with Fox, Trump said he was “fascinated” by an offer from Putin for US agents to indirectly grill the indicted Russians by submitting their questions to Russian officials but said Mueller’s team “probably won’t want to go” to Moscow.

– ‘Never interfered’ –

Trump again denied any collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin, while Putin insisted: “The Russian state has never interfered and is not planning to interfere in the USA’s internal affairs.”

As criticism mounted, Trump tweeted from Air Force One on his way home from Finland that he had “GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people”.

“However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past  as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along.”

Angry criticism of his disavowal of his own intelligence agencies came even from within Trump’s Republican Party.

Senior Republican Senator John McCain was particularly scathing, saying: “Coming close on the heels of President Trump’s bombastic and erratic conduct towards our closest friends and allies in Brussels and Britain, today’s press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American presidency.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats distanced himself from his boss, issuing a statement saying the US intelligence community’s judgment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election was “clear”.

But the top Democrat in the US Senate, Chuck Schumer, tweeted that many Americans can only wonder if “the only possible explanation for this dangerous behaviour is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.”

And former CIA director John Brennan said Trump’s behavior at the news conference “rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous.”

Putin denied the notion that Russian spy bosses may hold compromising information on Trump, who in his previous business career oversaw the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013.

“Please get this rubbish out of your heads,” the Russian leader said.

In a post-summit interview with Fox News, Putin said US-Russia relations should not be held “hostage” to “internal political games,” referring to the Mueller probe.

The two leaders appeared relaxed at the Helsinki news conference, smiling on occasion, in contrast to their sombre demeanour at the start of the day.

Trump, bent on forging a personal bond with the Kremlin chief despite the election allegations, went into the summit blaming the “stupidity” of his predecessors for plunging ties to their present low.

His manner towards Putin was also a contrast to the anger Trump flashed at NATO allies at a combative summit of the alliance in Brussels last week, which critics said would only hearten Putin.

– ‘Only the beginning’ –

A post-NATO trip to Britain, supposedly America’s partner in a “special relationship”, was riddled with controversy as well.

In Helsinki, however, Trump was determined to accentuate the positive, as was Putin.

The two leaders met one-on-one for more than two hours, with just their interpreters present, before they were joined by their national security teams.

Many in Washington were agog at Trump’s decision to sit alone with Putin, worried about what he might give away to the former KGB spymaster, after previously cosying up to the autocratic leaders of China and North Korea.

But Trump, convinced his unique brand of diplomacy can win over Putin, pressed ahead and looked forward to “having an extraordinary relationship” as the pair sat down to discuss global hotspots.

– ‘Foolishness and stupidity’ –

Trump began the day by firing a Twitter broadside at his domestic opponents, blaming the diplomatic chill on the election investigation.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump tweeted.

Russia’s foreign ministry tweeted in response: “We agree.”

In a weekend interview with CBS News, Trump admitted that Russia remains a foe, but he put Moscow on a par with China and the European Union as economic and diplomatic rivals.


Trump hopes ‘extraordinary relationship’ will result from Putin summit

July 16, 2018

President Donald Trump opened a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday by predicting that their countries will end up having “an extraordinary relationship” but without mentioning Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in his opening remarks.

“Our two countries, frankly, we have not been getting along well,” Trump said as he and Putin sat down at the Presidential Palace in Finland’s capital. “I really think the world wants to see us get along.”

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U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. (Reuters Photo)

Putin, for his part, said he and Trump have maintained regular contact, including talking by phone and meeting at international events. Speaking through a translator, the Russian leader said “the time has come to have a thorough discussion on various international problems and sensitive issues.”

The summit got underway hours after Trump blamed the United States, and not Russian election meddling or its annexation of Crimea, for a low-point in U.S.-Russia relations. The drama was playing out against a backdrop of fraying Western alliances, a new peak in the Russia investigation and fears that Moscow’s aggression may go unchallenged.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump tweeted.

The summit, which was being closely monitored by rattled world capitals, was condemned in advance by members of Congress from both parties after the U.S. indictment last week of 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking Democrats in the 2016 election to help Trump’s presidential campaign. Undeterred, the American president was set to go face to face with Putin, the authoritarian leader for whom he has expressed admiration.

The summit started late because Putin arrived in Helsinki about a half hour behind schedule in another display of the Russian’s leader famous lack of punctuality. Trump seemed to return the favor by waiting until Putin had arrived at the palace before leaving his hotel. Putin has been late for past meetings with the pope and British Queen, among many others.

Trump and his aides have repeatedly tried to lower expectations about what the summit will achieve. He told CBS News that he didn’t “expect anything” from Putin, while his national security adviser said the U.S. wasn’t looking for any “concrete deliverables.” Trump told reporters during a breakfast Monday with Finland’s president that he thought the summit would go “fine.”

Trump said he and Putin would discuss a range of issues, from trade to the military, along with missiles and China. They shared a brief handshake before reporters were ushered out so they could begin their one-on-one talks in the palace’s opulent Gothic Hall.

They’ll continue their discussions with an expanded group of aides and over lunch in the Hall of Mirrors, once the emperor’s throne room. The leaders will conclude by taking questions at a joint news conference.

Observers have raised concerns about the fact that the leaders will be alone during their first meeting, but for a pair of interpreters, meaning there will be no corroborating witnesses to accurately represent what was said during the conversation.

The 72-year-old brash billionaire has been president for 18 months, while the former KGB officer, 65, has run Russia for the past 18 years.

The meeting comes as questions swirl about whether Trump will sharply and publicly rebuke his Russian counterpart for the election meddling that prompted a special counsel probe that Trump has repeatedly labeled a “witch hunt.”

After the bad-tempered NATO summit and a contentious trip by Trump to Britain, anxious European leaders may be relieved if not much comes out of the Helsinki meeting.

Those leaders are already fuming over Trump’s imposition of trade tariffs on various countries, including Russia.

European Union President Donald Tusk called on the United States, China and Russia to work together to cool the global trade tensions, warning that they could spiral into violent “conflict and chaos.”

After a stormy NATO summit in Brussels last week, Trump was accused by critics of cozying up to Putin while undermining the alliance.

But, over breakfast with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, he insisted NATO “has never been stronger” and “never been more together” thanks to his insistence on all allies paying their fair share.

Trump is also under pressure from Britain to press Putin over the nerve agent poisoning of four people in the city of Salisbury.

Many fear that Trump — in his eagerness to prove that he was right to seek the summit with Putin despite U.S. political opposition — may give up too much ground.

Ahead of the talks, Trump has refused to personally commit to the U.S. refusal to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, leaving open the possibility of a climb-down linked to a promise by Putin to somehow rein in Iranian influence in Syria.

If Washington were to de facto accept Russia’s 2014 land-grab, this would break with decades of U.S. policy and send tremors through NATO’s exposed eastern flank.