State Department Caps Nord Stream 2 Deal Week with New Russia Talks Announcement

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Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky attends a press conference in Tallinn, Estonia, November 26, 2019. (Ints Kalnins / Reuters)

Deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman is leading a U.S. delegation to “strategic stability” talks with Russia in Geneva on July 28, the State Department said in a statement today.

Sherman’s upcoming travels come as no surprise, given that Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin agreed to continue to find common ground and stabilize U.S.–Russia relations during their June 16 summit in Geneva, and given that she will soon be visiting China for talks.

Biden says his foreign-policy outlook is shaped by his assessment that democracies and autocracies are in a global competition, but he’s also talked about finding common ground with them when possible.

What’s noteworthy about the timing of the Sherman announcement is that it comes at the end of a week marked by the conclusion of a deal on Nord Stream 2 between Washington and Berlin. The Biden team caved to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s vociferous defenses of the project on the grounds that angering a key ally would not have served any purpose and that the pipeline will be built, whether or not the U.S. imposes tough sanctions.

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That Sherman is participating in arms-control talks with Russia so soon after the administration crafted this deal is telling. Washington is content to subordinate Ukraine’s security to German business interests, then immediately turn to negotiations with the regime that has spent years carving up the country.

Ukrainian and Polish officials already believe that the administration threw them under the bus; their foreign ministers said as much in a statement on Wednesday. Under the deal, which essentially ensures that the Russia-backed gas pipeline will be finished, the German government pledged to retaliate against Russian attempts to weaponize its grip on Europe’s energy supply, use its leverage to get Moscow to extend its current gas contract with Kyiv, and to help Ukraine develop alternative sources of energy.

The same day that administration officials unveiled the agreement, they also announced that a highly anticipated visit by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky would take place on August 30. It’s a trip that’s been in the works for months, with the start of negotiations preceding Biden’s summit meeting with Putin last month in Switzerland.

The timing of that visit does not appear to be by accident: Congress will be in recess when it occurs, making it more difficult for Zelensky to meet with Ukraine’s fiercest advocates on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers of both parties roundly condemned the pipeline deal.

To the Ukrainians, even getting the meeting was an arduous task. The White House only extended an invitation the day after Zelensky gave a frustrated interview with Axios, in which he panned the administration’s decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and its CEO.

From that, to a Politico report revealing that U.S. officials warned their Ukrainian counterparts to remain silent about the Nord Stream 2 deal and not to discuss it with Congress, the administration seems keen to put a muzzle on an embattled democracy facing a Russian onslaught.

To be sure, Biden has spoken on the phone with Zelensky, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken did travel to Ukraine to meet with him in May. But Biden has met Putin, Blinken has met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and Sherman will have led an entire delegation for arms-control talks before Zelensky even sets foot in Washington for the meeting he’s spent months requesting.

Officials from Ukraine and countries on NATO’s eastern flank might get the impression that the administration cares far more about its strategic-stability agenda than it does stopping Russian malign influence activities.

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