Top Russian officials said the relatively amicable talks this week between the U.S. and Russian top diplomats and the Biden administration’s decision not to try to block a controversial Russia-German energy pipeline are hopeful signs that bilateral ties may improve soon.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also expressed satisfaction that a potential Washington-Berlin flash point had been finessed, while the president of Ukraine voiced open fears his country would be sidelined by the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline that bypasses his country to ship natural gas directly from Russia to Germany and other Western European markets.
“I’ll be frank with you, I’m scared by this situation,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told reporters in Kyiv on Thursday.
President Biden continued to take bipartisan flak from Congress over his decision to waive sanctions on the main German contractor building the nearly complete undersea pipeline, a waiver that effectively ends efforts by both the Trump and Biden administrations to halt the project. U.S. officials privately said it appeared there was little realistic chance of stopping the project and it risked a major rift with the German government.
“Let me get this straight,” said Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Thursday. “President Biden is shutting down pipelines in the United States, like Keystone XL, while giving strongman [Russian President Vladimir Putin] a free pass at Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that Putin will use to pressure our allies in Europe.”
“This is exactly backward,” added Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said Wednesday evening on Fox News, noting Russian hackers have just been implicated in the shutdown of a major East Coast U.S. gas pipeline in a ransomware case. “Four months into [his term], Joe Biden is crawling in bed with Putin and Russia and the enemies of America.”
The administration Thursday agreed to provide a Capitol Hill briefing to lawmakers on Monday on why Mr. Biden decided in the end to waive the most critical sanctions in the dispute, citing national security concerns. A group of GOP senators were reportedly preparing legislation to try to force Mr. Biden to impose sanctions on the German company Nord Stream AG and its senior officers.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on Thursday the Nord Stream 2 decision was “definitely a positive signal.”
And Konstantin Kosachev, deputy speaker of the Russian Federation Council, the legislature’s upper chamber, praised the tone of the first meeting Wednesday of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and longtime Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of a summit on the Arctic in Reykjavik, Iceland.
“I liked the cautious optimism of our foreign minister after the talks,” Mr. Kosachev told the TASS news agency. “Given that traditionally [Mr. Lavrov] provides a realistic evaluation, this is a rather good sign.”
Mr. Zelenskyy, locked in a civil war with Russian-backed separatists in his country’s eastern half, had strongly opposed the pipeline as it threatened to undercut both Ukraine and Poland and critical transshipment routes for Russian oil and gas to the West.
“It would be a loss for the United States, and I believe it would be President Biden’s personal loss,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in comments reported by The Associated Press. “It would mark a serious geopolitical victory for the Russian Federation and a new redistribution of spheres of influence.”
Mr. Kosachev said that, from the Russian perspective, even though the two-hour Blinken-Lavrov meeting dealt with difficult matters, it also touched on issues where Moscow and Washington can work together, including climate change, the future of Afghanistan and the fight against the global pandemic.
Speaking in Berlin, Ms. Merkel appeared anxious to put the difference with the Biden administration behind her, as both struggle to deal with the challenge posed by Mr. Putin.
“President Biden has now taken a step toward us in connection with the Nord Stream 2 conflict, where we have different views but where we will now talk further about what the necessary common ground is in the relationship with Russia,” she said.
— Tom Howell Jr. and Doug Ernst contributed to this story, which was based in part on wire service reports.