President Joe Biden assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday that he will “stand up firmly” for Ukraine’s sovereignty during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on June 16.
Biden in a phone call with Zelensky on Monday afternoon affirmed the United States’ “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of ongoing Russian aggression in Donbas and Crimea, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
National security advisor Jake Sullivan meanwhile told reporters that Biden told Zelensky “he looks forward to welcoming him to the White House … this summer after he returns from Europe.”
It comes days after Zelensky said that he’s “disappointed” by Biden’s decision to lift sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, stating the shift in U.S. policy has essentially provided Russia with “bullets” in doing so.
“We were very surprised,” Zelensky told Axios of the Biden administration’s decision to waive sanctions on the company and CEO overseeing the construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project last month.
The pipeline, which is roughly 95 percent complete, would double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream duct to deliver gas to Europe from Russia through Germany under the Baltic Sea, weakening European energy security. It’s expected to be completed this year, with Russian President Vladimir Putin announcing on June 3 that the first of the two lines is now complete and that Russia’s majority state energy company Gazprom is “ready to start filling Nord Stream 2 with gas.”
“Nord Stream 2, according to our understanding—according to the security understanding of not only Europe, I am sure, but also of the United States of America as our strategic partner—we understand that this is a weapon, a real weapon … in the hands of the Russian Federation,” Zelensky said.
“It is not very understandable, I feel, and definitely not expected, that the bullets to this weapon can possibly be provided by such a great country as the United States.”
In late 2019, Congress and the Trump administration sanctioned a number of entities tied to the construction of the $10.5 billion pipeline. The sanctions were part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which had a stated goal to “minimize the ability” of Russia to use Nord Stream 2 “as a tool of coercion and political leverage” and to stop Russia from shifting energy exports from Ukraine to other countries. Russia had vowed to continue the project in spite of the implementation of those sanctions.
Russia has previously cut fuel deliveries to Ukraine and parts of Europe in winter amid pricing disputes.
The Ukrainian president said Biden had offered him “direct signals” that the United States was prepared to block the pipeline. The White House said as recently as January that the president believes the pipeline is a “bad deal for Europe.”
Biden said although he opposed the project from the beginning, the pipeline is now nearly finished and cited the importance of good relations with Germany.
Zelensky said he understands the importance of the relationship between the United States and Germany, but stated: “How many Ukrainian lives does the relationship between the U.S. and Germany cost?”
Biden and Putin are expected to “discuss the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.–Russia relationship” in person next week, Psaki said.
Ivan Pentchoukov contributed to this report.