Ukraine crisis: Macron heads for talks with Putin, while Scholz and Biden meet in DC – live coverage

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Ukraine crisis: Macron heads for talks with Putin, while Scholz and Biden meet in DC – live coverage” was written by Jennifer Rankin, for theguardian.com on Monday 7th February 2022 13.49 UTC

The head of Ukraine’s state gas company has called for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to be shelved regardless of whether Russia invades Ukraine in the coming weeks.

In an interview with the Guardian in Kyiv, Yuriy Vitrenko, the CEO of Naftogaz, said he “unfortunately” did not see much change of attitude from Germany on the Baltic Sea pipeline that bypasses Ukraine.

In Germany, unfortunately we cannot see much change of attitude, but there is a change in the US. At least now it seems like the US administration realises that sanctions can stop this project

Vitrenko has spent much of his time over recent months pushing western politicians to ditch Nord Stream 2. Last July he accompanied the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to Berlin and joined a four-hour dinner with Angela Merkel, in which he said 90 minutes were devoted to Nord Stream. More recently he has been in Berlin meeting advisers to Scholz.

Vitrenko said he believed the pipeline should be shelved whether or not Russia makes a further incursion into Ukraine in the coming weeks. Speaking last Wednesday, he said he believed that once gas started flowing through the pipeline, Vladimir Putin would be more likely to launch an attack on Ukraine, calculating that it would be hard for the Germans to make a proactive move to cut off gas.

If he moves transit to Nord Stream 2 first, and then invades Ukraine, it will be much more difficult [for Germany to sanction the pipeline], because then German consumers will understand they have no heating as a direct result of the German government’s decision.

Ultimately, Vitrenko said, the pipeline held the key to the future of Europe:

If Germany doesn’t want a new world order as envisioned by Putin to be implemented first in Ukraine and then all over Europe, they should not allow Nord Stream 2 to go ahead.

Speaking during a visit to Kyiv last week, the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, had a similar message, calling the pipeline “a powerful threat to peace throughout Europe”.

Morawiecki, speaking alongside the Ukrainian prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, said:

Through launching this pipeline, Berlin is loading Putin’s pistol, which he can then use to blackmail the whole of Europe.

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Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the Kremlin today to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for an open-ended discussion about Ukraine, is a calculated risk by the French president according to France’s press.

After the bilateral talks during the afternoon, both presidents will give a press conference. At the moment this is provisionally set for 20.45 Moscow time (17.45 UK time) but will depend on how long talks last.

In the Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche an article headlined “What Macron is going to say to Putin”, suggested Macron cannot leave the Russian capital to travel to Kiev in Ukraine unless he has obtained a signal of Russia’s willingness to “de-escalate” from Putin.

A source told the paper:

We have to be very realistic. We will not get any unilateral gesture, but it is vital to avoid a worsening of the situation.

Europe 1 radio suggested the meeting was a risk for Macron. “It’s because he thinks he’s going to get that gesture or signal that he has gone”. Officially, such a high level diplomatic visit “without a time limit” could be dangerous for Macron as the presidential election nears.

The station added:

In reality, Emmanuel Macron wants to show that none of the other candidates except him would be able to have a head-to-head with the Russian president, that he’s the only one with the stature and authority to address the powerful…a sub text aimed at French voters.”

Le Figaro turned the question on its head and asked what Macron could do for Putin. It is thought in the Russian capital, with pragmatism, that faced with a “hysterical” America warning of an imminent attack on Ukraine and a Europe “without a face or a voice”, only Macron is left as a useful person with whom to dialogue. But it warned: “The two men have disappointed each other many times over the last five years.”

Olaf Scholz to meet Joe Biden in the White House

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has set off on a whirlwind diplomatic tour today in an effort to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine, starting in Washington where he is expected to be received by President Joe Biden this evening. Under pressure to show more commitment towards backing a military effort by Ukraine as it seeks to defend itself from the threat, but facing tough resistance domestically over deploying lethal weapons, Scholz’s first US visit since becoming German leader in December has been described at home and abroad as a “face-saving mission”, in which he will be expected to prove Germany is a reliable partner.

Before his departure he struck a more defiant tone over the crisis than in recent weeks, informing the broadcaster ARD that he intended to send more troops to Lithuania in an effort to strengthen Nato’s eastern flank.

Scholz is still at pains to prove that the crisis can be solved diplomatically, and this is what the German public also believes, drawing on the experiences of the cold war when there were frequent threats of violence and there was a strong sense of the danger being close at hand.

But, crucially, the Biden-Scholz partnership remains untried and untested: Scholz is first and foremost viewed in the US capital as the “successor to Merkel”. He must yet prove he is his own politician and willing to provide European leadership. The success or failure of the leaders’ relationship could yet prove vital to averting a crisis. Not least as the French president Emmanuel Macron’s political future is unclear and the British prime minister Boris Johnson’s attention is being diverted by domestic affairs.

Scholz acknowledged in the TV interview that “hard political work” would be required in the coming days and weeks, and that at stake was nothing less than “preventing war in Europe”.

But there has been particular irritation in Washington over his refusal to explicitly state that the gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 will be halted if Russia carries out its threat to invade. Scholz has so far refused to be pushed any further than saying “everything is on the table”.

He has left it to others, such as the German ambassador to Washington, Emily Haber, to in effect finish his sentence as the Americans would like to hear it. “The chancellor has openly said that in case of a Russian invasion into Ukraine, everything is on the table, all options, including Nord Stream 2,” she said in a recent interview. She also reportedly sent a diplomatic note to Berlin in which she warned that Germany was not being taken seriously as a reliable partner.

Scholz has so far established something of a reputation as the chancellor who says little, who prefers keeping his statements vague and reacting to others’ comments rather than stating his own aims clearly. But this has contributed to a drop in his domestic popularity from 60% at the start of the year, to 43% just a month later, and he is under pressure to change his tactics.

The Washington encounter, which will be followed by an interview with the broadcaster CNN, will probably force him to come clean on a number of uncomfortable questions, particularly surrounding energy security, namely: why it is that Germany remains so dependent on Russia for its energy, despite its decision a decade ago, to decommission all of its nuclear power plants by next year and phase out the use of coal by 2030?

Scholz’s US trip will be followed by a meeting with the president of the European Council and the heads of Baltic states before he visits Ukraine and Russia next week.

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Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow has stirred a lot of interest, but some are sceptical about what the French president is trying to do.

In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche ahead of the trip, Macron said he believed that “the geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with Nato and the EU”.

The French president has said several times that Europe needs to devise a new security architecture for the continent that takes into account the expiry of a cold war-era arms control treaties.

Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, said he was at a loss to understand what Macron meant about coming up with “a new order of security and stability”, according to the Voice of America website.

In a reference to the European security system built on Nato, Bildt said:

These next few months rather seem to call for firm defence of the existing post-1989 order.

Macron, who was burned last summer when EU allies binned his proposal with Angela Merkel for an EU summit with Putin, has been consulting widely with other EU member states.

Here is Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas:

The French ambassador to Nato, Muriel Domenach, lists the calls he says Macron has had in recent days.

Several EU analysts remain concerned by Macron’s proposals.

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When Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, meets the US president, Joe Biden, in the White House later on Monday, one issue will not be far away: Nord Stream 2.

The Baltic Sea gas pipeline between Russia to Germany has always been hugely controversial. Now complete but pending regulatory approval, it has been caught in the crosshairs of Ukraine’s security crisis. The US has said Nord Stream 2 will not go forward if Russia invades Ukraine; Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has promised it would be included as part of a “strong package of sanctions”.

If you are looking for a guide to why this project is so politically fraught for Germany and Europe, do read this excellent piece by the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Patrick Wintour.

Here is a flavour:

But the one thing this pipeline is not, as lamely claimed by the former German chancellor Merkel, is a purely commercial project. It has vast geostrategic consequence, with every inch of pipe a pitched political and legal battle.

Indeed few engineering projects have thrown up so many issues: the restoration of the post-Soviet empire, the climate crisis, American bullying of Europe, Germany’s emotional embrace of Russia, the legal powers of the European Commission, corporate lobbying, energy forecasting, and Gazprom’s monopolistic model. Its fiercest critics have described it as a modern day betrayal on the scale of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939.

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EU and US hold talks on energy security

While questions mount about the future of Nord Stream 2, the controversial pipeline linking Russia and Germany, the European Union is looking elsewhere for gas supplies.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and the bloc’s energy commissioner, Kadri Simson, are in Washington to discuss energy security with the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and other top officials.

The US and EU recently pledged to work together on energy supplies in an attempt to limit the effects of any Russia retaliation, for example reducing gas flows to Europe in response to western sanctions. The US is already the EU’s biggest supplier of liquified natural gas; the EU is also talking to Norway, Qatar, Azerbaijan and Algeria about boosting supplies.

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has been speaking on this topic at a conference on Monday.

We are building a partnership for energy security with the United States, which is primarily about more LNG gas supplies. We are talking to other gas suppliers, for example Norway, about increasing their supplies to Europe.

(Quote via Reuters)

Critics would say the EU has been too slow to reduce its dependence on Russian gas: the bloc gets 41% of its natural gas imports from Russia, a figure that has hardly changed in more than a decade of turbulent relations between Moscow and European capitals.

Even EU insiders admit the EU has not done enough.

Here is Borrell in a blogpost ahead of his trip to Washington:

In recent years, Russia has enhanced its resilience against economic sanctions, by increasing its foreign currency reserves, more than we have done to enhance our capacity to face potential gas supply cuts. We should urgently consider developing EU strategic gas reserves and the possibility of joint gas purchasing, as the commission has suggested.

He is referring to European Commission proposals for voluntary joint purchase of gas reserves, part of a series of measures being discussed in response to soaring gas prices.

This is Jennifer Rankin, taking over from Paul Owen, who launched today’s liveblog.

Updated

Hello, and welcome to our live blog of the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Today looks set to be dominated by diplomacy, as the French president, Emmanuel Macron, heads to Moscow for talks with Vladimir Putin, and the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, holds talks in Washington with Joe Biden.

Russia still denies planning to invade Ukraine but has tens of thousands of troops near the border. Moscow says it could take unspecified military measures if its demands – including a promise by Nato never to admit Kyiv – are not met. These terms are unacceptable to Nato.

The White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday that Russia could invade Ukraine “any day”, triggering a conflict that would come at an “enormous human cost”.

Macron believes he can deliver “a historic solution” to the crisis. Moscow has given the visit a guarded welcome, saying it would listen to the French president’s ideas, but played down expectations of a breakthrough.

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said:

The situation is too complex to expect decisive breakthroughs in the course of one meeting. In recent days there has been nothing new on the topic of security guarantees for Russia, our western interlocutors prefer not to mention this topic.

Two sources close to Macron told Reuters that one aim of his visit was to buy time and freeze the situation for several months.

Unlike in the previous Ukraine crisis in 2015 when Angela Merkel and François Hollande travelled to the Kremlin together, Macron has not taken his German counterpart with him. Scholz will be travelling to Kyiv and then Moscow next week.

Instead Scholz is in Washington meeting Biden. A continuing bone of contention between their two countries is the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany. US spokespeople have stated that the pipeline “will not move forward” if Russia attacks Ukraine, but the German chancellor has not gone that far.

We’ll cover all this and more here throughout the day.

Read more:

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