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US, Germany seal deal on contentious Russian gas pipeline

US, Germany seal deal on contentious Russian gas pipeline

WASHINGTON — The United States and Germany on Wednesday announced a deal to allow the completion of a controversial Russian gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further U.S. sanctions. The agreement aims to stanch fears about European dependence on Russian energy, but it was immediately assailed by critics who said it doesn’t go far enough.Under the terms of the deal, the U.S. and Germany committed to countering any Russian attempt to use the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a political weapon. And, they agreed to support Ukraine and Poland, both of which are bypassed by the project and fear Russia’s intentions, by funding alternative energy and development projects.“The United States and Germany are united in their determination to hold Russia to account for its aggression and malign activities by imposing costs via sanctions and other tools,” they said in a joint statement that covered Nord Stream 2 as well as Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine.“Should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine, Germany will take action at the national level and press for effective measures at the European level, including sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector,” it said.The Nord Stream 2 project has posed a major foreign policy dilemma for the Biden administration. U.S. officials from both parties have long feared that it would give Russia too much power over European gas supplies. But the pipeline is almost completed and the U.S. has been determined to rebuild ties with Germany that were damaged during the Trump administration.Poland and Ukraine expressed their displeasure over the decision to allow the pipeline’s completion and said the efforts to reduce the Russian security threat were not sufficient.“This decision has created a political, military and energy threat for Ukraine and Central Europe, while increasing Russia’s potential to destabilize the security situation in Europe, perpetuating divisions among NATO and European Union member states,” the Polish and Ukrainian foreign ministers said in a joint statement.The agreement is not a clear political win for either President Joe Biden or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an unabashed supporter of the pipeline who will step down later this year. For Biden, he risks appearing weak as it relates to Russia, and Merkel’s governing party faces a serious challenge from Germany’s Green Party, which opposes the pipeline, in September elections.Still, the two sides committed to supporting a $1 billion fund for Ukraine to diversify its energy sources, of which Germany will provide an initial $175 million grant. And, Germany guaranteed that it would reimburse Ukraine for gas transit fees it will lose from being bypassed by Nord Stream 2 until 2024, with a possible 10-year extension.The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Merkel on Wednesday and they discussed the possibility of extending a deal on transit of Russian gas via Ukraine after 2024.In a nod to Poland, Germany also agreed to sign onto the “Three Seas Initiative,” an EU and U.S.-promoted scheme that aims to boost investment, infrastructure development and energy security among the countries bordering the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic seas. The German government, the statement said, would help to contribute up to $1.7 billion of European Union funding for the initiative through 2027.Despite the agreement, there remains strong bipartisan opposition to the pipeline in Congress, as well as in Ukraine and Poland, and like the Trump administration before it, the Biden administration also says it opposes the pipeline. U.S. officials have said sanctions won’t stop it.The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, said he had no doubt Russia “will use the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a weapon of coercion against Ukraine and transatlantic energy security as soon as it is operational. Promises to invest in future Ukrainian energy projects and ambiguous threats of consequences won’t change that reality.”Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also objected, calling it “weak,” and several Democrats, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, have been consistently critical of the administration’s approach.“I am not yet convinced that this agreement — or any bilateral agreement — can sufficiently provide assurances to our European allies and minimize the considerable economic impact and security implications of this pipeline’s completion,” Shaheen said in a statement.The State Department’s third-ranking official, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, categorically denied reports that Ukraine had been warned against publicly complaining about the agreement and noted that the State Department’s counselor, Derek Chollet, was visiting both Kyiv and Warsaw this week to inform them of the deal. She told lawmakers on Wednesday that the deal was the best way to deal with the situation.In another effort to appeal to Ukraine the White House announced that Biden would welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Washington on Aug. 30. An invitation for “later this summer” had been announced in June before Biden met Putin in Geneva, but a date had not been set until Wednesday.“The visit will affirm the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea, our close cooperation on energy security, and our backing for President Zelenskyy’s efforts to tackle corruption and implement a reform agenda based on our shared democratic values,” the White House said.Biden’s approach to Ukraine is also a sensitive political subject. Former President Donald Trump’s attempt to pressure Zelenskyy to dig up dirt on Biden and his son led to Trump’s first impeachment. He was later acquitted by the Senate.Nord Stream 2 has been a topic of intense debate between U.S. and German officials for some time and it was a major agenda item during Biden’s meeting with Merkel last week. Like the Trump administration before it, the Biden administration regards the pipeline as a threat to European energy security and has imposed sanctions on some of those involved in building it.Nuland said the U.S. continues to oppose the pipeline but said Biden had waived sanctions against the German company constructing the pipeline and its top executives because the penalties would have been counterproductive to broader U.S. interests.She and others have defended the waivers, saying they can be rescinded at any time and that threat actually gives the U.S. more leverage. Biden administration officials have said repeatedly that the pipeline was a foregone conclusion by the time the president took office. That argument has been scoffed at by pipeline opponents.

Biden backs Trump rejection of China's South China Sea claim

Biden backs Trump rejection of China's South China Sea claim

The Biden administration has upheld a Trump-era rejection of nearly all significant Chinese maritime claims in the South China SeaBy MATTHEW LEE AP Diplomatic WriterJuly 12, 2021, 1:54 AM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleWASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Sunday upheld a Trump-era rejection of nearly all of China’s significant maritime claims in the South China Sea. The administration also warned China that any attack on the Philippines in the flashpoint region would draw a U.S. response under a mutual defense treaty.The stern message from Secretary of State Antony Blinken came in a statement released ahead of this week’s fifth anniversary of an international tribunal’s ruling in favor of the Philippines, against China’s maritime claims around the Spratly Islands and neighboring reefs and shoals. China rejects the ruling.Ahead of the fourth anniversary of the ruling last year, the Trump administration came out in favor of the ruling but also said it regarded as illegitimate virtually all Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea outside China’s internationally recognized waters. Sunday’s statement reaffirms that position, which had been laid out by Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.“Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea,” Blinken said, using language similar to Pompeo’s. He accused China of continuing “to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway.”“The United States reaffirms its July 13, 2020 policy regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea,” he said, referring to Pompeo’s original statement. “We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments.”Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty obligates both countries to come to each other’s aid in case of an attack.Prior to Pompeo’s statement, U.S. policy had been to insist that maritime disputes between China and its smaller neighbors be resolved peacefully through U.N.-backed arbitration. The shift did not apply to disputes over land features that are above sea level, which are considered to be “territorial” in nature.Although the U.S. continues to remain neutral in territorial disputes, it has effectively sided with the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, all of which oppose Chinese assertions of sovereignty over maritime areas surrounding contested South China Sea islands, reefs and shoals.China reacted angrily to the Trump administration’s announcement and is likely to be similarly peeved by the Biden administration’s decision to retain and reinforce it.“We call on (China) to abide by its obligations under international law, cease its provocative behavior, and take steps to reassure the international community that it is committed to the rules-based maritime order that respects the rights of all countries, big and small,” Blinken said in the statement,China has rejected the tribunal’s decision, which it has dismissed as a “sham,” and has refused to participate in arbitration proceedings. It has continued to defy the decision with aggressive actions that have brought it into territorial spats with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in recent years.As last year’s statement did, Sunday’s announcement came amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and China over numerous issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, human rights, Chinese policy in Hong Kong and Tibet and trade, that have sent relations plummeting.China claims almost all of the South China Sea and routinely objects to any action by the U.S. military in the region. Five other governments claim all or part of the sea, through which approximately $5 trillion in goods are shipped every year.China has sought to shore up its claims to the sea by building military bases on coral atolls, leading the U.S. to sail its warships through the region on what it calls freedom of operation missions. The United States has no claims itself to the waters but has deployed warships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote freedom of navigation and overflight in the busy waterway.

US warns that Islamic State extremists still a world threat

US warns that Islamic State extremists still a world threat

ROME — As the U.S. works on its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, members of the global coalition fighting the Islamic State group met Monday to chart future steps against the extremist group.The meeting came just a day after the U.S. launched airstrikes against Iran-backed militias near the Iraq-Syria borderU.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio co-chaired the gathering of senior officials from the seven-year-old, 83-member bloc. Participants were taking stock of current efforts to ensure the complete defeat of IS, whose remnants still pose a threat in Iraq and Syria and have shown signs of surging in parts of Africa.Amid significant other international priorities, including taming the coronavirus pandemic and stepping up the fight against climate change, the coalition is hoping to stabilize areas liberated from IS, repatriate and hold foreign fighters accountable for their actions and combat extremist messaging.Blinken and Di Maio urged representatives of the 77 other countries and five organizations that make up the coalition not to drop their guard.“We must step up the action taken by the coalition, increasing the areas in which we can operate,” said Di Maio.Outside of Iraq and Syria, he said there was an “alarming” surge in IS activity, particularly in the Sahel, Mozambique and the Horn of Africa. He called for the coalition to create a special mechanism to deal with the threat in Africa.Blinken noted that despite their defeat, IS elements in Iraq and Syria “still aspire to conduct large-scale attacks.”“Together, we must stay as committed to our stabilization goals as we did to our military campaign that resulted in victory on the battlefield,” he said.Blinken announced a new U.S. contribution of $436 million to assist displaced people in Syria and surrounding countries and called for a new effort to repatriate — and rehabilitate or prosecute — some 10,000 IS fighters who remain imprisoned by the Syrian Defense Forces.“This situation is simply untenable,” Blinken said. “It just can’t persist indefinitely.” However, no countries present made any new commitment to repatriating their citizens and it was unclear if the number of detainees could be reduced in any significant way in the near-term.Blinken also announced sanctions against Ousmane Illiassou Djibo, a native of Niger, who is a key leader of the Islamic State affiliate in the greater Sahara. Djibo was designated a global terrorist, meaning that any of his U.S. are frozen and Americans are barred from any transactions with him.In addition to the meeting on IS, foreign ministers of countries concerned about the broader conflict in Syria met in Rome ahead of a critical U.N. vote on whether to maintain a humanitarian aid corridor from Turkey. Russia has resisted reauthorizing the channel amid stalled peace talks between the Syrian government and rebel groups.Two senior U.S. officials said Blinken told the Syria conference that the U.S. believes the corridor must be reauthorized and expanded to prevent more deaths. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the private diplomatic conversations, said Blinken made clear that any U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria would be dependent on Moscow agreeing to the extension. Russia, however, wasn’t present at the meeting.Last week, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Geir Pederson, said there were worrying signs that the Islamic State may be getting stronger in the country and called for a boost in cooperation to counter it. Pederson has also joined calls for new international talks on ending Syria’s civil war.Since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011, numerous high-level gatherings aimed at ending the fighting and guiding the country to a political transition have failed. The U.N., U.S., Russia and many other countries support a 2015 Security Council resolution endorsing a road map to peace in Syria that calls for a new constitution followed by U.N.-supervised elections.Blinken, who also met with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and President Sergio Mattarella on Monday, hailed the state of U.S.-European relations, noting that Italy, France and Germany — the three countries he visited on his current European tour — are the only members of NATO, the Group of Seven and the European Union.“We share a deep commitment to promoting democracy and human rights,” he said. “We see the same big challenges on the horizon. And we recognize that we can’t tackle them alone.”Blinken and Di Maio downplayed differences between the U.S. and Italy over China, saying there was an increasing awareness of the complexities and dangers of dealing with Beijing.

Blinken basks in Biden's post-Trump Europe glow

Blinken basks in Biden's post-Trump Europe glow

European leaders may have breathed audible sighs of relief when U.S. President Joe Biden visited them last week, but Biden’s top diplomat is getting even more effusive welcomes on the continentBy MATTHEW LEE AP Diplomatic WriterJune 25, 2021, 1:48 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articlePARIS — European leaders may have breathed audible sighs of relief when U.S. President Joe Biden visited them last week to proclaim the Trump era over, but they are giving his top diplomat even more effusive welcomes.As Antony Blinken tours traditional American allies this week, senior European officials are treating him like the rock star he once aspired to be for simply representing the shift from former President Donald Trump.Policy differences, some of them significant, have been largely tossed aside for what appear to have become mutual celebrations of Biden’s anti-Trump persona in western Europe.Top diplomats in Germany and France dropped all diplomatic caution in expressing their glee that Trump is no longer in charge on the other side of the Atlantic as they welcomed Blinken to their countries on Thursday and Friday. Similar sentiments are expected from Italian officials when Blinken travels to Rome on Sunday.German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas rejoiced that America “is back on our side again” while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian hailed the end of Trump’s four years in office during which he said Europe alone was left to shoulder the burden of international responsibility and leadership.In Blinken, Europe is encountering a French-fluent soulmate who spent his formative years living and attending high school in Paris and traveling in the 1970s and 80s, a time he recalls with deep fondness and affection for most things European.It’s far cry from his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, whose previous European experience was serving as a tank commander in West Germany in the waning years of the Cold War. And, like his boss, Pompeo regarded Europe largely as an overly dependent annoyance, and held little regard for the European predilection for multilateralism and consensus.Pompeo prided himself on challenging long-held European beliefs and often spoke longingly of a speech he once delivered in Brussels in which he trashed the United Nations, the European Union and other multilateral institutions before an audience with a vested interest in them.Blinken is the literal opposite, championing cooperation and close relationships with some of America’s longest-standing allies.Sharing a beer with Maas before a group of young German exchange students at a restored 1920s Berlin dance hall, Blinken spoke of a teenage road trip he and friends had taken from Paris to Hamburg, where they tried unsuccessfully to follow The Beatles into rock music history. “That didn’t happen,” he said wryly.“Anyway, I have extremely warm and strong and long memories of being in Germany and having very close friends,” he said, before proclaiming that he and Maas are “in violent agreement” on most issues.Maas, who had a notoriously testy relationship with Pompeo, could barely contain his excitement at having a new interlocutor, one with whom he spent several hours over the course of four joint events in less than two days.“From the very first telephone conversation we had after Tony took the office of secretary of state, at the end of the telephone call I couldn’t help myself by saying ‘Tony, I still have to get used to the fact that I can speak to the American foreign secretary and always be of the same view because that used to be different beforehand,’” Maas said.Maas hailed Biden’s election as “a genuine game-changer for international politics, the biggest for quite a while.“The United States are back on the international stage and that is really something that we missed,” he said on Thursday.A day later, Le Drian offered Blinken similarly warm remarks of relief and appreciation.“Welcome back,” Le Drian said. “It is excellent news for all of us that America is back. It is a comeback to the values that we share, it is a comeback to the multilateralism that we built together and it is our responsibility to continue with it intensively. This is what France and the Europeans had to fight for alone for four very long years.”

Russian gas pipeline vexes U.S. charm offensive in Germany

Russian gas pipeline vexes U.S. charm offensive in Germany

The United States and Germany are struggling to resolve a major dispute over a Russian gas pipeline even as the Biden administration seeks to improve relations with western Europe that had been strained during Donald Trump’s presidencyBy MATTHEW LEE AP Diplomatic WriterJune 23, 2021, 3:32 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBERLIN — The United States and Germany struggled Wednesday to resolve a major dispute over a Russian gas pipeline, even as the Biden administration seeks to improve relations with Western Europe that had been strained during Donald Trump’s presidency.U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his German counterpart Heiko Maas met in Berlin and extolled the depth and strength of U.S.-German relations, but there was no sign of progress in talks to overcome the impasse over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. And neither Blinken nor Maas could offer a timetable for a possible resolution.“We don’t always agree and one of those areas of disagreement is the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which we continue to believe is a threat to European energy security,” Blinken said. “Germany has a different perspective and that happens from time to time. We’ll handle our disagreements while pressing ahead on the many areas where we are working very closely together.”In addition to increasing the continent’s reliance on Russian gas, the U.S. believes the pipeline will become a tool for Russia to exert political pressure on vulnerable Eastern and Central European nations. As such, the project continues to be a significant irritant in U.S.-German ties despite steps by the Biden administration to cool the dispute.Speaking alongside Blinken at a joint news conference, Maas said Germany was well aware of the U.S. concerns and trying to address them.“We are engaging in these talks,” he said. “We are aware of the expectations from Washington and it is of the utmost importance.”Maas said that Germany is also speaking with Ukraine and other countries bypassed by the pipeline with an eye toward guaranteeing them an alternative energy supply.“There is a whole host of ways and means and approaches that we are discussing but we are not discussing them in public,” Maas said.Ideally, he added, a resolution could be reached by the time outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Biden in Washington next month. But, Maas stressed that timing was aspirational only.Blinken met later with Merkel and neither rmentioned the pipeline in brief welcoming remarks.Despite U.S. opposition and strident objections from Poland and Ukraine, Merkel strongly favors the project, which has been one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key initiatives to increase Russia’s energy revenue.The pipeline also faces strong bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Congress, where both Republican and Democratic lawmakers harshly criticized the administration for waiving sanctions against the German firm constructing it, the company’s German CEO and several other executives in May. Critics saw those sanctions as a last-ditch effort to prevent completion of the pipeline that is now more than 95% constructed.In waiving the sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG and the executives, the White House rejected recommendations from the State Department and other agencies in favor of imposing the penalties, according to officials and congressional aides. Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan argued that the sanctions would do more harm than good in terms of repairing ties with Germany, they said.Blinken is in Germany on his second visit to Europe in seven days, having just accompanied President Joe Biden to leaders’ summits in Britain and Belgium. In his meeting with Maas, Blinken emphasized the “America is back” message that Biden also delivered last week.Maas welcomed the commitment that Blinken is also expected to pass on to Merkel in a later meeting. He said Biden’s visit, coupled by Blinken’s return to Europe so quickly, “underlined impressively that America is back: Back on the multilateral and international stage and we’re very pleased by this.”Merkel echoed that sentiment in her comments before meeting Blinken, saying Germany was “delighted” with Biden’s pronouncement. “Given all the controversies in the world I think it’s fair to say we need to keep channels of dialogue open,” she said.Biden administration officials insist that there are still ways to mitigate the pipeline’s impact. They say even after the project is physically completed there are still permits, insurance and testing hurdles it must clear before becoming operational. Some officials believe that could delay its opening by nine to 12 months..After Germany, Blinken will visit France and Italy as part of his weeklong tour, his first trips to all three nations as secretary of state.

Blinken brings Biden Europe charm offensive to Germany

Blinken brings Biden Europe charm offensive to Germany

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Germany as the Biden administration presses ahead with a diplomatic charm offensive designed to woo back wary Western European allies after four years of turbulent relations under former President Donald TrumpBy MATTHEW LEE AP Diplomatic WriterJune 23, 2021, 7:44 AM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBERLIN — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Germany as the Biden administration presses ahead with a diplomatic charm offensive designed to woo back wary Western European allies after four years of turbulent relations under former President Donald Trump. That’s despite some lingering differences with key allies over energy and defense priorities.Blinken arrived in Berlin on Wednesday to start his second visit to Europe in seven days, having just accompanied President Joe Biden to leaders’ meetings in Britain and Belgium. In talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Blinken plans to emphasize the “America is back” message that Biden delivered personally last week.Biden is determined to assure Europe that Trump’s transactional approach to transatlantic ties is a thing of the past despite some significant lingering differences with core NATO allies. Those include a major dispute with Germany over the impending completion of a Russian gas pipeline and defense spending, both of which are holdover issues from the Trump years.“This trip is a continuation of the priority that President Biden has made of rebuilding our relationships with allies, including Germany, and that the strength of these relationships will lay in the foundation for many of the foreign policy priorities,” the top U.S. diplomat for Europe Philip Reeker said this week.U.S.-Germany relations were particularly strained during Trump’s term in office, notably over trade, military budgets, troop deployments and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project from Russia. Many say the pipeline will compromise European energy security and hurt eastern and central Europe by bypassing Ukraine and Poland.Merkel, however, strongly favors the project, which has been one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key initiatives to increase Russia’s energy revenue.In addition to Ukrainian and Polish objections, the pipeline faces strong bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Congress, where both Republican and Democratic lawmakers harshly criticized the administration for waiving sanctions against the German firm constructing it, the company’s German CEO and several other executives in May. Critics saw those sanctions as a last-ditch effort to prevent completion of the pipeline that is now more than 95% constructed.In waiving the sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG and the executives, the White House rejected recommendations from the State Department and other agencies in favor of imposing the penalties, according to officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter. Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan argued that the sanctions would do more harm than good in terms of repairing ties with Germany, they said.“The administration waived certain sanctions in an effort to make something positive out of the difficult situation; rather than risk damaging relations with European allies through further sanctions,” Reeker said. “We’re going to use this space provided by these waivers to engage Germany diplomatically and take steps to reduce the risks that Nord Stream 2 poses to Ukraine and to European energy security more broadly.”Administration officials insist that there are still ways to mitigate the pipeline’s impact, despite its advanced stage. They have pointed out that even after the project is physically completed there are still permitting, insurance and testing hurdles it must clear before becoming operational. Some officials believe that could delay its opening by nine to 12 months after completion.Blinken is expected to press Merkel, who is in her final three months in office, on the pipeline in their meeting“Our goal remains to ensure that Russia cannot use energy as a coercive tool against Ukraine or, frankly, anyone else in the region, and that will remain the basis on which we pursue these conversations,” Reeker said.After Germany, Blinken will visit France and Italy as part of his weeklong tour, his first trips to all three nations as secretary of state.