President Biden on Friday called German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who took office Wednesday, to congratulate him on his new job and bring him up to speed on his efforts to diffuse Russia-Ukraine tensions.
Biden spoke this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky amid fears that a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine portends an invasion — as White House aides claim that the nearly operational Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany could be shut down if Russia invades its neighbor.
Scholz, a social democrat leading a three-party coalition, replaced 16-year conservative chancellor Angela Merkel.
“The leaders discussed our work together on the full range of global challenges, including continued efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic, counter the threat of climate change, and address Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine,” the White House said.
Biden spoke with Putin on Tuesday and Zelensky on Thursday. Between the calls, Biden told reporters Wednesday that US troops won’t be sent to Ukraine to deter Russian adventurism, but that he hoped to announce new high-level talks to resolve the crisis.
“We hope by Friday we’re going to be able to say and announce to you that we’re having meetings at a higher level, not just with us but with at least four of our major NATO allies and Russia to discuss the future of Russia’s concerns relative to NATO writ large and whether or not we could work out any accommodations as it relates to bringing down the temperature,” he said.
Biden’s remark alarmed the leaders of Eastern European countries anxious about potential concessions to the Kremlin by NATO and no such high-level talks were announced Friday.
“Russia should under no circumstances be given a say in who may or may not be a member of NATO,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said Thursday, Bloomberg News reported.
Kallas added that Moscow’s “most worrying wish is to divide Europe into spheres of influence. We remember these kinds of moments from our own history and we are in no way naive on this issue.”
Zelensky, however, offered a positive review of his call with Biden, despite reportedly asking Biden — without success — to impose economic sanctions on Russia now, before a possible invasion, rather than after one as Biden has threatened to do.
Zelensky said in a Ukrainian TV interview that he hopes to speak directly with Putin and that “I see the support for this path from both our European partners and the US.”
The Ukrainian leader said that Biden told him on Thursday that “Russia assured the US and the whole world that it doesn’t intend to continue the escalation against the territory of our independent state.”
Biden was vice president during the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and the start of a stalemated civil war waged by pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Republicans have blasted Biden for allowing Russia to complete construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is poised to begin operations. The White House waived sanctions against the project in May, with Biden citing the fact that the pipeline was “almost completely finished.”
Nord Stream 2 will allow Russia to send natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and depriving the Kiev government of lucrative gas transfer fees. Critics say it will enhance Moscow’s leverage over Ukraine.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan this week threatened the pipeline.
“Gas is not currently flowing through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which means it’s not operating, which means that it’s not leverage for Putin. Indeed, it is leverage for the West, because if Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine,” Sullivan said at a White House briefing.
Former US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who also was former President Donald Trump’s acting intelligence director, tweeted, “Strategic disaster! [Sullivan] now says that [Nord Stream 2] could be used to leverage Russian behavior. Biden already gave Putin a finished pipeline. Sullivan scrambling now but it’s too late.”