Frustrated Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told reporters Wednesday that the European Union and Biden administration’s tactic of threatening Russia with sanctions in the event that Moscow invades Ukraine “won’t matter to anyone.”
Zelensky, in Brussels to shore up support for Kyiv in light of a growing Russian military presence on Ukraine’s eastern border, has repeatedly expressed dismay with the European Union and President Joe Biden over their supportive policies towards the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a project that would essentially give Russia unimpeded access to the central European market. Russia, otherwise a weak economic power, leverages its significant energy market to influence Europe, and the Ukrainian government insists it will essentially have a stranglehold on Europe if Nord Stream 2 becomes a dominant form of transporting gas to Germany, the heart of the E.U.
“The EU’s domestic gas production is in rapid decline. To meet demand, the EU needs reliable, affordable and sustainable new gas supplies,” the official Nord Stream 2 website claims. “The Nord Stream 2 Pipeline will provide this by transporting gas from the world’s largest reserves in Russia to the EU internal market.”
Zelensky has asserted that, in addition to freezing Ukraine out of the European energy market, Nord Stream 2 is a “dangerous geopolitical weapon” and “a matter of war.” While not directly linking the pipeline to the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, the Ukrainian government has implied that any emboldening of Russia would worsen the situation there. Russia regards the conflict as a civil war between Kyiv and ethnic Russians; Kyiv has revealed significant evidence that Russia supports those “separatists” and the war is actually between Russia and Ukraine, not Ukraine and a domestic secessionist movement.
The Ukrainian president emphasized in remarks on Wednesday that the current prevailing policy towards Nord Stream 2 in the European Union and the United States would do nothing to maintain peace.
“As for the sanctions policy. Some leaders suggest a format of responding format (…) after a possible escalation on the part of Russia to introduce a strong sanctions policy,” the state outlet Ukrinform quoted Zelensky as saying. “Here, it seems to me that we were able to explain to our European colleagues that the sanctions policy following (such escalation – ed.) won’t matter to anyone.”
“Our state is interested in a strong sanctions policy that would precede a possible escalation, and then, I suggest, this escalation might not even occur,” Zelensky added.
In the same press conference, Zelensky suggested he would be open to meeting Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“Ukraine is ready for any format of negotiations with the Russian Federation to resolve this process. We are talking about this openly, and not for the first time,” he told reporters. “The same will is needed on the part of the Russian Federation to stop the war.”
Zelensky rejected, however, the idea of “a summit for the sake of the summit.”
In 2019, Zelensky met with Putin in person under the watchful eye of President Emmanuel Macron of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Zelensky excoriated the meeting, asserting that it achieved “very little” and that Putin had made talks “very difficult” on purpose, essentially resulting in a waste of time for all. Two years later, Zelensky insisted he wanted “serious, powerful” countries to help lead negotiations with Russia, suggesting he was done talking to France and Germany.
As he was in Brussels to discuss ties to the E.U. and NATO, American politics were not the priority for Zelensky. He did offer that he was hopeful Washington would “play some kind of a role” in bringing peace to eastern Ukraine – perhaps an extension of his frustration with the E.U. – but criticized the Biden administration for not taking the ongoing threat of a Russian invasion seriously enough.
“I am glad that the United States wants to play some kind of a role today. I would like them to play one of the main, not episodic, roles in this peaceful settlement,” Zelensky said. “If it is difficult to join the Normandy format and maybe it would be wrong, we can walk on a parallel track, we are ready for the tripartite summits, but nothing must be decided regarding Ukraine without Ukraine.”
Biden has given Zelensky very little reason to expect full-throated American support in light of a threat of Russian invasion. For one, Biden was vice president in the administration in power when Russia invaded and colonized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Then-President Barack Obama did nothing in response, and Russia is honing in on a decade of occupation in the region. Biden personally, as president, has actively opposed meaningful sanctions on Nord Stream 2, outraging Zelensky.
This month, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration would sanction Russia only if it invades Eastern Ukraine, not before, because it needs to maintain the pipeline sanctions as “leverage.”
“When it comes to Nord Stream 2, the fact is the gas is not currently flowing through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which means that it’s not operating, which means that it’s not leveraged for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he asserted. “It is leverage for the West. If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.”
The Biden administration has actively opposed attempts by Congress to sanction the pipeline and repealed sanctions imposed under President Donald Trump. According to Zelensky, Biden did not alert Ukraine to the latter change in policy when it happened.
“I found out about it, probably, like everybody else, from the briefing,” Zelensky told Washington, DC, outlet Axios in an extended rant in June.
“We were very surprised … it is not very understandable, I feel, and definitely not expected, that the bullets to this weapon [Nord Stream 2] can possibly be provided by such a great country as the United States,” Zelensky continued, “because it is an exemplary civilization, an exemplary democracy in the world.”
“Biden knows Ukraine better than any other previous, former President, and therefore he understands all the issues, and, what’s most important, all the security risks,” Zelensky added, an apparent dig at Biden over longstanding concerns regarding shady business dealings with Ukrainian oligarchs, who opposed former television comedian Zelensky’s election. “That is why, again, we were very unpleasantly surprised.”
Biden repeatedly ignored Zelensky’s demands to meet with him before meeting with Putin and did not deliver on his promise to meet with the Ukrainian president in the summer. When Biden finally had Zelensky visit the White House in September, he insisted on discussing “a new energy and climate dialogue to help Ukraine diversify its energy supplies while supporting our climate goals relating to global warming.”
Zelensky spoke to Biden again most recently last week, after Biden engaged in a virtual meeting with Putin.