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Opinion Did Biden just commit an impeachable offense in Ukraine?

Left, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; right, President Biden. (Gints Ivuskans/AFP/Getty Images)

Remember when House Democrats impeached President Donald Trump for twisting the arm of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, allegedly conditioning a White House visit on his willingness to investigate Hunter Biden? Well, guess what: Axios reports that the Biden administration may have twisted Zelensky’s arm to accept a deal President Biden just cut with Germany to allow it to move forward with its Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia — and conditioned a White House visit by Zelensky on acceptance of the deal.

“While members of the Biden administration were finalizing their deal with Germany, they were working with the Ukrainians to set a date for Zelensky’s White House visit, which the Ukrainian president had initially stated would be this month,” Axios reports. “The Ukrainians felt the administration was effectively linking the White House visit to Ukraine’s position on the Nord Stream deal and pressuring them not to speak out.”

Did Biden really just condition a visit to the White House upon Zelensky’s agreeing to acquiesce to Russian energy dominance over Ukraine? Time to appoint the impeachment managers!

Unlike Trump, Biden is pressuring Zelensky to accept a deal that represents an existential threat to his country. Right now, Russian gas exports to Western Europe go through pipelines that cross through Ukraine — which means Russia cannot cut off gas to Ukraine without also cutting off its lucrative exports to the West. But once the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline is built, Russia will be able to bypass Ukraine and send gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea. When that happens, Russia will be able to shut off energy supplies to Ukraine without cutting off Western Europe.

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Before leaving office, Trump succeeded in stopping construction on the pipeline. In 2019, he signed legislation to sanction businesses involved in the project. A number of companies pulled out of the project as a result. And Trump made clear that he was ready to punish not just Russian companies but German and other European suppliers as well. As Axios’s Jonathan Swan told me, “Major construction . . . was frozen when Biden took office, because they legitimately were worried that the Trump administration would . . . potentially go all the way and sanction German utilities, end users of the gas.”

As soon as Biden took office, construction on the pipeline resumed. In his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, Antony Blinken declared he was “determined to do whatever we can to prevent that completion” of Nord Stream 2. But then, in May, the State Department waived sanctions against Matthias Warnig, the Vladimir Putin crony and former East German intelligence officer in charge of overseeing construction. And in June, Biden decided to stop trying to block the pipeline, deciding it was not worth the costs to our relationship with Germany.

Zelensky was not given so much as the courtesy of a warning before the announcement was made. He learned about it from the press. Nord Stream 2 “is a weapon, a real weapon . . . in the hands of the Russian Federation,” he said. “It is not very understandable . . . that the bullets to this weapon can possibly be provided by such a great country as the United States.” No sooner had Biden greenlit the pipeline than Putin began leveraging it, warning that Ukraine must show its good will if its wants Russian gas exports to continue.

This is far more serious than Trump’s ham-handed efforts to get Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden. Trump’s call with Zelensky was not “beautiful” or “perfect” as he claimed; it unwisely gave the appearance of mixing his electoral interests with U.S. policy. But he made no promises or threats in the call, as was initially and falsely reported, and Zelensky said Trump did not pressure him. Trump’s conduct, while inappropriate, did not to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Moreover, though House Democrats also accused Trump of holding up vital military assistance to Ukraine as pressure on Zelensky, in fact it was Trump who sent lethal aid to Ukraine that the Obama-Biden administration refused to provide. Back then, Joe Biden accused Trump of withholding aid “to pressure a sovereign nation, a partner that is still under direct assault from Russia.” Well, here’s the kicker: No sooner was Biden in the Oval Office than he put a hold on $100 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

Trump was incredibly tough on Russia in deed, if not in word. By contrast, Biden has called Putin a killer, but since taking office, he has suspended that military aid, approved an extension of the New START deal and acquiesced to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which increases Russian power in the region at Ukraine’s expense — and Biden may have inappropriately pressured Ukraine’s president to silence his criticism of the deal.

Do Biden’s actions constitute an impeachable offense? Of course not. Being soft on Russia is not a high crime or misdemeanor. But asking Ukraine’s president to sign off on a deal that will allow Putin to strangle his country is shameful, even if not impeachable.

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