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The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

How Nord Stream 2 has become a pivotal foreign policy issue for Biden

The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

Good morning, Early Birds. We always thought the Congressional Rum Caucus sounded like the most fun caucus, but we have to admit we're intrigued by the sound of the Financial Chaos Caucus. Also, have you signed up for the Climate 202 yet? 

Send your best tips (caucus-related and otherwise) to earlytips@washpost.com. Thanks for waking up with us.

At the White House

How Nord Stream 2 has become a pivotal foreign policy issue for Biden

Zero hour: President Biden is set to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this afternoon, as both countries work to forestall a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The administration is warning Russia that it will respond to any invasion with a one-two punch of military help for Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, and new economic sanctions — including blocking the completion of a new Russian-backed natural gas pipeline that’s a priority for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The pipeline “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,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday.

The nearly finished pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2, has taken on outsize importance in the Biden era.

Nord Stream 2 — a subsidiary of Gazprom, the state-owned Russian energy giant — and its financial backers have spent more than $3 million on Washington lobbying this year alone to ensure Congress and the administration don’t block the project, according to lobbying disclosure filings. Ukrainian energy interests have hired their own lobbyists to try to undermine it.

And Republican lawmakers have pressed the administration to impose sanctions to prevent the Baltic Sea pipeline from becoming operational, which they argue would give Russia undue influence over the European energy supply.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had held up dozens of Biden’s State Department and ambassadorial nominees in protest and has gone so far as to compare the situation to the concessions Britain and France made to Hitler before World War II.

This is appeasement on steroids,” Cruz said in a statement to The Early. “It's like telling Stalin the US will give him tanks if he promises not to use them against Europe. Why do you think he wants the tanks?”

Not just Cruz

Even some Democrats are critical of the agreement Biden struck with the German government in July to let the project move forward. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt to get Nord Stream 2 sanctions included in the defense bill that cleared the House on Tuesday.

“I think Putin is testing Biden is his first year in office,” Kaptur said in an interview.

While the White House has threatened to block the project if Russia attacks Ukraine, it’s dismissed calls to do so beforehand.

A White House spokesperson told us that “we’re seeing some members of Congress press for sanctions that don’t actually deter Russia but do threaten Transatlantic unity, in order to score political points at home. It makes no sense.”

Despite Sullivan's remark, the Kremlin told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that Biden and Putin didn't discuss Nord Stream 2 during their conversation on Tuesday. The White House declined to comment on whether it had come up or not.

Ukraine has more at stake than keeping Putin from invading. The country will lose more than $1 billion in Russian gas transit fees once the pipeline becomes operational, according to Ukrainian officials.

“The threat of any sanctions after an invasion are going to ring hollow with the Russians unless costs are imposed now,” said Daniel Vajdich, a lobbyist and former Cruz aide who’s an adviser to Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state-owned energy company. “And that cost has to be the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.”

Losing leverage

While the administration might have leverage over Russia now, it's likely to evaporate if Nord Stream 2 is finished.

“Once gas starts to flow in Nord Stream 2, it will be hard to reverse,” William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during the George W. Bush administration, told The Early. “It’s leverage now. That leverage shifts to Russia once the pipeline starts to function, once gas starts to flow.”

Nikos Tsafos, the James R. Schlesinger chair in energy and geopolitics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed the U.S. would lose any sway the pipeline has over Putin once it's operational. But he also argued that the strategic importance of Nord Stream 2 was overblown.

“We’ve taken this pipeline and we’ve converted it into this grand symbol of the struggle between East and West,” he said.

The U.S. might be able to block the pipeline in the short term if Russia invades Ukraine, but it's not a viable long-term strategy, he said.

“I think the best solution is to find pressure points on Russia that are not Nord Stream 2,” he said.

Meanwhile, we're summiting democracy

Red alert: Biden's “Summit for Democracy,” happening today, will test the administration's commitment to defending global democracy, while also seeking to demonstrate the U.S. is again a constructive global citizen following the presidency of Donald Trump

The virtual meeting, which includes 110 governments, comes at a time when a quarter of the world’s population lives in a “backsliding democracy,” according to the International  Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. The U.S. is one of them, according to the Stockholm-based think tank, which added the country to a list of backsliding democracies last month. 

Foreign policy experts aren’t surprised with the new label as domestic conflicts over racial inequality, voting rights, election integrity and a violent insurrection have weakened the U.S. reputation as a democratic superpower. 

Global problem

“Many democracies are having problems,” Bruce W. Jentleson, a former Obama State Department official, told The Early. “Our European colleagues are. Canada’s having some. But there’s no other democracy that had a fundamental attack on its legislative headquarters.” 

“So, the credibility of the United States to be the one calling this and somehow telling other countries how they should be accountable is in worse shape now.”

But administration officials say two things can be true at the same time: The U.S. can still lead a democracy summit while struggling with democracy itself.  

“Democracies, by their nature, are constant works in progress,” a senior administration official told us. “The United States does not shy away from that, and this is why we are hosting the Summit.” 

“The U.S. has never claimed in the constitution to be a perfect union,” Michael J. Green, a member of former president George W. Bush’s National Security Council, added. “These are not challenges that discredit American democracy, they test it. And I think President Biden is absolutely right to make this a summit for democracy.” 

The U.S. still retains substantial global influence despite its struggles with democracy, the officials said. 

“I think it’s really easy to point to the problems in U.S. democracy, and say the U.S. has no business running this summit,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a member of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board. “But the fact is, we have to walk and chew gum. The U.S. has huge problems at home, and the world has huge problems, and someone needs to convene democracies.” 

‘A deep sense of humility’

A hodgepodge of countries — including the U.S., France, Brazil, Iraq, Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo — are expected to announce commitments to defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption and promote respect for human rights. 

Biden must approach the summit with humility, Larry Diamond, a former USAID consultant, told The Early.  

“Our leadership and encouragement and facilitation of democracy is more needed than ever,” Diamond said. “It just requires us to do so with a very deep sense of humility [and a] willingness to be self-critical.”  

“It’s a way of saying we’re not pretending to be better than anybody else,” added Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and several other countries.

Part of strengthening democracy is making ambitious — yet realistic — commitments to shore it up, a senior administration official told us. On Monday, the administration unveiled the first ever strategy to combat corruption and illicit finance. The administration is expected to announce additional commitments to bolster free and independent media, defend free and fair elections and strengthen civic capacity.  

But fulfilling a commitment to defend fair and free elections — or any commitment with potential political foes — could be difficult, Green said.  

“We’re in a deep, deep crisis,” Jentleson added. “We’ve had differences over policy before — the Republicans have one view, and the Democrats have another — but right now … the polarization among Republicans is about the fundamental practices and values of democracy.” 

‘The most important democratic experiment in the world’

Putin is planning a multi-front offensive against Ukraine as early as next year involving close to 175,000 troops, according to U.S. officials and an intelligence document obtained by The Post

Michael McFaul, former president Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia, told us that Biden’s Tuesday video call with Putin to ease tensions is a part of strengthening democracy abroad.   

“Ukraine’s the most important democratic experiment in the world today,” McFaul said, adding that “Ukrainian democracy actually threatens Putin.” 

“For Biden’s democracy summit and for containing and deterring Putin’s behavior, there’s nothing more important than figuring out ways to consolidate Ukrainian democracy.” 

White House adds new position to recruit diverse staff

First in The Early: The White House is adding Claudia Chavez to the Office of Presidential Personnel, where she'll be special assistant to the president for candidate recruitment. It's a new position created to bolster the efforts of the administration — which is already historically diverse — to recruit staffers from underrepresented communities.

Chavez will lead what was previously known as the “priority placement” team, working with lawmakers, other elected officials, unions and other outside groups to recruit diverse staffers. She was previously the Education Department's White House liaison and is also a Biden campaign alumna.

The Media

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