President Biden vowed Monday that a major European energy pipeline would be abandoned if Russia sends forces into Ukraine, intensifying pressure on the Kremlin as Western leaders attempt to stave off a renewed assault on the continent’s eastern edge.
But Germany has stopped short of explicitly promising to halt the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 project, which would bring Russian gas to energy-hungry European consumers. On Monday, Scholz said only that his country was “absolutely united” with the United States and other NATO allies, “and we will not be taking different steps.”
Biden, in contrast, told reporters at the White House that “if Russia invades, that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine again, there will be no longer Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.”
Asked how he could be sure, since it would be officials in Berlin, not Washington, who would make the decision, Biden told a journalist: “I promise you, we’ll be able to do it.”
Biden’s meeting with Scholz came on the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron concluded five hours of talks in Moscow, another in a flurry of high-level encounters that reflect the stakes of a showdown officials are calling the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War.
Putin accused Western nations, rather than Russia, of aggression, saying the movement of U.S. and European troops and weaponry into Eastern Europe and the promise that former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia can join the NATO military alliance pose a threat to Russian security.
“It’s not us moving toward NATO,” he said at a news conference. “It’s NATO moving toward us.”
Putin suggested there could be common ground between Russia and the West on security proposals that the United States and NATO hope could serve as an off-ramp to the current standoff. But he also reiterated Moscow’s insistence on what it sees as its core security demands.
NATO leaders have ruled out any changes to the alliance’s “open-door” policy, which could allow Ukraine to join, or any reversal of its deployments in Eastern Europe. In fact, France, the United States, Britain and Germany have vowed to dispatch additional troops.
If war breaks out between Russia and NATO, Putin warned, there would be “no winners.”
U.S. officials have made a grim assessment of the potential for up to 50,000 civilian casualties if Russia invades, raising the possibility of a fast seizure of the capital Kyiv. After a months-long buildup of Russian troops and weaponry, military analysts say that Moscow has moved units closer to Ukraine’s borders, and dispatched a flotilla of warships including six amphibious assault vessels to the Mediterranean Sea ahead of planned naval drills.
The continued maneuvers, and the lack of a diplomatic breakthrough, have fueled fears that the window for a peaceful resolution is narrowing. While U.S. and European officials have warned that Moscow will pay a massive cost in sanctions if it invades Ukraine, it is not clear how much the specter of economic reprisal could sway Russia’s calculus.
Speaking at a post-midnight news conference after his meeting with Putin, Macron called the coming days “decisive,” saying Russia and NATO nations would both benefit from joint measures on military exercises and other security issues that Moscow has labeled “secondary.”
The French leader appeared determined to strike a mediating tone, at one point referring to Russia as a “neighbor and friend.”
“We must consider what you have expressed,” Macron said, addressing Putin and citing “successive misunderstandings, the traumas that have certainly been built up over the last three decades.”
Macron is trying to revive the stalled 2015 Minsk peace agreement, a deal brokered by Berlin and Paris that has failed to end the eight-year war in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv’s forces and two Russian-backed separatist regions.
A French government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Moscow talks, said the two leaders agreed on some points, including on an “agreement for a structured dialogue on collective security” and “commitment to not take new military initiatives.” It was not clear what such a commitment might entail.
The French leader will travel to Kyiv on Tuesday to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Scholz is set to travel to Kyiv on Feb. 14 and to Moscow a day later.
While leaders in the United States and Europe have emphasized trans-Atlantic unity in responding to Russia’s buildup, the crisis has also exposed differences about how best to respond.
Germany in particular has appeared out of step with many allies as it holds back from supplying Ukraine with weapons and declines to make explicit promises about the Nord Stream project. The 764-mile pipeline would significantly increase Russian gas supplies to Europe, bringing consumers lower-priced energy.
Scholz, who is facing internal and external criticism over his muted response to the crisis, characterized the buildup around Ukraine as a “serious threat to European security.”
If Russia invades, he said, Germany and its allies “will do the same steps, and they will be very, very hard to Russia.”
The pipeline deal has been the focus of debate in Congress over a package of sanctions aimed at Moscow, with Republicans arguing that the Biden administration needs to take a tougher stance with Germany on going into business with Russia.
Earlier Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Mminister Dmytro Kuleba, speaking at a news conference after meeting with his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, acknowledged significant differences between Germany and Ukraine but pledged “to find a common ground.”
Among other things, Ukraine has decried Germany’s refusal to supply lethal weapons to Kyiv and its decision to block other countries from transferring German arms and equipment to Ukraine, which is based on a policy barring the export of weapons of German origin to crisis regions. So far, Germany has offered Kyiv 5,000 protective helmets.
Kuleba said their conversation was not just about “what Germany cannot do for one reason or another,” but also about what Germany “can do and intends to do” to support Ukraine.
“I think that today we have found common ground and a draft solution,” he said. “Now I will wait for the steps of the German government.”
Baerbock acknowledged that economic sanctions against Russia could have financial repercussions in other countries, but said Berlin was prepared “to pay a high economic price” because Ukraine’s security “was at stake.”
Biden praised Germany during Scholz’s first visit to the White House, noting its military capability, its hosting of American troops and its economic support for Ukraine.
“Germany is completely reliable, completely, totally, thoroughly reliable,” he said. “I have no doubt about Germany at all.”
The president urged American citizens to depart Ukraine ahead of a potential conflict. “I’d hate to see them get caught in the crossfire if, in fact, they did invade,” he said, referring to Russia. The State Department has already ordered diplomatic families to depart Ukraine and given nonessential staff the option to leave.
Russian officials have dismissed recent U.S. intelligence reports that Putin has in place about 70 percent of the combat forces needed for a full-scale attack on the Ukrainian capital, calling the reports “madness and scaremongering.”
Even so, satellite imagery and other intelligence indicate Putin has massed more than 100,000 troops and equipment on the border with Ukraine — one Western security official put the troop strength at 130,000 — potentially positioning for what could become the largest land offensive in Europe since World War II.
U.S. officials are also concerned that a massive Russian-Belarusian military exercise, set to begin Thursday, could be used as part of a multipronged invasion of Ukraine. As part of the exercise, Russian troops and equipment have traveled more than 6,000 miles to Belarus and Russia has deployed advanced missile systems, fighter planes and bombers. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been playing a key role in Russia’s saber-rattling against Ukraine.
The crisis has also revealed varying assessments of the threat that Russia may pose.
Echoing a more cautious Ukrainian message, Kuleba tweeted Sunday that people should not believe “apocalyptic predictions” but said the country was ready for any outcome. “Today, Ukraine has a strong army, unprecedented international support and Ukrainians’ faith in their country,” he said.
Former Ukraine defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said Sunday the situation looked “pretty dire,” with sufficient Russian forces in place to seize Kyiv or another Ukrainian city, although not enough to occupy the entire country.
“Russia could now seize any city in Ukraine,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “But we still don’t see the 200,000 troops needed for a full-scale invasion.”
British Deputy Foreign Secretary James Cleverly noted Monday that while the alliance was broadly united in its desire to deter a Russian invasion, there were some differences, which he said were understandable.
“We need to be realistic about the fact that different countries have different levels of exposure to or dependence on Russia economically,” he said. “The whole point of an alliance is you don’t just ignore or gloss over those differences.”
Pannett reported from Sydney. Ellen Nakashima, Karen DeYoung and Souad Mekhennet in Washington and David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.