WASHINGTON — The White House said Wednesday it invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to meet President Joe Biden next month, but the visit will come later than Kyiv had hoped, reinforcing a perception in Ukraine that a country pressured by the last U.S. president is also getting less than favored treatment from the new one.
Zelenskyy had publicly appealed for an in-person meeting with Biden before Biden's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June. Instead, Zelenskyy got a phone call with Biden and tweeted afterward that he had been invited to visit the White House in July.
But no July meeting in the Oval Office took place, and the session is now set for Aug. 30, the White House announced. Administration officials, meanwhile, denied accusations that they had warned Ukraine against public criticism of Biden's handling of a controversial Russian gas pipeline or postponed any meeting between the leaders.
Ukraine had high expectations for the Biden presidency after contending with demands from former President Donald Trump, who held up military aid while asking Zelenskyy's government to dig up dirt on the Biden family to help win re-election. The episode led to the first impeachment of Trump, who was acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate in February 2020, and dragged Ukraine into America's bitter partisan politics.
But Biden stunned Ukraine this May when his administration chose to waive sanctions against the company and CEO overseeing the construction of a Russian gas pipeline to Europe, a project vehemently opposed by Ukraine and its Eastern European neighbors.
Despite repeated objections from Ukraine, as well as a bipartisan group of lawmakers, Biden held off on moving ahead with the sanctions designed to prevent the completion of the project, known as Nord Stream 2. The administration said the move would allow time to work out a compromise agreement with Germany, which has supported the pipeline.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration and Germany announced a deal aimed at softening the blow of the pipeline that will bypass Ukraine, but the agreement immediately came under fierce criticism in Kyiv and elsewhere.
Opponents of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, including Ukraine and Poland, blasted the deal on Wednesday, saying it would leave Kyiv vulnerable to Russian coercion.
In a joint statement, Ukraine and Poland said the deal had "significantly deepened" the "crisis."
"Unfortunately, the hitherto proposals to cover the resulting security deficit cannot be considered sufficient to effectively limit the threats created by NS2 [Nord Stream 2]," the statement said. "We call on the United States and Germany to adequately address the security crisis in our region, that Russia is the only beneficiary to."
Biden administration officials defended the agreement and their approach to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, denying accusations they had tried to pressure Kyiv to refrain from publicly criticizing the deal or lobbying against it in Congress.
U.S. officials have said they wanted to avoid disrupting relations with a key ally, Germany, which has supported the pipeline.
By bypassing Ukraine, the pipeline will deprive Kyiv of lucrative transit fees for gas transported across its territory.
The Biden administration said Wednesday the deal with Germany would help alleviate the effect of the pipeline on Ukraine and would include investments in "green energy" in Ukraine.
John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said Kyiv felt "a sense of betrayal" over its treatment by Biden, particularly after what it went through during Trump's tenure.
"This is a very weak diplomatic performance by the Biden administration," said Herbst, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. "In five months of negotiations [with Germany], they got nothing."
The White House said Biden looked forward to welcoming Zelenskyy to Washington in August and that "the visit will affirm the United States' unwavering support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia's ongoing aggression" in Eastern Ukraine, as well cooperation on "energy security" and support for Zelenskyy's "efforts to tackle corruption."
According to Herbst and two congressional aides with direct knowledge of the matter, administration officials in recent days warned Ukraine not to publicly bash the U.S.-German deal and to avoid arguing against the agreement in meetings with members of Congress.
"They were told to keep quiet and swallow it," Herbst said.
Zelenskyy's visit in August will take place when Congress will likely not be in session.
Officials strongly denied the account that the meeting had been initially planned for earlier in the summer or that it had been delayed due to friction between the two governments over the pipeline.
Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the administration had never asked Ukraine to stay silent on Nord Stream 2.
"I want to repeat that here we have taken zero action to silence Ukraine. Ukraine is a sovereign nation and will speak out itself with regard to this," Nuland told the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During the Obama administration, Nuland was a senior diplomat overseeing Ukraine policy after Russia’s incursion into the country’s Crimean peninsula.
Under the U.S. deal with Germany, Nuland said Berlin has committed to taking action if Russia tried "to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine."
"Germany will take actions at the national level and press for effective measures at the European level, including sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector," Nuland said.
The U.S. and Germany will support an extension of the existing $3 billion annual gas transit agreement between Russia and Ukraine beyond 2024, Nuland said. Washington will "seek and press for and use leverage to try to seek an additional 10 years," she said.
But it was unclear how the Biden administration and Germany could persuade Russia to extend the current gas transit contract that expires in three years.
"Look, this is a bad situation and a bad pipeline but we need to help protect Ukraine, and I feel that we have made some significant steps in that direction with this agreement," Nuland told lawmakers.
Under the deal, Germany also agreed to invest in a new $1 billion fund to help Ukraine shift to cleaner sources of energy and improve its energy security.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, who has placed a hold on all State Department nominees until the Biden administration sanctions the pipeline company and its CEO, said he was not persuaded by the administration's arguments.
"This is a generational geopolitical mistake that decades from now future Russian dictators will be reaping billions of dollars of benefits annually from," Cruz said at a Senate hearing. "And will be using that pipeline to exert economic blackmail on Europe decades from now."
The U.S.-German deal will not change Cruz's stance and he had no plans to lift the hold on all State Department nominees, according to a source familiar with the senator's views on the issue. There are dozens of nominees in the pipeline for Senate confirmation for State Department posts.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who had called on the Biden administration to take action to prevent the completion of the pipeline, said she was not convinced the U.S.-German agreement would be effective.
"While I look forward to being briefed by the administration on the final details of the agreement, I'm skeptical that it will be sufficient when the key player at the table — Russia — refuses to play by the rules," Shaheen said in a statement.
As officials from Germany and the United States worked to hammer out the final outlines of the deal over the past week, senior State Department official Derek Chollet paid a visit to Ukraine on Tuesday to discuss the agreement.
At a State Department briefing with reporters, spokesperson Ned Price said it was clear that sanctions would not succeed in stopping the pipeline's construction, and that is why the administration decided it was not in the United States' interest to weaken "the relationship we have with our ally Germany" over the project.
Members of the Greens party in Germany called the U.S.-German agreement "a bitter setback for climate protection" that would hurt Ukraine and help Putin.
"At a time when Putin is putting massive rhetorical and military pressure on Ukraine and once again questioning the country's sovereignty, Washington and Berlin are sending the wrong signals to Moscow," said Oliver Krischer, vice-chairman of the party's parliamentary group, and Manuel Sarrazin, spokesman for Eastern European policy, Reuters reported.
In a joint statement, the U.S. and Germany said they are "steadfast in their support for Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence, and chosen European path."