Report

Russia Policy Puts Biden Under Pressure Across Europe

Ukraine has the most to gain in Biden’s emerging Russia policy—and the most to lose.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Ukraine.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivers a speech during a joint press statement with the then-Ukrainian president after their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 16, 2017. Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

After four years of U.S. President Donald Trump’s oft-compliant attitude toward Russia, the Biden administration is facing pressure from Capitol Hill and Eastern European allies to harden its stance toward Moscow, following a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin this month in Geneva and efforts by France and Germany to restart a dialogue with Putin. 

For Biden, the problem is that he’s trying to clean up two inherited messes that are at cross-purposes: He needs to repair relations with Germany, America’s main ally in mainland Europe, and chart a more muscular approach to rein in Russia’s malicious behavior. All the while, Ukraine—the country caught in the middle—is trying to figure out which way the United States is leaning.

After four years of U.S. President Donald Trump’s oft-compliant attitude toward Russia, the Biden administration is facing pressure from Capitol Hill and Eastern European allies to harden its stance toward Moscow, following a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin this month in Geneva and efforts by France and Germany to restart a dialogue with Putin. 

For Biden, the problem is that he’s trying to clean up two inherited messes that are at cross-purposes: He needs to repair relations with Germany, America’s main ally in mainland Europe, and chart a more muscular approach to rein in Russia’s malicious behavior. All the while, Ukraine—the country caught in the middle—is trying to figure out which way the United States is leaning.

The first tripwire has been Russia’s controversial gas pipeline project into Germany, Nord Stream 2. Biden has been hammered for withholding some sanctions related the pipeline as he tries to repair relations with Berlin in the post-Trump era. But it also comes as Eastern European officials and Western analysts raise alarm bells about Russia’s refusal to remove military forces near its border with Ukraine after it amassed troops there in April. 

All this could come to a head next month. Biden has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to visit Washington in July, when European officials and congressional aides say they expect the American president to be pressed on U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s low-simmering war with Russian-backed separatists and his policy toward Nord Stream 2. Ahead of the meeting, some analysts fear that Russia might ramp up military pressure on Ukraine again by expanding its military footprint in areas near the Crimean peninsula that could provide a launch point for a larger military incursion, allowing the Russians to quickly escalate again. 

“The Russians actually have not pulled back the troops, they have moved closer to the Ukrainian border in Crimea, it’s just a part that they have moved back, but it’s hardly significant,” said Kaimo Kuusk, the Estonian ambassador to Ukraine. “So they are fooling us once again.” “It’s a strange tension you can feel before the thunderstorm in the air,” Estonian Ambassador to Ukraine Kaimo Kuusk said.

“It’s a strange tension you can feel before the thunderstorm in the air,” Kuusk said.

Biden has moved forward with $275 million in military aid to Ukraine since March, which had previously been approved by Congress, as Russian forces built up along the border. The administration pulled back on plans to send up to $100 million in additional defense equipment to Ukraine as tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border appeared to ebb, officials said. But they remain on edge over the remaining troop presence, fearing Russia could quickly stage a new offensive.

According to satellite images provided to Foreign Policy by Maxar Technologies, Russian forces have left a large residual presence of vehicles and military equipment from the April buildup. Those include major elements of a motorized rifle division, such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery at a training area near Voronezh, Russia, and a smaller buildup along the Black Sea with similar equipment and dozens of troop tents. 

Biden administration officials said that further saber-rattling on the part of Russia could undercut the tenuous progress that Biden and Putin made on easing tensions between their two countries during their summit in Geneva earlier this month.

“The administration has expressed that we desire a relationship that is stable and predictable,” Anton Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesman, told Foreign Policy. “For this to happen, Russia needs to refrain from further aggressive actions. We reiterate our call for Russia to fully implement its Minsk commitments and return full control of Crimea to Ukraine.”

There are signs that the military temperature in the region is continuing to heat up. Earlier this week, a British destroyer that officials said was carrying out a routine transit from Odessa toward Georgia was shadowed by Russian vessels as Moscow’s forces conducted training exercises nearby. Russian officials said they fired warning shots at the ship, HMS Defender, a claim that British officials denied. European diplomats said the Russians have been denying Ukrainian vessels access to the Sea of Azov in order to create an internal lake bordering the occupied Crimean peninsula and western Russia.

Several Eastern European officials said they are also nervous about the Biden administration’s approach to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing Russian gas into Germany. The German government backs the project, which was mostly complete by the time Biden entered office. The company insists the project is a purely commercial venture and will not threaten Europe’s energy security. But Eastern European countries and the United States sharply oppose the pipeline, saying it cuts out Ukraine as a transit hub for gas into Europe—a key source of government revenue for Kyiv—and would give Russia undue leverage over Europe’s energy markets.

A State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy in a written statement that Nord Stream 2 is a “geopolitical project that threatens European energy security and undermines the security of Ukraine and eastern flank NATO Allies and partners,” and said the United States is working to prevent Russia from using energy as a tool to undermine Ukraine.
“Many European governments share our opposition to Nord Stream 2 but oppose U.S. sanctions against European entities,” the State Department spokesperson said. “The Administration’s decision to waive certain sanctions was in line with the President’s commitment to rebuild relations with our European allies.”

While the Biden administration opposes the project and has extended sanctions on Russian entities involved in it, the decision to hold back on sanctioning the company or its CEO behind Nord Stream 2 has led to anger from U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“So President Biden overruled his own State Department again and gave Putin a gift on energy,” Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said of the decision. “I just don’t understand that at all. That really puts the Ukrainians in a bind, but it also puts our Baltic allies, Poland … in a bind.”

And some Democrats have questioned whether the Biden administration has a real game plan to deal with the pipeline. “Does anyone really believe that Putin would not cut off gas flow through Ukraine once Nord Stream is complete?” Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on the Senate floor earlier this month ahead of Biden’s summit with Putin.

The impasse underscores how Nord Stream 2 has become a major thorn in the side of U.S. relations with Europe, as Biden’s olive branch to Germany by waiving sanctions left him in a tough spot. During a trip to Berlin this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the U.S.-German relationship but conceded that both countries still hadn’t reached any agreement on the Nord Stream 2 project. 

“The Biden administration is clearly prioritizing the broader German relationship over [Nord Stream 2], which the [White House] sees as a dead end, it seems,” said Alina Polyakova, head of the Center for European Policy Analysis. “From the U.S. perspective, the administration was handed a bad deal with [Nord Stream 2] almost complete, and this isn’t the [hill] they want to die on.”

Others say that the administration could still have made a final push to kill the pipeline, which won’t be fully operational until later this summer, but didn’t go for the jugular in a bid to rebuild ties with Berlin.

“Biden is taking huge hits politically for this, as he should, but the Germans are giving him nothing,” said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now at the Atlantic Council, who has been an outspoken critic of the pipeline project. He added: “Nord Stream 2 could die tomorrow if we acted smartly.”

In an interview with Der Spiegel this week, Blinken reiterated U.S. opposition to the pipeline and added that the United States could change its stance on sanctions waivers. 

“We’re in very active discussions with the German government right now looking at a series of possible steps, actions, measures that we can take to make sure that the pipeline is not used for negative purposes as a tool of coercion or blackmail,” he said. “The sanctions that we’ve … waived, those waivers can be rescinded. We have to report again to our Congress in about a month’s time. So I hope and expect that we’ll show real results from these conversations.”

The Polish government in May called the U.S. sanctions waivers a threat to European energy security. Zelensky made a similar pronouncement earlier this month, urging Biden to scrap the sanctions waivers. 

“Only the United States and President Biden’s administration can prevent Nord Stream 2 from being completed and commissioned,” Zelensky said. “Nord Stream 2 is not just the energy security that all diplomats and politicians talk about, it is a separate powerful weapon that is being given to the Russian Federation today.”

Staff writer Amy Mackinnon contributed reporting for this story.

Correction, June 25, 2021: This article has been corrected after initially misstating where the Nord Stream 2 company is based.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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