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Grand Chessboard Update: Chance and Challenge

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Ukraine vainly fears the termination of the US sanctions policy on Russia

Ukrainian and Russian media outlets reacted sharply to the news that a new US administration is likely to lift sanctions that now block the completion of construction, licensing, and commissioning of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Ukrainian news agencies reacted, of course, with sadness, Russian reacted with hope. Everyone seemed to hasten.

The far-reaching conclusions were drawn from a commentary by Nicholas Burns, Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser during his presidential campaign, to the Handelsblatt German business newspaper. He admitted that he had recommended that the next US president suspend US sanctions against Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, provided that the completion of the 94% prepared project would also be suspended: “The Europeans must cease the construction, and the Americans must suspend the sanctions. This would give the new US administration the opportunity to confidentially and calmly speak with the German government and other countries involved in the project.”

So, it is not about Biden’s position, but still about Burns’ position. And whether the 46th president will listen to him is a completely different question.

US sanctions against Nord Stream 2 are set out in the second consecutive US defence budget. In the 2021 version, the sanctions apply not only to companies engaged in construction, but also to companies providing insurance and certification services, as well as those that can upgrade or provide welding equipment to ships involved in construction. The defence budget is approved by a majority of both Congress chambers, and the White House head’s ability to change something is very limited, although the document contains a note that the president can lift sanctions against individuals if the interests of national security require so.

In 2016, Biden, as vice president in the Obama administration, said that Nord Stream 2 was a bad deal for Europe since no country should use energy as a weapon. In addition, Russia’s actions during Donald Trump’s presidency have not changed; they became even more daring. Let us run back over at least the massive cyberattack on US government agencies, recently mentioned by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr, or a series of attacks on political opponents of the Russian regime in Europe. Putin has in no way deserved such encouragement from the United States as the lifting of sensitive sanctions.

On the other hand, Biden is interested in restoring the mutual trust with European allies, which the Americans lost under the Trump administration. He fully shares Barack Obama’s approach, who considered a common Western front against the Kremlin’s efforts to ignore and deliberately violate international norms as the most effective policy for national and global security. This implies a transition from isolationism and conflict-coercive relations with partners to a respectful coordination of common positions, in fact, a return to close cooperation with Europe and allies in other regions, which existed during Obama’s presidency. Nicholas Burns’ proposals to his boss clearly fit into this framework.

That is, the new US administration will expand its diplomatic arsenal, being a sign of strengthening, not weakening, of this arsenal. Biden and his entourage will have to spend a lot of time in Europe listening to and convincing their colleagues, but this is their usual job.

Will this affect the interests of Ukraine? Both Biden and the closest circle of experts he appointed to senior positions have repeatedly proved that they perfectly understand Ukraine’s role in the European security system and in resisting Russia’s aggressive attempts. Antony Blinken, a nominee for the position of Secretary of State, insisted in his public statements on increasing pressure on Russia to make it stop aggression against Ukraine. By the way, he was an active supporter of providing the Ukrainian army with lethal weapons. William Burns, a diplomat who is likely to head the CIA, said in one of his texts that relations between the United States and Russia are doomed to be “competitive and hostile” and that the United States must pursue a tough policy of sanctions pressure, strengthen Europe’s confidence in NATO, and focus on Ukraine, “as its fate is crucial to the future of Europe and Russia.”

However, we should understand that it is impossible to count on the fact that Ukraine’s interests, including the future of Nord Stream 2, will be taken into account by the new US administration automatically, as those arising from the previous experience and views of people who will determine the US policy in the coming years. Ukraine’s voice must be heard, its position must be clear and balanced, and this requires the systematic work of the political leadership and Ukrainian diplomacy. A grand update of the international chessboard is both a challenge and a new opportunity to take advantage of.

Leonid Shvets

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