Russian gas shutdown would be “catastrophic” for Europe


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden over the telephone in his office in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP)

The Biden administration is taking the reins in the tense standoff between Russia and Ukraine, coordinating the response to Moscow’s threatening maneuvers in Eastern Europe alongside his European Union counterparts with all the urgency of a Cold War-era crisis.

In the latest sign of that urgency, US President Joe Biden held a “long and frank” phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday, trying to impress upon him the imminent possibility of a Russian invasion. The call came as the Pentagon warned that Russia had ramped up its military presence on the Ukrainian border rapidly in just 24 hours.

Biden told Zelensky that the US and its allies would “respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine,” according to a White House statement, though he did not make clear how. A senior Ukrainian official told CNN that, amid disagreements over the “risk levels” of an attack by Russia, which has amassed more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border, the call “did not go well.” The White House, however, has disputed that account.

Western officials are continuing to push for a diplomatic solution to the tensions, with Biden emerging as the leader in efforts to counter threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Ukraine and NATO.

On Wednesday, the US and NATO submitted separate written responses to Russia’s publicly aired concerns, an overture that Moscow had requested. The Russians, who are demanding that the West promise Ukraine will never join NATO, delivered a muted reaction to the US responses on Thursday, saying there were “few reasons for optimism, but would refrain from conceptual assessments,” casting a cloud over the future of negotiations.

The US is not only leaning on diplomatic efforts, having put 8,500 troops on notice for deployment to Eastern Europe, sending weapons to Ukraine, and threatening to halt the opening of Nord Stream 2, a key pipeline that would send Russian gas to Western Europe.

Here’s what else you need to know today:

  • Speaking to Russian journalists this morning about the US and NATO’s written responses to Moscow’s request for security guarantees, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the American response was “a gold standard of diplomatic courtesy,” while the response from NATO was “full of itself.”
  • In his annual address to the nation, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that the country must “equip its army” for potential war. Russian troops have been pouring into neighboring Belarus for joint-military exercises, “to cover our shout and borders,” Lukashenko said. Ukrainian officials fear they will serve as a “full-fledged theater of operations” from which to launch an attack.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin are due to speak via telephone to discuss tensions over Ukraine. 
  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will take part in an online event on the response of the Western military alliance to tensions in Europe.
  • Ukrainian President Zelensky is scheduled to address foreign media later on.

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