U.S. slaps sanctions on Nord Stream 2, project’s opponents say not enough

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration on Friday slapped sanctions on one Russian vessel and two Russian individuals involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but opponents of nearly-completed project said the move would do little to stop it.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the administration has now sanctioned a total of seven persons and identified 16 of their vessels as blocked property under sanctions law passed by Congress.

U.S. President Joe Biden separately issued an executive order on Friday allowing for sanctions to be imposed with respect to certain Russian energy export pipelines.

But opponents of the $11 billion project to bring Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea said the new sanctions were not strong enough.

“These sanctions do nothing to halt Nord Stream 2,” said Daniel Vajdich, president of Yorktown Solutions, which advises the Ukrainian energy industry on the matter.

Biden has opposed the pipeline, like the previous two U.S. presidents, because it bypasses Ukraine, likely depriving it of lucrative gas transit fees and potentially undermining its struggle against Russian aggression.

But in May the U.S. State Department waived two sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the company behind the project, and its chief executive, Matthias Warning, a Putin ally.

Biden has sought to repair U.S. relations with Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, as he needs the ally’s help on everything from the economy to relations with China and Iran.

“The only thing that can stop NS2 from becoming operational is lifting the waivers and sanctioning … Nord Stream AG, which they refuse to do,” Vajdich said.

Nord Stream 2, led by Russian state energy company Gazprom and its Western partners, is almost complete with only 9 miles (15 km) left to construct, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday.

ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group, estimated it could be completed by September 3.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann; editing by Chris Reese, Kirsten Donovan)

Head of Belarusian exile group found hanged in Ukraine, police open murder case

By Ilya Zhegulev and Margaryta Chornokondratenko

KYIV (Reuters) – Vitaly Shishov, an exiled Belarusian activist who was found hanged in a park in Kyiv in what police say could have been a murder, was an outspoken critic of the government in Belarus and staged rallies against it in Ukraine’s capital.

After leaving Belarus last autumn during huge anti-government protests that he took part in, the 26-year-old set up and led a Kyiv-based organization that helped Belarusians fleeing a sprawling crackdown on dissent.

Shishov, who was sporty and a boxing enthusiast, was sure he was under surveillance in Kyiv and he outed purported Belarusian agents at rallies, friends and colleagues said.

“He would photograph the person, film him and after that it wasn’t too hard to find him online,” Denis Stadzhi, a Belarusian journalist and diaspora member, told Reuters.

Police say his death was either a suicide or a murder made to look like a suicide. His colleagues accuse the Belarusian security services of murdering him. Authorities in Minsk have not commented.

Shishov was a fierce critic of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko whose declared win at last year’s elections sparked mass protests. Shishov described him in one post as a “bloodthirsty monster” and a “dictator”.

In Kyiv, he set up the Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU) together with a Latvian national. The group helps fleeing Belarusians find accommodation, jobs and legal advice. Kyiv has become a haven for Belarusians fleeing the crackdown.

Shishov’s group staged rallies and were involved in opposition events like a sit-in outside the Belarusian embassy and an event to commemorate Belarusian post-Soviet independence.

Ihor, 24, a group member who declined to give his surname, said the group had written manuals to help Belarusians settle in and legalize themselves.

“He didn’t shy away from anything. He advised people on how to leave Belarus, he organized food aid… He wrote posts with information, articles. He did everything,” he said.

“Vitaly was being followed… There was a case when a car followed him straight out of Kyiv. They noticed the tail, made a detour and saw that it really was following them,” he said.

Yuri Shchuchko, a close friend and activist, told Reuters that Shishov had run several channels on Telegram messenger that Belarus has labelled “extremist”. He said some of those related to a movement that “intended to struggle against the Lukashenko regime using not the most peaceful methods”.

Shishov was reported missing by his partner on Monday after failing to return home from a run.

“When a man is a warrior, he is ready for death,” Shchuchko said. “Judging from what I know about Vitaly, he was ready for the fight, he was a warrior, he suppressed his fear and that’s why went out for jogging (in the wood).”

Shchuchko said he had identified Shishov’s body and that a police officer at the site had said Shishov had a broken nose.

Police later said he did not have a broken nose, but there were abrasions on his nose and knee. It said a proper examination was needed to determine if he had been beaten.

(Additional reporting by Sergiy Karazy and Natalia Zinets; Writing by Tom Balmforth, Editing by William Maclean)

Ukrainian president fires head of the armed forces, citing disputes

KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has dismissed the head of the armed forces, Ruslan Khomchak, his spokesman said at a briefing on Tuesday, citing tensions between the armed forces and the defense ministry.

Khomchak will be moved to a post on the national security and defense council. He will be replaced by Valery Zaluzhny, who heads the military’s northern command. Ukrainian troops have fought Russian-backed separatists in a conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014.

“Commander-in-Chief Ruslan Khomchak is leaving his post, this is the president’s decision,” Zelenskiy’s spokesman Sergii Nykyforov told a briefing.

“The president wants to see synergy between the ministry of defense and the armed forces of Ukraine, but unfortunately we do not see synergy, but on the contrary we see conflicts.”

The Ukrainian media in recent months have reported disputes between the defense ministry and Khomchak. Khomchak in March denied any rift: telling the news outlet gordon.ua: “Here is a working relationship where everyone has his own opinion, they can argue, they can discuss, they can come to something.”

Ukraine has urged its Western backers to speed up its entry into the NATO military alliance as a deterrent against Russia, though NATO members say Kyiv must reform its armed forces and tackle corruption to be able to apply.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Barbara Lewis)

U.S., Germany deal on Nord Stream 2 pipeline draws ire of lawmakers in both countries

By Andrea Shalal and Andreas Rinke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and Germany will unveil a deal on Wednesday that maps out consequences for Russia if it uses the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to harm Ukraine or other Eastern European countries, but the deal faces opposition in both countries.

The agreement, hammered out by senior U.S. and German officials and first reported by Reuters on Monday, will resolve a long-standing dispute over the $11 billion pipeline, now 98% complete, being built under the Baltic Sea to carry gas from Russia’s Arctic region to Germany.

U.S. officials continue to oppose the pipeline, but say the accord would mitigate the possibility of Russia using energy as a weapon against Ukraine and other countries in the region.

Sources said Germany also agreed to take potential unspecified actions against Russia if it cut off energy supplies to Ukraine, in addition to seeking European Union sanctions, but details about those actions – or what specific behavior by Russia would trigger them – were not immediately available.

Germany would also contribute to a new $1 billion fund aimed at improving Ukraine’s energy independence, including through investments in green hydrogen, according to the sources.

Reports about the agreement drew immediate jeers from lawmakers in both Germany and the United States.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who has been holding up President Joe Biden’s ambassadorial nominations over his concerns about Nord Stream 2, said the reported agreement would be “a generational geopolitical win for Putin and a catastrophe for the United States and our allies.”

Cruz and other lawmakers are furious at Biden for waiving congressionally mandated sanctions against the pipeline.

The agreement will avert, for now, the resumption of sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG and its chief executive. Biden waived those sanctions in May to allow time for both sides to negotiate a way forward.

Some U.S. lawmakers have already introduced an amendment that would prevent the Biden administration from continuing to waive the sanctions, although the prospects for passage remain uncertain.

U.S. officials have sought to reassure lawmakers that the Biden administration will reserve the right to use sanctions on a case-by-case basis, in line with U.S. law.

In Germany, top members of the environmentalist Greens party, called the reported agreement “a bitter setback for climate protection” that would benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin and weaken Ukraine.

“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.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Andreas Rinke and Simon Lewis; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Merkel, Biden face tough talks on Russian gas pipeline, China

By Andreas Rinke and Joseph Nasr

BERLIN (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joe Biden hold talks at the White House on Thursday that experts say are unlikely to yield major breakthroughs on divisive issues like a Russian gas pipeline to Germany and a U.S. push to counterbalance China.

Both sides have said they want to reset ties strained during the presidency of Donald Trump. Yet their positions on the most divisive issues remain far apart.

Merkel has rejected opposition from the United States and eastern European neighbors to the almost completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline which they fear Russia could use to cut out Ukraine as a gas transit route, depriving Kyiv of lucrative income and undermining its struggle with Moscow-backed eastern separatists.

And during her 16 years in power, she has worked hard for closer German and European economic ties with China, which the Biden administration sees as a global threat that it wants to counter with a joint front of democratic countries.

“The problem for the U.S. is that Merkel has the upper hand, because she has decided that the status quo in the trans-Atlantic relationship is good enough for Germany,” said Ulrich Speck, an independent foreign policy analyst. “Biden by contrast needs to win over Germany for his new China strategy.”

Officials from both sides are engaged in intense discussions to resolve the issue and stave off the reimposition of sanctions that Biden waived in May. Biden has opposed the project, but he is also facing increasing pressure from U.S. lawmakers to reimpose sanctions.

“Nord Stream 2 is the area where you most realistically can expect progress,” said Thorsten Benner of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi). “Merkel may hope to get away with providing guarantees for Ukraine’s continued role as a gas transit country and a vague snapback mechanism that would kick in if Russia seeks to cut transit through Ukraine.”

A senior U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Biden would underscore his opposition when he meets with Merkel, but the waiver had given diplomatic space for both sides to “address the negative impacts of the pipeline”.

“Our teams are continuing to discuss how we can credibly and concretely ensure that Russia cannot use energy as a coercive tool to disrupt Ukraine, eastern flank allies or other states,” the official said.

Merkel, who will step down after an election in September, vowed during a news conference on Monday with visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that Germany and the European Union will guarantee Ukraine’s status as a transit country.

“We promised Ukraine and will keep our promise,” said Merkel. “It is my custom to keep my word and I believe this applies to every future chancellor.”

The issue of China is more complicated.

Merkel was an advocate of an investment pact between the European Union and China struck late last year on the eve of Biden taking office, and she has been criticized for not facing up to Beijing on human rights violations in Hong Kong and against a Muslim minority in Xinjiang, which the United States has labelled a genocide.

“There will likely be a joint call by Biden and Merkel for China to step up its efforts on carbon reduction and global health, maybe a reference to the need to further open the Chinese market,” Benner said. “But don’t expect anything from Merkel that will remotely look like there is a joint trans-Atlantic front on China.”

The two countries also remain at odds over a proposed temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to help increase production of COVID-19 vaccines, a measure backed by Washington, and the United States’ refusal to ease travel restrictions on visitors from Europe.

(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington; Writing by Joseph Nasr; editing by David Evans)

Lukashenko orders closure of Belarus border with Ukraine – BelTA

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Belarus’ leader Alexander Lukashenko on Friday ordered the closure of the border with Ukraine, seeking to block what he called an inflow of weapons to coup-plotters detected by his security services, BelTA state news agency reported.

The move appears to deepen a standoff between Belarus and outside powers angered by his government’s forcing down of a Ryanair flight in May and arrest of a government critic who was on the aircraft.

Western countries imposed sanctions on Belarus to punish it for the action, and the European Union and Ukraine have also banned Belarus-registered flights from entering their airspace.

Lukashenko, who has repeatedly accused Western ill-wishers of trying to oust him from power, said rebel groups that were planning to carry out a coup had been uncovered in Belarus.

Speaking at a gathering marking the country’s Independence Day, the veteran leader said Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and the United States were behind the alleged rebel activity, BelTA reported.

“A huge amount of weapons is coming from Ukraine to Belarus. That’s why I ordered border-security forces to fully close the border with Ukraine,” Lukashenko said.

Belarus shares a border with Ukraine in the south. It borders Poland and Lithuania in the west, Latvia in the north, and Russia in the east.

The move to shut borders with Ukraine comes days after Belarus recalled its permanent representative to the European Union for consultations after Brussels imposed economic sanctions.

But Lukashenko, who was also sanctioned by the West for a sweeping political crackdown, is seen largely unscathed by the penalties and able to continue financing the economy and his security forces, rating agencies and analysts have said.

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Toby Chopra, Editing by William Maclean)

Russia warns UK and U.S. not to tempt fate in Black Sea

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia warned Britain and the United States on Friday against “tempting fate” by sending warships to the Black Sea, and said it would defend its borders using all possible means including military force.

In a statement broadcast on state television, the Defense Ministry said it was ill-advised for British and U.S. vessels to approach the coast of Crimea, a peninsula Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

“We call on the Pentagon and the British navy, which are sending their warships into the Black Sea, not to tempt fate in vain,” Major General Igor Konashenkov, the ministry’s spokesperson, said.

HMS Defender, a British destroyer that sailed through waters off Crimea on Wednesday, was “not more than a target” for the Black Sea fleet’s defenses, he said.

Russia considers Crimea part of its territory, but the peninsula is internationally recognized as part of Ukraine.

Russia said on Wednesday it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British warship to chase it out of Black Sea waters off the coast of Crimea.

Britain rejected Russia’s account of the incident. It said it believed any shots fired were a pre-announced Russian “gunnery exercise”, and that no bombs had been dropped.

It confirmed HMS Defender had sailed through what it said were waters belonging to Ukraine.

The British embassy in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgian the South Caucasus, wrote on Twitter on Friday that HMS Defender was set to arrive in the port city of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said separately that Washington and London were sowing strife by failing to accept Crimea was part of Russia, and that Russia was ready to defend its borders using all means, including military force.

Moscow warned Britain on Thursday that it would bomb British naval vessels in the Black Sea if what it called provocative actions by the British navy were repeated off the Crimean coast.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said separately on Friday that it was beginning joint navy and air force exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, where Moscow operates an air base on Syria’s coast.

(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Alexander Marrow and Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Editing by Katya Golubkova, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean)

Russia says it chases British destroyer out of Crimea waters with warning shots, bombs

By Maria Kiselyova and Andrew MacAskill

MOSCOW/LONDON (Reuters) -Russia said on Wednesday it had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British warship to chase it out of waters Moscow claims in the Black Sea off the coast of the Crimea peninsula.

Britain rejected Russia’s account of the incident, saying it believed any shots fired were a pre-announced Russian “gunnery exercise,” and that no bombs had been dropped. But it confirmed that its destroyer, HMS Defender, had sailed through what it described as waters belonging to Ukraine.

The ship was “conducting an innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “It’s incorrect to say either that it was fired upon or that the ship was in Russian waters.”

Military experts said that whether or not the details of the Russian or British accounts were accurate, the incident appeared to represent an escalation in confrontation between the West and Russia over disputed sea lanes.

Russia’s foreign ministry called the passage of the British warship through the area an act of “blatant provocation” and said it would summon the British ambassador over the incident.

Russia seized and annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and considers areas around the peninsula’s coast to be Russian waters. Western countries deem the Crimea part of Ukraine and reject Russia’s claim to the seas around it.

“Innocent passage” is an internationally recognized right for ships to sail through territorial waters of a country provided they mean no harm.

“This was done to test Russian resolve over Crimea,” Mark Gray, a maritime security specialist and a retired colonel with Britain’s Royal Marines, told Reuters.

“Russia is trying to create facts on the ground and get them respected internationally, so that their annexation is in effect rubber-stamped by the world,” he said, comparing Moscow’s Black Sea claims to those of Beijing in the South China Sea, also rejected by the West.

“Nonetheless, the Russian response is extraordinarily robust, a tad undiplomatic and way over the top.”

SEA BREEZE

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the incident showed that Russia’s “aggressive and provocative policies” in the Black Sea and nearby Azov Sea constituted a “continuous threat to Ukraine and its allies.” In a tweet, Kuleba called for more cooperation between NATO and Ukraine in the Black Sea.

Western countries are conducting naval exercises this week in the Black Sea known as Sea Breeze. Hours before the incident, Russia’s embassy in Washington had called on the United States and allies to cancel them.

The British destroyer visited the Ukrainian port of Odessa this week, where an agreement was signed for Britain to help upgrade Ukraine’s navy.

Russia’s defense ministry, quoted by Interfax news agency, said the British destroyer had left Russian waters soon after Russia fired the warning shots. A Russian bomber dropped four high explosive fragmentation bombs in its path, it said.

The Russian ministry said the British ship had ventured as far as 3 kilometers (2 miles) into Russian waters near Cape Fiolent, a landmark on Crimea’s southern coast near the port of Sevastopol, headquarters of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet.

“The destroyer had been warned that weapons would be used if it trespasses the border of the Russian Federation. It did not react to the warning,” the ministry said.

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov, Pavel Polityuk, Andrew MacAskill, William James and Jonathan SaulWriting by Olzhas Auyezov and Peter GraffEditing by Mark Heinrich and Gareth Jones)

Judge sees evidence of Buk missile being used in downing of MH17 airliner

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – A judge in the Dutch murder trial over the downing of a Malaysian airliner over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in 2014 said on Tuesday there was evidence the airplane was hit by an outside explosion caused by a Russian-made Buk missile.

Judges on Tuesday started reading out the evidence in the trial in the Netherlands against four fugitive suspects – three Russians and a Ukrainian citizen – accused of shooting down the plane on July 17 2014 and killing all 298 people on board.

Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed in a field in territory held by pro-Russian separatists fighting against Ukrainian forces after being shot down with what international investigators say was a Russian surface-to-air missile.

“Experts have stated that the impact on the hull [of the plane] is compatible with a Buk missile system and a Buk warhead. No damage was found that would not be compatible with that scenario, or that would indicate another scenario,” judge Hendrik Steenhuis said.

After years of collecting evidence, a team of international investigators concluded in May 2018 that the missile launcher used to shoot down the aircraft belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.

The Dutch government holds Moscow responsible. Russia denies any involvement.

The four suspects are standing trial in absentia. After a year of mostly procedural hearings, judges announced the start of the evidence phase on Monday.

This week the panel of judges will specifically look to determine what type of missile hit the airplane, where it was fired from and whether the four suspects can be held responsible.

“Today, it is about: was it a Buk missile or not?,” Hans de Borst, who lost his daughter in the crash, said before the hearing.

“I think the question is already answered but the court is now really answering it, so it’s important.”

(Reporting by Bart Meijer and Bart Biesemans, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Bitter week for families as evidence to be read in MH17 airliner trial

By Stephanie van den Berg

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -Judges in the Netherlands will begin reading out the evidence this week in the murder trial against four fugitive suspects accused of shooting down a Malaysian airliner over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in 2014 and killing 298 people in 2014.

Victims’ relatives said they were expecting the testimony to bring up painful memories, but that they were grateful for a chance to hear at last what had happened aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

The flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed in a field in territory held by pro-Russian separatists fighting against Ukrainian forces, after being shot down with what international investigators say was a Russian surface-to-air missile.

Three Russians and a Ukrainian citizen, all suspected of having key roles in the separatist forces, are on trial for murder. Moscow has refused to extradite those in Russia.

One of the Russians is mounting a defense from abroad and denies blame, while the others have not appointed lawyers and are not participating.

“It is a very difficult day for us. It is now the first day of the prosecution, and that is difficult for us,” Evert van Zijtveld, who lost his two children Frederique and Robert-Jan and his wife’s parents, told journalists as he walked into court.

After a year of mostly procedural hearings, judges announced the start of the evidence phase on Monday. From Tuesday the judges will begin summarizing the evidence gathered by investigators in the case, and potentially calling witnesses.

Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said his panel would be looking specifically to determine what type of missile hit the airplane, where it was fired from and whether the four suspects can be held responsible.

“It is taking a long time but we want to know the truth. It is the only thing we can still do for the children,” said Rob Frederiksz, whose 23-year-old son Bryce died along with his girlfriend Daisy in the crash.

After years of collecting evidence, a team of international investigators concluded in May 2018 that the missile launcher used to shoot down the aircraft belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. The Dutch government holds Moscow responsible. Russia denies any involvement.

On Monday the Kremlin said it was following the trial and took note of “alternative information” that could lead to other explanations of the crash from the Dutch prosecutor’s main theory of the Russian-made missile fired by pro-Russian separatists.

“But again, because we are not part of the investigation, we cannot directly influence what is happening,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg, additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow ; Editing by Peter Graff)