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US to deliver natural gas to Europe, Biden gets close to warzone

Joe Biden spent the second day of his trip to Europe deepening U.S.-EU ties with a deal to ship large volumes of American liquefied natural gas to Europe to replace Russian gas and he traveled to Poland to get close to the Ukraine-Russia war.

(CN) — U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday said the United States will begin shipping large amounts of liquefied natural gas to European nations vowing to wean themselves off cheap Russian gas, the main source of income underpinning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.  

Later Friday, Biden went to Poland where he met with American troops deployed in Poland close to the Ukrainian border and he spoke with war refugees. In the tense weeks before the invasion, Biden sent more than 5,500 additional American troops into NATO’s eastern flank as a message to Putin. Biden has promised to defend all of NATO’s 30 members, but he’s balking at giving NATO an active role in the Ukraine war to avoid sparking a war with Russia.   

As he met with American troops near the Rzeszow airport and spoke with refugees, Biden was only 50 miles away from Ukraine and the most dangerous war in Europe since World War II.   

In Ukraine on Friday, the fighting remained intense in many parts of the country and there were more reports of civilian deaths. Street fighting continued in the devastated city of Mariupol, a key southeastern port on the Sea of Azov where fighting has raged for weeks. Russian forces say they have occupied about 70% of the city and that they’re closing in on Ukrainian forces there, many of them affiliated with the ultranationalist Azov Regiment.  

Ceasefire negotiations between Ukraine and Russia continue, but both sides say they are far from reaching a deal.  

“The negotiation process is very difficult,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “The Ukrainian delegation has taken a strong position and does not relinquish its demands. We insist, first of all, on a ceasefire, security guarantees, and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”  

Russia is demanding Kyiv cede territories now occupied by Russian forces, something Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is unwilling to do. Instead, Zelenskyy continues to urge his compatriots to fight because they are winning the war.  

“With each day of our defense, we are bringing the peace we need so much closer,” Zelenskyy said in a nighttime message after spending Thursday making speeches to Western leaders in Brussels. “We are bringing victory closer because in this war it is simply impossible for us not to win…. If Russia had known what it would face that, I’m sure it would have definitely been afraid to come here.”  

Zelenskyy has become an international hero and for many the model of a wartime leader with his determined video speeches to parliaments and leaders around the world. His former life as an actor and comedian prepared him well for his current role. He even starred in a popular television show as a schoolteacher who becomes Ukraine’s president after a tirade against his country’s corruption goes viral. 

“If, as it is often said, Vietnam was the first war to be fought on television, Russia’s war against Ukraine is the first major war to be fought on social media,” military analysts Graham Allison and Amos Yadlin wrote Thursday in a piece for National Interest. “As Winston Churchill did in the darkest days of Britain’s defiance of the Nazi Blitz, Zelenskyy is courageously rallying his citizens and soldiers to fight the invaders. He is also showing the world what leadership looks like – persuading nations around the globe to provide both material and moral support. Taking a page from Churchill’s defiance of Adolf Hitler’s onslaught, Zelenskyy intends to hang on for as long as possible – hoping against hope for a miracle on the battlefield or that somehow the United States will come to save his country.”  

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A man rides a bicycle as black smoke rises from a Ukrainian army fuel storage facility following a Russian attack on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday, March 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Late Thursday, Zelenskyy delivered another impassioned address, this one to the European Council, a body that includes the leaders of the EU’s 27 states. He blamed the EU for not taking steps in previous years to prevent Russia’s attack and said Ukraine must be admitted into the bloc.  

In the speech, he described Russia and its troops as an evil force similar to the Nazis that kills indiscriminately – children, journalists, the elderly, people hiding in bomb shelters – loots, rapes, kidnaps and commits other horrors.  

“It has already 230 schools and 155 kindergartens. Killed 128 children. Fired missiles at universities. Burns residential neighborhoods with rocket artillery,” Zelenskyy told European leaders and Biden, who was in attendance. “Whole cities, villages. Just to ashes. Nothing remains. The Russian military killed journalists even though they saw the inscription ‘Press’ on them. They may not have been taught to read, only to kill.” 

He said the Ukrainian army, by comparison, is looking after people, caring and fighting with dignity.  

“These are different values. This is a different attitude to life. The Russian military does not see what dignity is. They do not know what conscience is. They do not understand why we value our freedom so much. This is what determines how the country will live,” he said.   

On Friday, Ukraine claimed that at least 300 people died in the bombing of a theater in Mariupol where more than 1,000 people were reportedly sheltering.  

“Unfortunately, we are starting this day with bad news,” city officials said in a statement. “Eyewitnesses have reported that about 300 people died as a result of the bombing of a Russian plane at the Mariupol Drama Theater.”  

Russia has accused Azov Regiment forces of blowing up the theater and Russian media has presented witnesses to back up its version of events.   

Elsewhere, Ukraine claimed that it had retaken some towns, including Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv and that it was attacking Kherson, a southern city that Russian troops have occupied since early in the war.   

Still, Ukrainian forces continue to get hit hard by Russian missiles and artillery. Its most dire situation involves a large group of fighters, numbering up to 60,000, in Donbas, the eastern part of Ukraine, who are losing ground and at risk of being encircled.  

The Kremlin on Friday stepped up its counteroffensive on the propaganda front by rejecting Western claims that its forces have suffered tremendous losses. The Russian General Staff claimed Russia has wiped out much of Ukraine’s military and that Ukrainian forces are running out of missiles, ammunition, food and fuel. Russia has been blowing up fuel and ammunition depots and food storages.   

“The main tasks of the first stage of the operation have been completed,” said Sergei Rudskoi, the chief of the Main Operational Directorate of Russia’s General Staff. “The combat potential of Ukraine's armed forces has been significantly reduced, which allows [us] – I emphasize once again – to focus our main efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas.” 

Donbas makes up eastern parts of Ukraine where fighting erupted in 2014 following the overthrow of a pro-Russian president during the so-called pro-Western “Maidan Revolution.” In launching the invasion, Putin said his forces would “liberate” Donbas from Ukrainian forces, which he called neo-Nazis. Pro-Russian separatists and Russian forces say they have seized most of the areas claimed by the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.  

Mariupol is an important industrial center and port in Donbas and capturing it is a strategic priority for Russia. One of Europe’s largest steelworks, Azovstal, is located in the city and it has come under immense shelling because Ukrainian forces have been holding out inside the plant.  

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A member of the Ukraine territorial defense unit prepares to go to the front line in Yasnogorodk, Ukraine, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Friday, March 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The Russian General Staff also announced that 1,351 Russian soldiers have been killed and 3,825 wounded in the war. By comparison, it said the Ukrainian side has lost about 14,000 troops and about 16,000 have been wounded.  

This statement comes only days after the Pentagon claimed that as many as 15,000 Russian soldiers may have been killed.  

Russia also began indicating that it plans to permanently occupy parts of Ukraine it has seized. It has begun paying pensions in occupied towns and cities, circulating rubles for currency and removing city officials.  

Its media has been talking about how the war may result in a new state called Novorossiya, the name under the Russian empire given to regions that make up parts of today’s eastern and southern Ukraine. 

“I think organizing life according to old Russian patterns is the most optimal form. And this means that Novorossiya should appear on the political map, which will occupy the entire southeast of the former Ukraine,” said Vladimir Konstantinov, the head of the Crimean peninsula on social network, according to Pravda, the Russian news outlet. Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014.  

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Ukraine’s leaders had missed their chance to keep their country intact, according to Pravda. 

“The main chance for Ukraine to exist within its own borders, to keep sovereign Ukraine, independent Ukraine, is have already missed,” she said.  

Putin made another televised statement on Friday where he lashed out at the West, accusing it of seeking to “cancel” Russia in line with its “cancel culture” values.  

“Over and over again in Hollywood, films were released in which the only victors of Nazism were called the United States,” Putin said. “At the same time, the courage, heroism and victory of the Red Army, its decisive contribution, were simply taken and canceled.”   

Meanwhile, there were ominous signs that Azerbaijan was preparing to launch fresh attacks against Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan may be opening up this front because Armenia relies on Russian support. Armenia called on the Kremlin for its help. The two sides fought a short war in the fall of 2020 that saw the effective use of Turkish military drones by Azerbaijan, which made advances in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ukraine also received Turkish drones and was using them against pro-Russian separatists in Donbas.   

In its decision to invade, Russia has been spooked by the Azerbaijan’s successes with drones and its military leaders were worried Ukraine might use drones along with a quick strike to recapture rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials were openly talking about such a move before Russia invaded.          

Biden’s trip to Europe amid the escalating war in Ukraine is deepening economic and military ties between the U.S. and the EU. Indeed, the Ukraine war has made the U.S. once again the prime mover in Europe after years of American ambivalence over what role it wants to play in Europe.  

Under the plan, the U.S. will ship at least 15 billion cubic meters of LNG to Europe this year, but that amounts to only about 3% of the European Union’s gas consumption. The EU said it aims to increase U.S. imports to 50 billion cubic meters a year, or about 10% of its gas needs.   

“Putin has issued Russia’s energy resources to coerce and manipulate its neighbors,” Biden said in announcing the deal with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “That’s how he’s used it. He’s used the profits to drive his war machine.”   

American gas production has boomed in recent years due to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technology.   

The U.S. has been pressuring Europe for years to reduce its reliance on Russian gas, scrap a new Russian pipeline across the Baltic Sea called Nord Stream 2 and build LNG ports for American gas. Following the Russian invasion, Germany jettisoned the Nord Stream 2 project and the EU has vowed to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.   

But Europe gets about 40% of its energy from Russia and replacing that will be very difficult. The EU consumes about 500 billion cubic meters of gas each year. It has invested heavily on new gas pipelines from countries outside Russia, drawing criticism from environmentalists who argue the EU needs to get away from fossil fuels altogether.  

The Ukraine war and vows to turn off the Russian energy spigot have upended the EU’s bold plans to become a leader on combatting climate change because it is rethinking eliminating coal and pushing to build new LNG ports, which environmentalists warn will leave it dependent on gas.    

For now, the wave of sanctions imposed on Russia exempt oil and gas and uranium, but the EU is promising to end Russian energy imports by 2030. The EU gets about a quarter of the uranium it needs for its nuclear power plants from Russia.    

Also on Friday, von der Leyen and Biden said they had reached a tentative agreement on how to resolve a long-running legal dispute over how European citizens’ data is used and processed in the U.S., where privacy standards are weaker.   

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.  

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