Europe and US shift focus to energy and refugees in diplomatic marathon on Ukraine

EU says it will unveil deal with US on liquefied natural gas on Friday

US President Joe Biden talks with fellow G7 heads of government during meetings on Ukraine in Brussels. AFP
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Western powers turned their attention to the economic and humanitarian fallout of the war in Ukraine on Thursday as US President Joe Biden held talks with the EU in the final leg of an all-day diplomatic showdown.

After a Nato summit that promised more defence against Russia and a G7 commitment to enforcing sanctions on Moscow, the EU talks were expected to produce an agreement on loosening Russia’s hold over Europe’s energy grid.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the EU and Mr Biden would present a “new chapter in our energy partnership” on Friday in which the US would provide more liquefied natural gas to fill the Russian gap.

She said the goal of talks between the EU’s 27 leaders was to agree joint purchasing and joint storage of gas, exploiting the bloc’s economic weight in a manner compared by officials to the acquisition of coronavirus vaccines.

“The single most important thing that we have to do in the West is be united,” said Mr Biden as he praised allies for co-ordinating a rapid response to the invasion.

But agreement is less likely on the question of cutting off the Russian oil and gas imports that are some of the Kremlin’s most lucrative money-spinners, with energy expected to dominate talks on Friday.

Supporters of an embargo say Europe’s fossil fuel purchases are effectively financing the attacks on Ukraine, which several senior figures on the EU have described as amounting to war crimes.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki urged colleagues as he arrived for the European Council talks: “The sooner we understand that this is the main oxygen for the Russian war machine, the better.”

However, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said oil and gas had deliberately been left out of the sanctions packages because of the reliance of some European economies on Russian fuel.

Irish leader Micheal Martin said he was open to going further on sanctions but said leaders had to ensure that energy-related measures had the effect of punishing Russia rather than members of the EU.

Another issue facing leaders is the refugee flow out of Ukraine that has left neighbouring countries dealing with millions of refugees and Poland in particular starting to feel the strain.

Mr Morawiecki, whose country has taken in more than two million people, said he expected his EU colleagues to provide new funds for humanitarian assistance and to be “at least as generous” as during the migration crises of 2015 and 2016.

“We cannot limit our support for refugees only to money which is already included in some other budgets of the European Union,” he said. “We have to think out of the box.”

European Council chief Charles Michel is proposing an international donors' conference and what he calls a trust fund to support humanitarian assistance and reconstruction in Ukraine.

Mr Biden's administration announced that the US was willing to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians with a focus on those who already have family living in America.

The president will visit Poland on Friday and hear from humanitarian experts on the refugee crisis, the White House said, but he will stop short of entering Ukraine as the war with Russia enters its second month.

Nato earlier on Thursday promised to shore up the defences of Ukraine and its own members in what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said was a changed security environment.

Mr Stoltenberg, who unanimously had his term extended until September 2023 on Thursday, said Nato would offer Ukraine more military aid as well as equipping it for any chemical, nuclear or biological attack by Russia.

Nato will look to protect its own borders by setting up four new battle groups in Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria to shore up an eastern flank exposed to a newly hostile Russia.

Mr Biden hailed the West's response as a show of unity which Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have expected, and said Nato had “never been more united than it is today".

But the alliance stopped short of granting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's request that one per cent of Nato's tanks and planes be donated to the country's war effort.

Mr Zelenskyy told the closed-door Nato meeting that Ukraine had been through “a month of heroic resistance ... a month of the darkest suffering” since Russia launched its invasion.

Nato's headquarters also played host to a G7 meeting at which the group of rich democracies promised to stop Russia using gold reserves to prop up its economy.

The leaders also said they would do what was necessary to prevent a food security crisis caused by war in Ukraine and economic crisis in Russia, two of the world's top wheat producers.

“We commit to provide a sustainable food supply in Ukraine and support continued Ukrainian production efforts,” they said in a four-page statement.

Updated: March 25, 2022, 7:39 AM