German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Kiev to meet with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an ally she has supported in conflict with pro-Russia separatists but has also disappointed him with her appetite for Russian gas.
Kiev sees the soon-to-be completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline carrying Russian gas to Europe and bypassing Ukraine as "a dangerous geopolitical weapon", President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said.
The Ukrainian leader was speaking on Sunday at a joint press conference in Kiev with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has spearheaded the pipeline fiercely opposed by Russian neighbours Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states.
The $12-billion pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea is set to double Russian natural gas shipments to Germany, Europe's largest economy. It avoids Ukraine, depriving Kiev of essential gas transit fees.
"We view this project exclusively through the prism of security and consider it a dangerous geopolitical weapon of the Kremlin," Zelenskiy said.
He added that the main risks after its completion will be "borne by Ukraine" but that the pipeline will also be dangerous "for all of Europe".
The pipeline "will only play into the hands of the Russian Federation," he said.
For her part, Merkel said Berlin agrees with Washington that "gas must not be used as a geopolitical weapon".
"It will come down to if there is an extension to the transit contract via Ukraine –– the sooner the better," she said, referring to the expiry of Moscow's agreement with Kiev in 2024.
Merkel says she understands Zelenskiy's concerns
The German leader, who met with Zelenskiy two days after visiting his Russian counterpart in Moscow, said she had discussed with Vladimir Putin extending the contract past 2024.
"We feel a special responsibility" and "understand the big concerns that President Zelenskiy expressed," she said.
"We take them very seriously."
Zelensky said he and Merkel had discussed the extension, but noted that he so far had heard only "very general things".
Tensions with US
The construction of the pipeline led to tensions between Germany and the United States, but Washington eventually waived sanctions against the Russian-controlled builder of the pipeline.
Merkel said the Germany-US agreement specifies "sanctions" if gas is "used as a weapon".
She added that these commitments were "binding on future German governments", as she is set to leave office next month after 16 years in power.
Merkel has been a key ally of Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and pro-Russia separatists broke away from the country's east.
But the German chancellor has frustrated Ukrainian authorities by opposing sending arms to Kiev and pushing across the finish line the Nord Steam 2 pipeline.
'Slap in the face'
Despite disagreements over the pipeline, Germany is a key mediator in attempts to resolve the protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives.
Since the fighting broke out, Merkel has been one of the loudest voices accusing the Kremlin of backing the separatists, which Moscow denies.
And she played a crucial role in clinching the Minsk peace accords in 2015, which helped halt the fiercest clashes.
But many in Ukraine think the deal, which assumes some autonomy for the breakaway parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, was unfavourable for Kiev and is difficult to fulfill.
"With Merkel's departure, the foundation of the Minsk agreements will become even more fragile," Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told AFP news agency.
Germany playing 'a neutral referee'
Merkel's visit comes as Ukraine prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union on August 24.
Kiev is also set to host several European leaders on Monday for a summit looking at ways to have Crimea returned.
Merkel, however, has chosen not to participate in the summit.
Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a Kiev-based foreign policy think tank, said the decision was based "once again" on the "desire to play a neutral referee" in a situation "when you need to clearly state your position".
It's a "slap in the face" to Kiev, she said.