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Some US allies near Russia are wary of Biden-Putin summit

Central and Eastern European nations are anxious about the coming summit meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, wary of what they see as hostile intentions from the Kremlin.

Some in the countries that once were part of the Soviet Union or the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact during the Cold War worry that Washington could scale down support for its allies in the region in a bid to secure a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia.

“I think there have been doubts as to the resoluteness of the present administration to face Russian aggressive actions in a decisive manner,” said Witold Rodkiewicz, chief specialist on Russian politics at Warsaw's Center of Eastern Studies, a state-funded think tank that advises the Polish government.

FILE - In this May 9, 2021, file photo, Russian paratroopers march the Victory Day military parade in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, marking the 76th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. Earlier this year, Russia bolstered its forces near Ukraine and warned Kyiv that it could intervene militarily if Ukrainian authorities try to retake the rebel-controlled east. Moscow also has bristled at NATO’s joint drills with Ukraine, saying they reflect the alliance’s aggressive intentions. (AP PhotoAlexander Zemlianichenko, File)

Both Russia and the U.S. have sought to moderate expectations about Wednesday's summit in Geneva, ruling out any breakthroughs amid the worst tensions between the two powers since Soviet times, especially after Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, accusations of Russian interference with U.S. elections and hacking attacks, as well as other strains.

Rodkiewicz, however, noted the White House’s decision to waive sanctions against the German company overseeing the prospective Russian-built Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline running under the Baltic Sea to Germany. That project could potentially allow Moscow to bypass Ukraine, Poland and other countries in Eastern and Central Europe that collect transit fees on the energy.

“In a clear, unequivocal way the administration signaled that for them, Europe is Germany basically, and German interests are going to be taken into account, while the interests of other players in Europe are going to be sort of put on the back burner,” Rodkiewicz told The Associated Press.

FILE - This file frame from a video released on April 23, 2021, by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service shows, Russian troops board landing vessels after drills in Crimea. Earlier this year, Russia bolstered its forces near Ukraine and warned Kyiv that it could intervene militarily if Ukrainian authorities try to retake the rebel-controlled east. Moscow also has bristled at NATO’s joint drills with Ukraine, saying they reflect the alliance’s aggressive intentions. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

Nowhere else are worries about the summit more acute than in Ukraine. It has been locked in a tense tug-of-war with Russia ever since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula following the ouster of Ukraine's Moscow-friendly president in 2014 and a Russia-backed separatist insurgency in the country's east — a conflict that has killed more than 14,000.

“Ukraine fears that agreements between Biden and Putin could turn it into a peripheral country,” said Vadim Karasev, an independent Kyiv-based political analyst.

Kyiv worries that Nord Stream 2 would deprive it not only of transit fees for pumping Russian gas to Europe but also erode its strategic importance and weaken it politically.

FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2017, file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria. In an interview on Russian state television, Putin, ahead of his June 16, 2021, meeting with President Joe Biden, issued a strong, new warning that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO was unacceptable for Russia. (Mikhail KlimentyevPool Photo via AP, File)

A U.S. failure to block the pipeline would mark “a personal loss for President Biden” and a “serious geopolitical victory for the Russian Federation," said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

He tried in vain to push for a meeting with Biden before the summit but has spoken with him by phone. Biden assured Zelenskyy of the unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Kyiv appeared overly eager to interpret the conversation in its favor. In its initial readout of the call, Zelenskyy's office claimed Biden emphasized the importance of offering Ukraine a specific roadmap for joining NATO. But it then changed that version to clarify it was Zelenskyy who pushed for providing Ukraine with a membership action plan; it said Biden promised that Kyiv's position will be taken into account when discussing strategic issues within NATO.

FILE - In this June 4, 2018, file photo, U.S. Marines take a part in a military exercise in the Baltic Sea near the village of Nemirseta, about 340 kilometers (211 miles) northwest of Vilnius, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Lithuania. Ahead of a summit meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, 2021, Moscow has accused the European Union and NATO members that once were part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact of “Russophobia,” casting them as key instigators of Western sanctions against Russia. (AP PhotoMindaugas Kulbis, File)

In an interview on Russian state television, Putin issued a strong, new warning that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO was unacceptable for Russia. He noted it would allow the alliance's missiles to reach Moscow and other key targets in western Russia in only seven minutes, a destabilizing situation that he said was comparable to Russia putting its missiles in Mexico or Canada.

In 2008, NATO promised that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually be welcome to join the alliance despite protests from Russia. Four months later, Russia routed Georgia in a five-day war that erupted when the Georgian leadership tried to reclaim control of a separatist region.

Earlier this year, Russia bolstered its forces near Ukraine and warned Kyiv that it could intervene militarily if Ukrainian authorities try to retake the rebel-controlled east. Moscow has since pulled back at least some of its troops, but Ukrainian officials say Russia has kept a massive contingent close to the border.

FILE - This image released on Thursday, April 22, 2021 by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service shows, Russian military vehicles move during drills in Crimea. Earlier this year, Russia bolstered its forces near Ukraine and warned Kyiv that it could intervene militarily if Ukrainian authorities try to retake the rebel-controlled east. Moscow also has bristled at NATO’s joint drills with Ukraine, saying they reflect the alliance’s aggressive intentions. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

“The Kremlin has signaled that Ukraine’s NATO bid is fraught with a new, hot conflict in Europe, something that Washington definitely doesn’t want,” Karasev said.

Alex Petriashvili, senior fellow at the Rondeli Foundation think tank in Tbilisi, Georgia, deplored the lack of consensus within NATO on granting Ukraine and Georgia clear plans for membership.

“It is certainly negatively affecting the aspirations of the two countries and gives the advantage to Russia, which is fiercely opposing their membership,” Petriashvili said.

FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2020, file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, attend the main stage of the Kavkaz-2020 strategic command-and-staff exercises at the Kapustin Yar training ground, Russia. In an interview on Russian state television, Putin, ahead of his June 16, 2021, meeting with President Joe Biden, issued a strong, new warning that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO was unacceptable for Russia. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis argued that Russia seeks “to reestablish control of internal, foreign and security policies of the states in Central and Eastern Europe” that it considers part of its “privileged sphere of interests.”

”Like in Soviet times, both conventional and hybrid measures are used to assert control,” he told AP.

Russia has rejected allegations it is trying to destabilize the countries or draw them back into its orbit. It has accused the European Union and NATO members that once were part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact of “Russophobia,” casting them as key instigators of Western sanctions that limited Moscow’s access to global capital markets and restricted imports of modern technology.

FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy looks at a front-line position from a shelter as he visits eastern Ukraine, where the country's military has been locked in a conflict with Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 14,000 people. Ukraine is especially wary about the June 16, 2021, summit meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, fearing that agreements between the two leaders could weaken Kyiv’s strategic importance. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP, File)

Landsbergis has shrugged off concerns that Washington could leave its Central and Eastern European allies in the cold.

“We have no reasons to doubt our closest trans-Atlantic ally,” Landsbergis told AP. “The Biden administration has on numerous occasions underscored its commitment to work in close coordination with its European allies.”

Latvia’s top diplomat, Edgars Rinkevics, has similarly emphasized that Washington “steadfastly remains the closest ally” and “plays a key role in European security.”

FILE - In this Sept. 23, 2020, file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures speaks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. In an interview on Russian state television, Putin, ahead of his June 16, 2021, meeting with President Joe Biden, issued a strong, new warning that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO was unacceptable for Russia. (Mikhail MetzelSputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Ondrej Ditrych, director of the Institute of International Relations think-tank, also said he expects Biden to take a firm stance in Geneva.

“Biden is not naive, even as ahead of the summit the administration seems to make overtures to make Russia amenable to discussing strategic issues in earnest,” he said in Prague. “I would not be worried that a détente that would be detrimental to Central and Eastern Europe countries would be in the making.”

Some others aren't so optimistic.

FILE - In this April 9, 2021, file photo, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian troops in a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people. Ukraine is especially wary about the June 16, summit meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, fearing that agreements between the two leaders could weaken Kyiv's strategic importance. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP, File)

“The real reason to worry is that perhaps Putin might come out of this meeting encouraged by what he sees on the other side, and that might make him bolder to press his advantages in a regional context,” said Rodkiewicz, the Warsaw-based analyst.

FILE - In this April 22, 2021, file photo provided by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian military vehicles prepare to be loaded into a plane for airborne drills during maneuvers in Crimea. Earlier this year, Russia bolstered its forces near Ukraine and warned Kyiv that it could intervene militarily if Ukrainian authorities try to retake the rebel-controlled east. Moscow also has bristled at NATO’s joint drills with Ukraine, saying they reflect the alliance’s aggressive intentions. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2021, file photo, tugboats get into position for the Russian pipe-laying vessel Fortuna in the port of Wismar, Germany. The vessel is being used for construction work on the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea. The project could potentially allow Moscow to bypass Ukraine, Poland and other countries in Eastern and Central Europe that collect transit fees on the energy. Those countries fear that they could be weakened by any agreements struck between Washington and Moscow at a summit meeting on June 16, 2021, between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Jens Buettnerdpa via AP, File)

FILE - In this March 10, 2011, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia. Central and Eastern European nations are anxious about the Wednesday, June 16, 2021, summit meeting between now U.S. President Biden and Putin, wary of what they see as hostile intentions from the Kremlin. (RIA NovostiaAlexei DruzhininPool via AP, File)