Geopolitics

What Ukraine Has To Lose In Biden-Putin Talks

Joe Biden's Geneva meeting with Vladimir Putin cannot avoid the Nord Stream 2 pipeline standoff. Kyiv will be watching every step.

A protest against Russian aggression in Ukraine in front of Russian embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania
A protest against Russian aggression in Ukraine in front of Russian embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania
Alexander Demchenko

KYIV — Before the series of visits and talks, President Joe Biden wrote in a column for the Washington Post that he wanted to improve relations with Russia, but was also ready to work with Europe to deal with Moscow's undermining of security on the continent — especially the so-called Ukrainian issue. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin practically expressed hope that the United States would disintegrate.

Ukraine's hopes are too high for the June 16 meeting between Putin and Biden in Geneva, Switzerland. It is good that the U.S. President found time to talk to Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the phone before his talks with the Russian counterpart. This can only make us happy. It's a shame that our country has little to do here — and the White House has already shown this ahead of time by letting Russia complete the first section of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

The U.S. administration refused to impose strict sanctions against the gas pipeline operator, in large part a sign of Biden's unwillingness to harm relations with Germany and his fear that Berlin could impose additional duties on American goods at the European Union level. But an even greater reason Biden is softening the U.S. posture on the Russia-to-Germany pipeline is the desire to open a dialogue with Russia from a position of power, being able at any moment to block the construction of the Russian pipeline.

But this creates other problems, first of all for Ukraine. If Russia launches the pipeline bypassing Ukraine, it will simply have no need for any part of the Ukrainian transport system. The blackmail will begin even before the end of the contract on the transit of Russian gas, which expires at the end of 2024.

The German side is reassuring: Nord Stream 2 will remain in force if transit through Ukraine is preserved. The only question is what these supplies will be and whether they will exist at all.

Putin has already made it clear that he is ready to pump gas, give a discount on it and increase transit figures, but only on one condition — the restoration of Ukrainian-Russian relations. "We have a contract with Ukraine regarding the pumping of our gas. Within the next five years, we will pump up to 40 billion cubic meters. In the best years, we pumped up to 200 billion cubic meters," he said. "If we had normal relations, we would pump a significant part of it through Ukraine, but there are problems there, not in politics, but in economics."

"What can Russia do if Ukraine does not agree to the Kremlin's proposals?"

Translated into plainer language, this means that the Kremlin will use the Ukrainian GTS transport system only if Russian influence, which has been lost in some places, is fully restored in Ukraine. At the same time, the Russian president makes it clear: Kyiv will not be able to use the profits from gas transit to develop the Ukrainian army and counteract Russia in the contested region of Donbas.

What can Russia do if Ukraine does not agree to the Kremlin's proposals? It can destroy the infrastructure to deliver gas through the Ukrainian GTS. And there's no need to think that this is impossible. Moscow did it when it undermined the gas infrastructure in Ossetia in 2006 by blocking the gas supplies to Georgia; when it destroyed the oil corridor from Azerbaijani Baku to Turkish Ceyhan in 2008; when in 2009 it organized an accident on one of the sections of the Central Asia-Center pipeline (CAC-4) pipeline, preventing Turkmenistan from making a huge supply of "blue fuel" to Iran.

Moreover, the Kremlin does not always act directly: sometimes it uses the services of militants, saboteurs, mercenaries. And we should not forget that the Ukrainian gas transportation system was the minimum guarantee to prevent a full-scale Russian attack on Ukraine. Moscow simply did not want to accidentally destroy the infrastructure, which brings consistent profits, while angering the Europeans. Once the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed, Moscow's hands will be untied.

Minister-President of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Manuela Schwesig and Russian ambassador in Berlin Sergei Netsheyev visiting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on April 29 — Photo: Jens Büttner/dpa/ZUMA

Of course, a lot of questions will remain concerning further European regulation of gas supply, and the situation with the elections in Germany, whereas Americans and Ukrainians hope, the Greens will come to power after Chancellor Angela Merkel's departure.

The situation will become more or less clear immediately after the talks between Putin and Biden. If the U.S. administration does not impose sanctions and allows the Russians to complete the pipeline, it will mean that the U.S. and Russia were able to agree that Washington is not interested in Kyiv's position. That it is more important for it to keep Russia from more radical actions, from rapprochement with China, and to keep Germany from aggressive trade actions against the United States.

In general, it seems strange to hear from Ukrainian politicians the phrase about betraying Ukraine's interests. If you look at the trade turnover between Russia and the U.S. ($24 billion) and Ukraine and the U.S. ($6 billion), you will understand how silly such statements are. Look at the level of investment inflows, at how American big companies develop Russian gas and oil fields, how they open large commodity networks, how they create hundreds of thousands of jobs by building various factories. American money (and interest) is in Russia, not in Ukraine. That's why we can't expect any breakthroughs in the negotiations.

So far, these are just words.

In his column in the Washington Post, Biden says that he was going to work with the Europeans to counter the security challenges that Russia was creating on the continent. And here he brought Ukraine to the forefront.

"We (the United States and Europe) are united in addressing Russia's challenges to European security, starting with its aggression in Ukraine. And there will be no doubt about the determination of the United States to defend democratic values, which we cannot separate from our interests," writes Biden.

So far, these are just words. It is unlikely that the U.S. leader will be able to convince Putin to get Russia to withdraw from Crimea and leave the territories of Donbas. Most likely, Biden simply needs to achieve two things. The first is to get guarantees from Putin that Russian troops will withdraw from the Ukrainian border and the situation will return to what it was before the escalation. The second is to agree on security on the northern border of Ukraine, where we have points of contact with Belarus.

This is the only possible positive achievement for Ukraine that President Biden can get in talks with Putin. And it is not a given that he will achieve it. But we must also clearly understand that there will be concessions from the U.S. side — and they will be painful for Kyiv. And we have only one thing left to do: to finally engage in the construction of a normal, strong state, instead of constantly complaining about those who step over the line. It's time to become adults.

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Society

Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.


Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."

*Pseudonym


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