LONDON — When President Biden held a video call with European leaders about Ukraine this week, he had all the urgency of a Cold War crisis, filled with the specter of Russian tanks and troops threatening the country. ‘Eastern Europe. But Mr Biden has expanded the seats on his war council, adding Poland, Italy and the European Union to the familiar list of Britain, France and Germany.
The inclusion effort was no accident: after complaints from Europeans that they had been caught off guard by the rapid US withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, and that France had been excluded from a new defense alliance with Australia, Mr. Biden went out of his way. to involve allies at every stage of this crisis.
For the Biden administration, this amounts to a much-needed diplomatic reset. The United States, say European officials, acted with energy and a certain dexterity in orchestrating the response to Russia’s threatening measures. Since mid-November, he has conducted at least 180 high-level meetings or other contacts with European officials. Some marvel at having their US counterparts on speed dial.
Although dragged home by domestic troubles and seen as a transitional figure in some skeptical European capitals, the president has emerged as the leader of Western efforts to deal with threats from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. The administration’s emphasis on unity, according to US officials, is largely aimed at frustrating Mr. Putin’s desire to use the crisis to fracture NATO.
Before providing a written response to Mr. Putin’s security demands of Ukraine on Wednesday, the administration exchanged several versions of the document with the Europeans, insisting that each paragraph that concerned individual countries be examined, word for word, by their leaders, according to American officials.
“The concern here was ‘no surprises,'” an involved official said.
The Russians, who want the West to promise Ukraine will never join NATO, took a cold dim view of US responses on Thursday, saying there was “not much to be optimistic about” and not specifying. not what their next step might be.
In a phone call on Thursday, Mr Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the United States and its allies would “respond decisively if Russia invades Ukraine further”, according to a The men of the White Houset, and that the United States was considering ways to help the Ukrainian economy.
The United States also called on the United Nations Security Council to hold a public meeting on Monday to discuss “Russia’s threatening behavior against Ukraine.”
“This is not a time to wait and see,” Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a press release Thursday.
Understanding Russia’s relationship with the West
Tension between the regions is rising and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and press his demands.
The United States does not rely solely on diplomacy. He has put 8,500 troops on alert to deploy to Eastern Europe, sent defensive weapons to Ukraine and is negotiating to divert natural gas from other suppliers if Russia cuts pipelines that supply Germany and other countries. other countries.
“We hit a low point in terms of trust and mutual respect last summer because of the collapse in Afghanistan,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany’s former ambassador to Washington. Now, he said, “no one can complain that there isn’t a renewed sense of American leadership.”
Mr. Biden’s handling of the crisis has not been without missteps: his recent declaration that a “minor incursion” by Russia would provoke a different response from the West than an invasion has provoked the ire of Ukraine and alarmed European governments, especially those bordering Russia. This required a rushed clean-up operation by the White House.
Europeans are worried about Mr. Biden’s stamina, the potential return of former President Donald J. Trump and the resolve of the United States, for which Ukraine is not an immediate crisis as it is. is for Europe. Some believe Mr. Putin is exploiting the same perceived vulnerabilities on both sides of the ocean.
“He senses Biden’s weakness and a certain political spin in Europe,” said Ian Bond, a former British diplomat who is now head of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform, a London-based research group. “Germany has a new government finding its feet, French elections, UK not in great shape, Europe coming out of the pandemic. I think he sees Biden as a pretty weak transitional figure.
Indeed, Mr. Putin is driving events more than Mr. Biden. His aggressive tactics force Europe and the United States closer together. And he has shown little interest in striking a deal on Ukraine with anyone other than the president of the “other superpower.”
This testifies to the central role of the United States in guaranteeing the security of Europe.
It also means that whatever doubts Mr. Biden has in Moscow or European capitals, he will be the fulcrum of the West’s response. Europeans say he took on the role with more enthusiasm than Mr. Trump or his former boss, President Barack Obama.
Mr Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine and pressured its president to investigate Mr Biden, who was then emerging as his political rival. Mr. Obama did not see Ukraine as a fundamental strategic interest of the United States even after the annexation of Crimea, which prompted France and Germany to create a group that meets periodically with Russia and the United States. Ukraine since 2014 to discuss how to curb hostilities.
“When the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2014, American policy was ‘don’t try to get involved,'” said Gerard Araud, France’s former ambassador to Washington. “They have outsourced the management to France and Germany.”
The White House’s efforts partly reflect the bitter lesson of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, when the Europeans blamed the United States for not consulting them, a charge the White House disputes.
Mr Ischinger, who is now chairing the Munich Security Conference, recalled a US official telling him at the time that the days were over when the United States considered itself a “European power a power whose active participation was essential to the continent’s strategy. balance.
“What we have witnessed over the past two weeks demonstrates that this was an incorrect assessment,” he said.
This time, US officials consulted a galaxy of groups encompassing the European continent’s political and security bureaucracy: the European Union, the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Bucharest Nine, a Eastern NATO group members.
“They learned a real lesson from Afghanistan,” said Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO. “They’ve been extraordinarily effective, in a way we haven’t seen in a long time, in engaging with allies.”
One of the challenges for Mr Biden, experts say, is the lack of a European leader to help bring the rest of the continent to heel. This is the role that former German Chancellor Angela Merkel played for Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush. This is the role former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain played for Mr. Bush, with little success on Iraq, and for President Bill Clinton, with more success on Kosovo.
Current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is concerned about a Downing Street holiday scandal during the pandemic. In any case, Britain’s exit from the European Union has deprived it of its traditional role as a bridge between Washington and Brussels, even if it remains a central player in NATO.
Britain has tried to play a forceful role by shipping anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and drafting legislation that will allow it to impose sanctions on Russia if it launches an invasion. But he is motivated more by a post-Brexit desire to act independently than to serve as a wingman for Washington.
France has also hardened its stance, with President Emmanuel Macron offering to send troops to Romania to bolster NATO’s eastern flank. But Mr Macron faces an election in April, and he too has asserted a more independent role for Europe in its dialogue with Russia. On Friday, he and Mr. Putin will speak by phone.
French diplomats said Mr Macron’s efforts should not be seen as an obstacle for the United States, as he pledged to present any common European position to NATO, where it would be discussed with the Americans .
“Macron’s problem is Germany,” Mr Araud said.
The new coalition government in Germany is being pulled in different directions, with the Greens and Free Democrats more inclined to take a hard line against Moscow, while the Social Democrats are traditionally keen on preserving trade and diplomatic relations. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a social democrat, has so far been a shy figure.
“You don’t have a reassuring Merkel, who can calm things down and keep everything pulling in the same direction,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as Mr Blair’s chief of staff.
Despite all the potential for disunity, diplomats point out that Europe, NATO and the United States agree on two fundamental issues. No one plans to send combat troops to Ukraine. All agree on the importance of imposing sanctions on Russia, even if the Europeans, in particular the Germans, may balk at the most draconian measures because of the collateral damage to their economies.
European officials insist that Germany is ready to pay a significant price and that nothing is ruled out, including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which would bring gas from Russia to Western Europe – and give Mr. Putin valuable leverage.
Mr Putin’s series of provocations – moving large numbers of troops into Belarus and holding large military exercises on Ukraine’s borders, naval exercises in the Baltic Sea and even a planned exercise off the coast of Ireland – have brought Europeans and Americans in a way that no European or American leader could.
“Putin is so extreme in his demands and threats that it is impossible not to close ranks with other countries,” Araud said. “You don’t have an alliance without a threat, and Putin is a threat.”