Unity. That is the message U.S. President Joe Biden is sending to Russia and the world during his trip to Europe. His point: Western allies – the United States, the European Union, and NATO – are standing shoulder to shoulder in support of Ukraine as Russia continues to attack the war-torn nation.
Biden’s quick visit to Europe includes a stop in Brussels for emergency NATO and EU summits as well as meeting with leaders from the Group of 7. Biden then heads to Poland to meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda. While speaking to reporters in Brussels on Thursday, Biden revealed that he requested the meetings to show Russia that the U.S. and its allies in Europe will not “crack.”
Over the last month, the West has moved with surprising cohesion, imposing crushing sanctions that target Russia’s economy. The West is also providing significant financial aid and military equipment to Ukraine Biden looks to continue this high level of coordination between the U.S. and its European allies, along with announcing new sanctions on Russia while unruffling any feathers among alliance members who want to provide offensive weapons to Ukraine and those who fear an escalated conflict with Russia. Above all, his trip centers on to ensure the United States and Europe stay united in the face of the biggest conflict on the European conflict in decades However, minor fractures are beginning to show in the alliance’s united front.
Weaning Europe Off of Russian Energy
The United States and its European allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia as result of its invasion of Ukraine, targeting key sectors of the Russian economy. However, there is a divide between the United States and Europe on how far each side is willing to go to impose the sanctions.
Earlier this month, Biden announced that he was banning all U.S. oil and gas imports from Russia while the European Union disclosed a plan to cut Russian gas imports by two thirds over the course of the year. The United States is showing more willingness to punish Russia by targeting its energy sector in comparison to Europe’s more ambivalent response.
Yet, Europe has balked at some of the sanction ideas from the United States. While Europe has tightened some sanctions on Russia, they’ve stopped short of blocking Russian oil and gas due to its heavy dependence on Russian energy, which supplies roughly 40 percent of Europe’s gas.
Interestingly though, despite its dependence on Russian energy sources, Germany – perhaps unexpectedly – halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, an extensive energy project worth $11 billion which connects Russia and Germany, after months of ambiguous and non-committal statements. Weaning Europe, particularly Germany, off its dependence on Russian energy will likely prove to be a difficult task for the United States.
That does not mean the United States will stop trying. Biden proclaimed that the United States would send more natural gas to Europe as part of its effort to break Europe’s dependence on Russian energy as well as diverting energy shipments from Asia. This solution is likely to be a stop-gap, though, as analysts anticipate that building enough terminals in the U.S. and in Europe could take two to five years.
Moreover, the United States doesn’t have the capacity to export more gas to Europe any more than Europe has the capacity to import more. While Russian exports of natural gas and oil have remained steady during the first month of the war in Ukraine, countries primarily in Central and Eastern Europe have made clear the unwillingness to take the economic hit that would result from any limits imposed on Russian energy.
NATO Unity Across the Board…
The United States and NATO have largely been in unison on how best to support Ukraine by providing military aid and equipment to fend of Russian attacks. The allies also agree that sending NATO troops is not on the table for fear of a broader conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia.
Another area of agreement has been the deployment of troops to bolster NATO’s eastern flank. Several NATO allies, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sent additional troops to the countries on the front lines, particularly Poland, and the Baltic states, where NATO already maintains a contingent of approximately 1,000 rotating troops.
During Biden’s trip this week, NATO is expected to deploy alliance troops to other countries that also border the fighting in Ukraine, including Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. NATO allies across the board, no matter their geographic proximity to Russia or Ukraine, are in concurrence on deploying NATO troops to beef up NATO’s presence on its eastern flank.
…Except for Fighter Jets and No-Fly Zones
Disagreements between the United States and Europe – particularly between the Washington and NATO – are beginning to show on the proper way to deter Russia from further escalation.
For one, there is a split over the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Some NATO allies – primarily the Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania as well as Slovakia – are calling for a no-fly zone, just as Lithuania’s parliament unanimously voted for such a resolution. The countries in Eastern Europe have long been warning about the threat posed by Russia, a warning that usually fell on deaf ears in Western Europe and the United States.
Conversely, Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, told reporters on Wednesday that the alliance was united in its decision not to deploy forces on the ground or in the air despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appearances before the U.S. Congress, Canadian Parliament, and several European parliaments over the past week where he implored the West to establish a no-fly zone.
Similarly, the United States found itself in a minor clash with Poland over a Polish offer to provide MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine through a U.S. military base in Germany. In return, the United States would provide Poland with the U.S.-manufactured F-16 jets. The United States declined the Polish offer over concerns that it could escalate tensions with Russia. One of the objectives of Biden’s trip is to smooth over any ruffled feathers in light of the recent disagreements among NATO allies.
Keep Quiet, It’s a Secret!
Over the past few days, some NATO policymakers have expressed concern that the alliance has been too public in its messaging about what the alliance will or won’t do. The United States and NATO have emphatically stated that neither will send troops to Ukraine. NATO has also been quite public in its debate over sending fighter jets to Ukraine. Now that the threat of Russia using nuclear and chemical weapons is becoming more conceivable, some within NATO posit that a better approach would be to not publicly rule out any actions.
Some say that NATO, but Biden in particular, has been too explicit about what NATO can and should do to help Ukraine and how best to bolster NATO’s own capabilities to protect itself in case Russia expands the war beyond Ukraine. The fear among these NATO policymakers is that Washington – and by extension NATO – is giving Russia the upper hand by telegraphing the alliance’s red lines, potentially allowing Russian president Vladimir Putin to take more aggressive action.
Ensuring that Washington and Brussels are on the same page on not just the steps the alliance is willing to take to combat Russia but also on public messaging may perhaps be the most important piece to this chaotic puzzle.