As Biden heads to Europe, the mood in Ukraine is darker

Placeholder while loading article actions

MUNICH — When President Biden met with his European counterparts in March, the mood — despite the grim circumstances — was almost heady: A weeks-old Russian invasion of Ukraine had prompted a remarkable show of unity from the world community and an unexpected resolve from Ukraine. fighters on the battlefield.

But now, three months after those meetings in Brussels, Biden will arrive in the Bavarian Alps on Saturday to begin a pair of summits that will confront a much grimmer situation in Ukraine. Instead of celebrating a heroic rebuff from Russia, Biden and his fellow leaders will wrestle with how to handle a slog.

The president is also leaving the United States just a day after one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in history. The reversal of Roe vs. Wade Friday is stirring the country and animating the Democratic Party just as its leader leaves for a long-planned trip abroad.

The old unity between Western nations is showing signs of breaking down, with divisions emerging between those who favor a negotiated peace as soon as possible and those who want to let Ukraine fight for as long as it takes to recover its territory. Meanwhile, the war has wreaked havoc on the global economy, and soaring gasoline prices at home will make it harder for leaders to impose even more sanctions on Russian oil.

What began as an almost unprecedented show of transatlantic unity, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rallying the world’s democracies to support his country, has now morphed into a longer and more complex struggle, with no clear end in sight. .

“The reality and the mood have changed. Things are trending towards Ukraine, towards Russia, given the nature of the battle at this point,” said Richard Haass, a veteran diplomat and chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. “So the question is, what more are countries willing to do to help Ukraine militarily and economically? But it’s a more sober and dark mood. The trends are not good.”

The financial cost of the conflict has risen sharply four months later, both the money needed for Ukraine to fend off Russian aggression and the toll on the global economy. When the leaders meet next week – first for a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in Germany, followed immediately by a NATO summit in Spain – discussions will focus less on the noble language of democracy and more about the harsh realities of whether the allies can maintain their newfound unity.

“It’s very different from its last peak,” said Ian Bremmer, chairman of Eurasia Group, a global risk advisory firm. “This is not a summit on deliverables, this is not a summit on body language, this is not a summit on a statement. This is a summit on war, a summit on a global crisis that will dominate all conversations.

Bremmer added that NATO members will need to focus on the core architecture of the alliance and on issues that have not arisen since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Already, the war in Ukraine has to both strengthened NATO – Finland and Sweden are asking to join – and revealed its divisions, while Turkey separates itself from the other allies by opposing the candidacy of the two countries.

“You are expanding NATO, you are spending more money on defense, you are deploying troops forward and you are in an environment where there will be cyberattacks and espionage from Russia,” Bremmer said. “This is literally a new cold war, with elements of a hot war with Russia. And the question is, how are you going to handle this?

Zelensky will address the G-7 and NATO summits virtually, an effort to urge Western nations to maintain the enthusiastic support his country attracted at the start of the war.

But divisions are emerging over the amount and type of military assistance to provide Ukraine. Countries face varying levels of war fatigue and a reliance on Russian natural gas that varies by country. While the last rally presented a unified response, this one is overshadowed by questions about whether those disagreements can be resolved.

“The overarching theme of the G-7 and NATO is the high political and economic cost of doing what’s right versus what’s easy,” said Heather A. Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund. “The Kremlin expects us not to pay these fees. They have been wrong so far. But will they be wrong over the next six months, when the pain will be felt most intensely? »

Biden’s meetings begin Sunday at Schloss Elmau, Germany, where G-7 leaders will discuss high prices and the food and energy crises that have resulted from the war.

Biden is then due to travel to Madrid on Tuesday for the NATO summit, which is expected to include heated discussions on whether to admit Finland and Sweden. The summit will also focus on efforts to integrate Ukraine into Europe’s core alliances – NATO and the European Union – a prospect that Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled he would view as a threat. existential.

“I think that will most likely happen,” Biden said this week of Ukraine’s joining the European Union. Although EU membership could take years, getting the process started would send a message and would likely elicit a strong reaction from Russia.

Part of the European division on Ukraine is based on geography. Powerful countries like Britain, France and Germany, worried about the length of the war and the toll it might take as each faces national challenges, might be more open to compromises that would put end to the conflict. Poland and the Baltic states, much closer to danger, see any concession to Putin as a dangerous reward for his brutality.

“The frontline countries in the east are the ones that see themselves in Ukraine’s shoes,” said Gideon Rose, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They are worried about a future attack and fear that they will be the targets. The countries of Eastern Europe are all ready to help Ukraine, because they understand that this is the place to do it. If you let Russia get enough victories that they don’t think it was a mistake, not only will you not save Ukraine’s future, but you also risk Russia thinking they can. restart.

Early on, Biden was credited with mobilizing the international community against invading Russia. He helped persuade allies to impose tough sanctions on Putin and his backers. International companies withdrew from Russia and the country was isolated.

But as uncertainty replaces drama, the way forward is less clear.

“The Delphic Oracle couldn’t tell you how this was going to end,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran diplomat and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “These meetings are extremely important to keep the alliances effective for the next four or five months.”

In some ways, it was the alliance’s success in strengthening Ukraine that made the war so unpredictable.

“There is no prospect of victory for either side, and virtually no credible prospect of reaching a compromise,” Miller said. “Tolstoy once observed that the warrior’s two greatest friends were time and patience. This is the real problem facing Biden’s Ukraine policy.

The talks are also likely to include discussions of China’s economic might and Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, administration officials noted that, for the first time, the NATO gathering will include Asian leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. South — an addition that Biden officials touted as a sign that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had “galvanized our partnerships around the world.”

“It also shows that Ukraine is not taking China out of sight for us – in fact, I think quite the opposite,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity according to reports. conditions set for a call with journalists. . “It has strengthened the democratic world in both Russia and China, and President Biden has effectively linked our efforts in Europe and Asia.”

John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council, said Thursday that one of the purposes of Biden’s trip was to show his belief that NATO “has truly never been stronger and more viable than it is.” is today” and that in person, in the face of – facial diplomacy is essential. Biden also hopes to secure new commitments that further isolate Russia from the global economy, Kirby said, and target the Russian defense supply chain.

“Instead of a shaken West,” he said, “we are more determined than ever to support Ukraine and are leading this effort head-on both at the G-7 summit and at the NATO summit. “.

Max Bergmann, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said NATO had a success story to tell about the war in Ukraine so far, including Ukraine’s unexpected ability to resist. to Russian aggression.

But, he added, as leaders prepare to come together, “that initial triumphalism” is giving way to a more daunting reality: “The situation in which Ukraine now finds itself is a long war of attrition against a global military superpower.

Mary I. Bruner