LONDON. When President Biden had a video call with European leaders this week about Ukraine, he showed the urgency of a Cold War-era crisis filled with the specter of Russian tanks and troops threatening Eastern Europe. But Mr Biden has expanded the number of seats on his war council, adding Poland, Italy and the European Union to the familiar mix of Britain, France and Germany.
The desire to be inclusive was not accidental: after Europeans complained that they were overwhelmed by the rapid withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan last summer and that France was frozen out of a new defense alliance with Australia, Mr. Biden stepped out of his way. involve allies in every step of this crisis.
For the Biden administration, this amounts to a much-needed diplomatic reset. According to European officials, the United States acted vigorously and with some dexterity in orchestrating a response to Russian threats. Since mid-November, he has held at least 180 summits or other contacts with European officials. Some are surprised that their American counterparts are on speed dial.
Despite being plagued by domestic troubles at home and seen as a transitional figure in some skeptical European capitals, the president has taken the lead in Western efforts to counter threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The administration’s emphasis on unity, according to US officials, is largely aimed at preventing Mr. Putin from using the crisis to split NATO.
Before submitting a written response Wednesday to Mr. Putin’s demands for Ukraine’s security, the administration exchanged several drafts of the document with the Europeans, insisting that every paragraph affecting individual countries be reviewed verbatim by their leaders. officials.
“There was a concern here about the lack of surprises,” said one of the officials involved.
The Russians, who want the West to promise that Ukraine will never join NATO, were lukewarm about Thursday’s American response, saying “there’s not much to be optimistic about” and leaving it unclear what their next move might be.
In a phone call Thursday, Mr. Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the United States and its allies “will respond strongly if Russia continues to invade Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement, and that the United States was considering ways to help Ukraine’s economy.
The United States also called on the UN Security Council to hold a public meeting on Monday to discuss “Russia’s threatening behavior towards Ukraine.”
“Now is not the time to wait and wait,” Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Thursday.
Understand Russia’s relationship with the West
Tensions between the regions are rising, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and defend his demands.
The United States does not rely solely on diplomacy. It has mobilized 8,500 troops for deployment to Eastern Europe, sent defensive weapons to Ukraine, and is negotiating to divert natural gas from other suppliers if Russia shuts off pipelines that supply Germany and other countries.
“Last summer we had a low level of trust and mutual respect because of the collapse in Afghanistan,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to Washington. Now, he says, “no one can complain that there is no renewed sense of American leadership.”
Biden was not without mistakes: his recent claim that a “minor invasion” by Russia would elicit a different Western response than an invasion angered Ukraine and alarmed European governments, especially those bordering Russia. This required hasty clean-up operations by the White House.
Europeans worry about Mr. Biden’s resilience, the potential return of former President Donald J. Trump, and the determination of the United States, for which Ukraine is not a crisis on the threshold, as it is for Europe. Some believe Mr. Putin is exploiting the same vulnerabilities on both sides of the ocean.
“He feels weakness in Biden and some political instability in Europe,” said Ian Bond, a former British diplomat who now heads foreign policy at the Center for European Reform, a London-based research group. “In Germany, the new government is on its feet, the elections are in France, the UK is not in the best shape, Europe is coming out of the pandemic. I think he does see Biden as a rather weak transition figure.”
Indeed, Mr. Putin controls events more than Mr. Biden. His aggressive tactics bring Europe and the United States closer together. And he showed little interest in making a deal on Ukraine with anyone other than the president of “another superpower.”
This testifies to the central role of the United States in ensuring the security of Europe.
It also means that whatever the doubts about Mr. Biden in Moscow or European capitals, he will be the fulcrum of the Western reaction. Europeans say he embraced the role more enthusiastically than Trump or his former boss, President Barack Obama.
Mr. Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine and pressured its president to investigate Mr. Biden, then looming as his political rival. Mr. Obama did not consider Ukraine a primary strategic interest for the United States, even after the annexation of Crimea, prompting France and Germany to form a group that has been meeting periodically with Russia and Ukraine since 2014 to discuss ways to contain the fighting.
“When the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2014, American policy was to ‘try not to get involved,’” said Gerard Haro, the former French ambassador to Washington. “They outsourced this work to France and Germany.”
The White House’s efforts partly reflect the bitter lesson of the chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, with Europeans criticizing the United States for not consulting with them, which the White House disputes.
Mr. Ischinger, who now chairs the Munich Security Conference, recalled how a U.S. official told him at the time that the era had passed when the United States considered itself a “European power” whose active participation was critical to the strategic strategy of the continent. . balance.
“What we have seen over the last couple of weeks shows that this was a misjudgment,” he said.
This time, American officials consulted with a constellation of groups spanning the political and security bureaucracy of the European continent: the European Union, the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Bucharest Nine, NATO’s eastern group. members.
“They learned a real lesson from Afghanistan,” said Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO. “They were extraordinarily effective, something we haven’t seen for a long time, in interaction with the allies.”
Experts say one problem for Mr. Biden is the lack of a European leader to help subdue the rest of the continent. This is the role that former German chancellor Angela Merkel played for Obama and President George W. Bush. This was the role former British Prime Minister Tony Blair played for Bush, with little success in Iraq, and for President Bill Clinton, with great success in Kosovo.
The current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is concerned about the Downing Street party 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, although it remains a central player in NATO.
The UK has tried to take a strong position by sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and drafting legislation that would allow it to impose sanctions on Russia if it launches an invasion. But this is driven more by a post-Brexit desire to act independently than to serve as Washington’s wingman.
France has also hardened its stance, with President Emmanuel Macron offering to send troops to Romania to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank. But Mr Macron faces elections in April and is also championing a more independent role for Europe in relations with Russia. On Friday, he and Mr. Putin will talk on the phone.
French diplomats said Mr. Macron’s efforts should not be seen as an obstacle to the United States, as he promised to lay out any pan-European position before NATO, where it would be discussed with the Americans.
“The Macron problem is Germany,” Mr Haro said.
The new coalition government in Germany is pulling in different directions: Greens and Free Democrats are more likely to take a hard line on Moscow, while Social Democrats have traditionally sought to maintain trade and diplomatic ties. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, has so far been a shy figure.
“You don’t have a hopeful Merkel who can calm things down and get everything moving in the same direction,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as Mr Blair’s chief of staff.
Despite all possible disagreements, diplomats note that Europe, NATO and the US agree on two fundamental issues. No one plans to send combat units to Ukraine. Everyone agrees on the importance of imposing sanctions on Russia, although the Europeans, especially the Germans, may balk at the most draconian measures because of the collateral damage to their economies.
European officials insist that Germany is willing to pay a hefty price and that nothing has been decided, including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bring gas from Russia to Western Europe, giving Mr Putin valuable leverage.
Mr. Putin’s string of provocations — bringing large numbers of troops into Belarus and holding major military exercises on Ukraine’s borders, naval exercises in the Baltic Sea, and even planned exercises off the coast of Ireland — have brought Europeans and Americans closer in some way. something no European or American leader could do.
“Putin is so extreme in his demands and threats that it’s impossible not to get close to other countries,” Mr. Aro said. “You can’t have an alliance without a threat, and Putin is a threat.”