Europeans Grow More Assertive on Ukraine as Washington Shows Caution

From a Wall Street Journal story by Yaroslav Trofimov headlined “Europeans Grow More Assertive on Ukraine as Washington Shows Caution”:

VILNIUS, Lithuania—Last week’s NATO summit revealed a major realignment within the U.S.-led trans-Atlantic alliance.

European nations, once seen as less steadfast in their support for Kyiv and more vulnerable to Russian pressure, are determined to help Ukraine win an unambiguous victory. At the same time, the Biden administration, which orchestrated a unified Western response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion last year, is increasingly cautious—constrained by domestic politics and a fear of direct confrontation with Moscow.

In Europe, the once-gaping divisions between different capitals have narrowed sharply, as countries previously seen as soft on Russia, including France, Italy, Spain and to a lesser extent Germany, have all moved much closer to Ukraine’s fiercest supporters: Poland, the Baltic and the Nordic states.

“It took a while, but then it seeped through. Today a lot of leaders around Europe, including Germany, understand that they must help Ukraine defeat Putin if they want to defend their own security,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament. “They have well understood that Putin’s threat to Ukraine has significance far beyond Ukraine itself.”

The divergence between Washington and its European allies is increasingly evident on an array of issues, from Ukraine’s prospects of eventually joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to the military capabilities that Kyiv needs for its current offensive aiming to reclaim occupied territory, to the desirability of any peace settlement with the Kremlin in the near term.

“Biden’s mantra is that the unity of the alliance is the high priority,” said Slawomir Dębski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a Warsaw think tank that advises Poland’s government. “The problem now is that it’s the Biden administration that is lagging behind Europe, and it’s the Biden administration that is creating trouble for the unity.”

Washington remains the biggest backer of Ukraine, and President Biden reiterated in Vilnius that America’s commitment won’t waver—warning that Putin is making a “bad bet” as he doubts the West’s staying power and unity.

Yet political winds are blowing in opposite directions on the two sides of the Atlantic. A sizable, and growing, minority of the U.S. Republican Party wants to end any support for Ukraine, and America’s role in the war is likely to become an issue in next year’s presidential election. A proposal to prohibit all security assistance to Ukraine garnered 70 Republican votes, or nearly one-third of all Republican House members, on Thursday.

Former President Donald Trump, who seeks to return to the White House next year, has accused Biden of risking World War III by supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions, a type of ammunition that Russia has been using in abundance, and boasted that he could end the conflict within 24 hours, without saying how.

Few major European leaders have similar electoral concerns in the near term. European economies have successfully weaned themselves off dependence on Russian energy, and even the once pro-Putin nationalist parties rarely openly support Moscow nowadays. Many key European leaders who pushed for talks between Kyiv and Moscow last year, most importantly French President Emmanuel Macron, have increasingly come to the view that no deal on Ukraine can be struck until Putin is routed on the battlefield or leaves power.

“There is a growing belief in Europe that the defeat of Russia needs to be super clear, while at least in some corners of the U.S. system there might be a sense that this needs to be a defeat that generates a negotiated outcome,” said Camille Grand, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Brussels who served until last year as NATO’s assistant secretary-general. “There is this nuance.”

Biden, in remarks in Helsinki last week, said his hope and expectation is that “Ukraine makes significant progress on their offensive, and that it generates a negotiated settlement somewhere along the line.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that no settlement is possible until Ukraine regains occupied land, which amounts to about 20% of the country’s territory, and secures reparations from Moscow.

At the Vilnius summit, the Biden administration surprised many allies with its refusal to negotiate the language on Ukraine, which said that NATO “would be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met.”

Frustrated, Zelensky issued a fiery tweet as he arrived in Vilnius. “A window of opportunity is being left to bargain Ukraine’s membership in NATO in negotiations with Russia,” he wrote. “And for Russia, this means motivation to continue its terror.”

Daria Kaleniuk, a Ukrainian anticorruption campaigner and civil-society activist, raised this point in a sharp exchange with U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Is it true, she asked Sullivan at a NATO public forum in Vilnius, that Biden “didn’t invite Ukraine to NATO because he’s afraid of Russia, afraid of Russia losing, of Ukraine winning?”

Speculating that there are backchannel communications between Washington and Moscow, she added: “Should I prepare my son to be a soldier and fight the Russians when he will be 18 years old in seven years?” The audience responded with thunderous applause.

Sullivan responded that any suggestion that Washington would negotiate a secret deal with the Kremlin at Ukraine’s expense was “entirely unfounded and unjustified.”

“There has been a lot of conspiracy theorizing that is simply not based on any reality whatsoever,” he said, adding that “the American people do deserve a degree of gratitude.” U.S. officials sent similar messages denying any clandestine deals with Moscow to their European interlocutors—some of whom say they remain unconvinced by the denials, and are concerned that the American policy on Ukraine is increasingly dictated by the constraints of the U.S. political calendar.

Appearing on NBC Sunday, Sullivan reiterated that Ukraine’s NATO accession “is not subject to negotiation with any country, including Russia.”

The changing dynamic on military aid to Ukraine adds to tensions between Washington and many European allies. Though overall European and U.S. assistance to Ukraine is roughly the same, Washington still supplies most of the weapons used by Kyiv. In recent months, however, the Biden administration has been overtaken by European nations when it comes to providing new, more sophisticated and longer-range types of equipment that Kyiv says it needs for military success.

While the U.S. hasn’t agreed to supply ATACMS missiles sought by Kyiv, London and Paris have supplied longer-range cruise missiles that can hit anywhere in occupied parts of Ukraine, and that are being used against Russian command posts, logistics nodes and ammunition depots. Washington hasn’t delivered pledged Abrams tanks, while scores of German and British tanks already are on the battlefield. The Biden administration has also slow-rolled European efforts to provide Kyiv with F-16 aircraft owned by countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway.

“We used to think here that the problem is in Germany, but now it’s increasingly clear that the problem is in Washington,” said Vygaudas Ušackas, a former Lithuanian foreign minister and a former European Union ambassador to Moscow.

Within Europe, perhaps the most significant shift has occurred in France, the EU’s only nuclear power. Macron, who sought diplomatic engagement with Putin last year, has become increasingly convinced of the need for a Ukrainian victory—a belief he expressed in a landmark speech in Bratislava, Slovakia, on May 31. “Only one peace is possible—a peace that respects international law and is chosen by the victims of the aggression, the Ukrainian people,” he said.

Dębski, the head of the Polish think tank, said: “France does have a strategic culture, a strategic vision, and can think about the long term, which is why they are much closer now to the Nordic countries and to NATO’s eastern flank—countries that have no option but to think about the long run, the long-term consequences.”

The same sort of socially conservative, nationalist or nativist political currents that oppose helping Ukraine in the U.S. often have a very different attitude in Europe. Italy is a prime example. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose right-wing coalition includes parties historically friendly to Putin, has become one of Kyiv’s most vocal defenders since coming to power last October.

“Even in a Europe that tilts in some countries to the right, that doesn’t necessarily mean backing off from support for Ukraine,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome. “Nationalists like Meloni would feel strongly about the fact that Ukraine is fighting its war of national liberation.”

Europe’s proximity to Ukraine—and America’s distance—explains the different attitudes, she added: “Geography counts at the end of the day. The U.S. is far away, and can live with a compromise in a way that the Europeans would struggle far more to accept.”

Yaroslav Trofimov is the chief foreign-affairs correspondent of The Wall Street Journal. He has covered the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 and has been working out of Ukraine since January 2022.

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