The Memo: Biden will play for high stakes on European trip

President Biden waves to guests on the South Lawn of the White House as he walks towards Marine One for a flight to Delaware for the weekend on Friday, March 4, 2022.
Anna Rose Layden

President Biden will fly to Brussels Wednesday to begin the most important overseas trip of his presidency so far.

Biden’s itinerary includes a NATO extraordinary meeting, a Group of Seven (G-7) meeting and a summit of European leaders, all on Thursday, and a one-on-one engagement with the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, on Saturday.

Suggestions that Biden might meet Ukrainian refugees while in Poland remain unconfirmed for now.

The trip offers both opportunities and pitfalls for Biden, exactly one month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On the plus side, he can underline his leadership of a strong multilateral coalition. 

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said during a Tuesday White House briefing that Biden’s mission would “reinforce the incredible unity” that has been fostered so far.

Biden’s admirers note the stark difference between his approach to international alliances and that of his predecessor, President Trump.

“The alliance’s unity is really remarkable,” said Max Bergmann, the senior fellow for Europe and Russia at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “Biden has been able to erase the bad taste that had been left in the mouth by Donald Trump over his four years and transform the West.”

On the other hand, Biden must also contend with tensions between those European nations that want to do more to aid Ukraine and the U.S. position, which has prioritized not escalating the conflict.

Biden has not been shy about warning of the dangers of “World War Three.” But the administration’s de facto rejection of a Polish offer to send MiG fighter jets to the Ukrainians via a U.S. base in Germany was especially contentious. 

That decision, more than any other, also led to an erosion of the bipartisanship in Washington that had marked the earliest days after Russia’s invasion.

“I simply do not understand the logic for not getting the MiGs to the Ukrainians immediately,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said at the time. “It makes no sense.”

In recent days, the Poles also floated the idea of an international peacekeeping force being deployed in some areas of Ukraine not yet subject to fierce fighting. 

The idea got a chilly reception in Washington, where the fear is that it would simply leave American troops in the line of Russian fire with potentially catastrophic consequences.

So far, the Ukrainians have surprised everyone with the staunchness of their resistance. They have stalled Russian advances in many areas and thwarted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for a quick victory. But Russia nevertheless enjoys a big advantage in sheer military might.

Republican voices argue that Biden’s trip could expose some subtle differences in approach among Western nations.

Some European leaders “are giving the Ukrainians everything they can give them, whereas the president is not,” said Robert Wilkie, who served as secretary of Veterans Affairs under former President Trump and as an assistant secretary of Defense under former President George W. Bush.

Wilkie added that Biden and the rest of the Western leaders “have to decide if they want Ukraine to win, or do they just want to contain Putin. Those are two very different outcomes. Right now, Biden is in the contain mode, and that is a very dangerous place to be. You will reach a stalemate, and the temptation in Europe will be to release the sanctions.”

Biden, for the moment, is intent on intensifying those sanctions.

Biden “will join our partners in imposing further sanctions on Russia and tightening the existing sanctions to crack down on evasion and to ensure robust enforcement,” Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday. The national security adviser declined to provide more specifics before the official announcement, expected Thursday.

There are a raft of new challenges that are rearing their heads, or could do so soon.

Biden spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday to warn of serious consequences if China comes directly to Russia’s aid. But it is not clear that any real guarantees were forthcoming from Xi.

On Monday, Biden sounded the alarm about the rising dangers of Russian cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure. He cast it as a patriotic duty for American companies to fortify their defenses in that regard.

There are also fears that Putin, frustrated by the slow pace of Russian progress so far, could turn to chemical attacks or even the use of smaller nuclear devices. Either option would escalate the conflict dramatically, as well as strain the Western alliance on how to respond.

Biden’s backers insist that the administration’s approach needs to be given more time.

“In a crisis like this, everyone is always impatient — and rightly so, you want the war to end as fast as possible,” said Bergmann. “There is always the question of ‘what more can be done?’ That’s legitimate, but we also have to understand the U.S. strategy is working, it’s being effective.”

He summarized that strategy as “bolster the Ukrainian forces, prevent Russia from achieving its military goals, impose enormous costs at home on Vladimir Putin and isolate Russia globally.”  

The problem for Biden is that calls for more action will only become louder the longer invasion goes on — and there are no signs that Putin will be backing down anytime soon.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage

Tags China Donald Trump Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Mitt Romney NATO Poland Robert Wilkie Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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