Brussels has been the focus this week of a full court diplomatic offensive by U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken who arrived earlier this week and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin who landed in Belgium Wednesday for his first in-person meeting since the coronavirus pandemic began with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
The main goal of the meetings with NATO and European Union leaders has been to repair transatlantic bonds strained during Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House.
“There are many issues to be discussed,” Stoltenberg said on welcoming Blinken to the Belgian capital, noting appreciatively that America’s top diplomat had been in Europe recently for a gathering of NATO foreign ministers.
“The fact that you are back again this month together with Secretary Austin, I think that demonstrates the strong U.S. commitment to NATO, to our transatlantic bond,” Stoltenberg added.
But the Biden team is encountering some of the same headwinds that contributed to the straining of Euro-U.S. ties, first during Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House, and then to a much greater degree under Trump, who identified Europe as an economic adversary and was querulous about NATO’s purpose.
All EU national governments have welcomed President Joe Biden’s aim of revitalizing U.S.-European ties. The adversarial language has gone, but Washington is now facing an EU that’s turning inward with the bloc focused on protecting its own post-pandemic market and preoccupied about how to stem the coronavirus, analysts say.
And the post-World War II transatlantic consensus is being complicated by splits within the bloc over the best ways to handle the rising power of Communist China and how to manage Russia, they add.
Even before the flurry of diplomatic visits to Brussels this week some analysts were warning of challenges ahead. The rebuilding “could well prove more difficult than it first appears,” noted recently Steven Pifer, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a U.S.-based research organization, and former U.S. envoy to Ukraine.
Worries on Russian buildup
But how to handle Russia, which is now piling up troops and military hardware along the eastern Ukraine border, and in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, is becoming the most pressing issue facing Western powers.
And it is one that may determine the longer run prospects for Biden’s bid to revitalize the transatlantic alliance, some diplomats and analysts believe.
The largely unexplained Russian military buildup is prompting questions about whether the Kremlin is actually plotting another incursion into Ukrainian territory or whether it is taking the measure of Biden and testing the new U.S. president. Russia has told western officials the military buildup is just an exercise, but Kremlin officials have said publicly it is in response to Ukrainian aggression, a claim rejected by Ukrainian officials. The Ukrainians fear whatever Russia’s intentions the situation is become highly unstable and could easily tip into a full-scale war.
The U.S. and NATO have offered “unwavering support” to Ukraine and have denounced the buildup as “provocative.” Secretary of State Blinken said Wednesday, after a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, that he was pleasantly surprised at how all the NATO member states unreservedly condemned the Russian buildup.
“What was striking to me was, in the North Atlantic Council meeting, listening to every single ally, all 30 of us, express those concerns and a determination to see Russia take steps to de-escalate the tensions that it is creating,” Blinken said at a press conference.
Ukraine wants more
But a nervous Kyiv is looking for more than just words. That was stressed Tuesday by Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, after meeting Blinken in Brussels. He told reporters condemnation needed to be “supported by actions that will make it very clear for Russia that the price of its aggression against Ukraine will be too heavy for it to bear.”
Kuleba added, “It is better to act now to prevent Russia from further escalating the situation.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will emphasize the same message to French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris Friday, say Ukrainian officials.
Despite the Ukrainians’ sense of urgency, the Biden administration and its European partners have so far not agreed on clear steps to deter Russia. Some fault a risk-averse and pandemic-preoccupied Europe for this.
While the U.S. has called on Russia to de-escalate, France and Germany have urged both Russia and Ukraine to show restraint. “France and Germany are treating the perpetrator and victim of aggression alike,” worries Edward Lucas, author of “The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West.”
In a commentary for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a non-partisan research group headquartered in Washington, he noted that France’s Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel recently discussed the Ukraine crisis with Putin “over the Ukrainians’ heads.”
"That sends a demoralizing message to the rest of Europe, and an encouraging one to the Kremlin: when things get serious, Berlin and Paris pursue their own interests, not wider ones,” he added.
Former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves cautions that the Franco-German overtures risk reinforcing the impression in Moscow of European weakness. He suspects Putin’s military buildup is an act of intimidation “to see how the West responds and he will play it by ear and see how it goes,” he said at an event in the U.S. capital.
According to former U.S. envoy Pifer, the big dilemma facing the Biden administration is how to revive the transatlantic security alliance while “not letting things get derailed by difficult issues that could divide the allies.”