Joe Biden’s High-Stakes Europe Trip for NATO Summit Begins

JBiden was busy when he left the White House for his four-day European swing. His signature sunglasses and his cell phone were in two hands. Over the thumping rotors of the waiting Marine One helicopter, a reporter asked Biden if he’s concerned about Russia using chemical weapons in Ukraine. “I think it’s a real threat,” Biden said, turning toward the spinning blades of the chopper and putting the glasses on.

The stakes are high for Biden’s trip. The White House is increasingly concerned that Russia could escalate the conflict and inflict massive civilian casualties at Kyiv, or Mariupol (which Russia has been bombarding for several weeks). Fears that the direct conflict could become a larger war have prompted the U.S. to reject requests by NATO members for countries to establish a no flight zone in Ukraine. Experts warn, however that Russia’s escalation in Ukraine may change the calculus for Western allies.

In the meetings in Europe on March 24 and 25, Biden will discuss Moscow’s potential use of chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, how countries should respond to possible Russian cyber attacks, and how to deal with recent Russian rhetoric on nuclear weapons. He’s attending an emergency summit at NATO headquarters in Belgium and meeting with leaders of G7 countries and the European Union. Biden will meet President Andrzej duda, Poland’s eastern border, before returning to the U.S. Poland, which shares a border with Ukraine and Russia’s ally Belarus, has borne the shockwaves of Russia’s month-long war, taking in 3 million refugees and becoming the main pathway of weapons moving through to bolster Ukrainian defenses.

On the trip, Biden will also be trying to get allies to make sure financial punishments they’ve already put in place continue to pinch the Russian economy. The sanctions on Russian industry and financial transactions won’t mean much if Russia finds ways around them. Biden would like to see European allies assign investigators and prosecutor with strong sanctions enforcement actions. “What we would like to hear is that the resolve and unity we’ve seen for the past month will endure for as long as it takes,” Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on March 23 aboard Air Force One on the way to Belgium.

But while Biden has largely kept NATO allies unified in their response so far, this trip will test the group’s resolve. It is unclear what extent the U.S. sanctions against Russia are and how to proceed. Finding ways to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas has been the subject of “intense back and forth” over the past fews days, Sullivan said, and is another “substantial topic of conversation” for Biden on the trip.

Biden prohibited the purchase of Russian oil or gas by the United States on March 8. Germany and the other European countries which rely on Russian energy imports more have mostly kept Russian fuel flowing. Biden White House feels that Europe could do more in order to reduce dependence on Russian energy. U.S. officials want Germany, as an example, to reduce its Russian energy purchase. White House officials have considered closing the U.S. banking system to electronic transfers paying for Russian energy but won’t take that harsh step without agreement from allies whose domestic energy supply is reliant on Russian gas and oil.

Germany is seeking ways the U.S., and its allies, could reduce the negative impact on Germany’s economy in case of further cuts to Russian energy purchases. Although the U.S. increased delivery of liquid natural gas to Europe recently, European leaders desire more help in investing in other sources. European countries want to help with the cost and effort involved in resettling those fleeing Ukraine. Europe seeks the U.S., its allies and partners to reduce the impact and cost of this rapid mass migration.

Looming over Biden’s meetings is the question of how far China will go to prop up Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine and how allies should respond. Sullivan indicated that so far the White House is not aware of any evidence suggesting China has provided ammunition or weapons to Russia for the purpose of supporting the invasion. But there’s increasing concern that China could take financial steps to blunt the longer-term impact of sanctions on the economy in Russia, a close trading partner. Biden wants to talk to allies to ensure “there isn’t systematic sanctions busting,” Sullivan said. “I don’t want to use the microphone to threaten, I just want to say this is something we are vigilant about.”

Putin’s aggression on NATO’s doorstep in Ukraine has clarified the alliance’s mission to protect Europe from invasion. Biden is now calling on NATO allies not to renege on their pledges to improve military spending and deploy more troops and equipment to Eastern Europe. Military commanders from NATO countries are looking at what size troop deployments are needed over the next several months to protect Europe’s borders with Russia.

Given that Poland’s border with Ukraine is being used to resupply weapons from European countries to Ukrainian forces, Poland is one NATO ally currently in Russia’s crosshairs. Biden’s visit to the country at the end of his trip carries powerful symbolic weight for reaffirming the U.S. commitment to NATO and to Poland, says Steven Durlauf, a professor at University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. “They’re on the firing line; If Russia goes crazy and actually crosses a NATO border, it’s going to be theirs,” he says. Biden clasping hands with Poland’s president in Warsaw at this moment, “is largely symbolic,” Durlauf adds, “but this is the time when symbols carry weight.”

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