President Joe Biden arrived in Europe Thursday morning to begin a series of high-profile meetings with foreign counterparts. The mission aim is ostensibly to enhance global unity in the face of Russian aggression. Will substantive talks be the order of the day, or is this just an opportunity for world leaders to display a united front and build popular support with their domestic audiences?
The president will embark on three significant summits during his visit, however it seems the discussions have already taken place behind the scenes. First up are the NATO nations. At the top of the docket is expected to be a commitment to increase military deployment in nations on the western flank of Ukraine; presently, there are roughly 40,000 alliance troops at the ready. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that the 30-nation group would discuss sending additional forces to Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary. As well as these four combat units, it is expected the alliance will agree to send equipment to Ukrainian citizens to help them against chemical and biological weapon attacks.
The focus on the potential for chemical attacks from President Vladimir Putin has been rife among Western leaders these last few days. Yet even among the pro-Biden news media, there exists some skepticism, as numerous outlets have added a boilerplate proviso to statements on the topic. The suggestions of impending chemical attacks are made “without evidence” state the disclaimers, with the press perhaps attempting to steer clear of making the same mistake that surrounded the accusations of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
EU Needs Reassurances
One meeting where the outcome appears somewhat less decided is one with European Union leaders, who have grave concerns about their own energy supply chain. “A substantial topic of conversation – a major priority for both the President and his European allies – is to reduce the dependence of Europe on Russian gas, full stop,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Wednesday.
Russia currently supplies around 40% of the EU’s natural gas, 27% of its oil, and almost 50% of coal imports. The issue at hand for European politicians is that if they apply harsher sanctions against Putin, they will be unable to meet the continent’s energy needs. The discussions with Biden and his team will likely focus on how much liquified natural gas (LNG) the US can provide over the coming two years. Some American analysts worry that Biden may agree to commitments that would put even greater stress on fuel costs and availability back home. Having already shipped record volumes of LNG to Europe over the last three months, prices are now ten times higher than the same period the previous year. Sullivan himself hinted at possible frictions, saying it was a “subject of intense back and forth.”
A draft conclusion summary says officials will “work together on the joint purchase of gas, LNG, and hydrogen” before next winter and coordinate measures to replenish and fill gas storage, according to Reuters. However, as with all EU decisions, there needs to be unanimity between the 27 member states, some of whom are reluctant to commit to disengaging from a reliable Russian supply in favor of diplomatic promises of future support from the US.
These concerns are compounded by the fact that Europe does not yet have the infrastructure in place to receive increased supplies of LNG from other sources.
Earlier in the week, the president set the cat among the pigeons by announcing that a “new world order” was on its way. He said at a Business Executives Roundtable that “there’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it. We’ve got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it.” It is assumed that he was referring to a new level of global cooperation between international partners. In practice, this likely means Biden will seek assurances that allies in NATO, the G7, and the EU will continue to apply and increase sanctions, and present a united front.
On Wednesday morning, State Department Spokesman Ned Price told the press:
“Our goal is to weaken Russia’s hand, tactically, and strategically, and to strengthen Ukraine’s hand on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. We know this conflict has to be resolved diplomatically if we’re going to save lives.”
Have You Heard of Zoom?
It seems agreements have already been made on most topics likely to be discussed. From additional sanctions to a commitment for further troop deployment, all appears settled. The question that remains is whether the EU can agree unanimously to wean itself off Russian energy. But that is a decision to be made by the member states alone. President Biden’s presence in Europe appears more to do with presenting an image to Vladimir Putin – and, indeed, the world at large – that America is involved and leading the charge. The agreements, the sanctions, and the troop movements could have been arranged through normal diplomatic channels, as they have been up until now.
Over the last 14 months, since he became president, Joe Biden has demonstrated that he does not manage crises well. If he hopes to salvage his sullied reputation, he will need to do more than just present scripted remarks and engage in social media self-plaudits.
~ Read more from Mark Angelides.
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