President Joe Biden faces a crucial test of his ability to project power and reassurance amid the biggest European security crisis in decades, as he seeks to rally US allies around harder-hitting sanctions to punish Russia for invading Ukraine.
Biden will join back-to-back summits Thursday with NATO, the Group of Seven and the European Union in Brussels, where the over-arching need to paper over cracks in international support for Ukraine will collide with disagreements over how far to target energy, given Europe's reliance on Russian gas.
The desire to showcase a common resolve against Russian President Vladimir Putin can't hide the reality that for all the strong words, there is no will to intervene militarily in a bloody conflict at NATO's door. The stakes have been raised by the fear that Putin could resort to deploying weapons of mass destruction, as well as unease over the role of China and how Russia's most powerful diplomatic ally may seek to exploit the crisis.
In a stirring address to the US Congress last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy presented graphic video footage of Russia's bombardment of Ukraine and switched to English to call on Biden to be the "leader of the world," citing the US's example in changing the outcome of World War II. The last time the US stepped in directly to end a conflict in the region was in the Balkans during the 1990s.
Since then, a series of foreign-policy setbacks culminating in the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan have dampened US enthusiasm to intervene in another conflict. Biden has already rejected one of Zelenskiy's key demands, to close Ukrainian air space, arguing it would result in fighting between the US and Russia, two nuclear-armed powers.
But he is under pressure to figure out how else to turn up the heat on Putin without alienating allies or precipitating a broader war. As the conflict enters its fourth week, Russia's military campaign has faltered, yet its forces have occupied considerable territory in the country's south and east with mounting civilian casualties.
Sanctions, Energy Plans
Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said at a briefing Tuesday that in Brussels, the president and European allies will join "in imposing further sanctions on Russia and tightening the existing sanctions to crack down on evasion and to ensure robust enforcement."
They'll also announce "joint action on enhancing European energy security and reducing Europe's dependence on Russian gas at long last," Sullivan added.
He didn't elaborate on either announcement.
The Wall Street Journal reported that new sanctions announced as soon as Thursday would include penalties on more than 300 members of Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
The most poignant and emotionally charged part of Biden's trip will come on Friday when he visits Poland, a NATO ally that is hosting the biggest number of displaced Ukrainians in what has become the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.
There is also mounting alarm over how to respond to any potential use of chemical weapons by Russia. The US has repeatedly warned that Moscow may be planning to stage a pretext to use such weapons.
"I think it's a real threat," Biden told reporters at the White House Wednesday morning as he set off for Europe. He declined to preview his remarks to European leaders.
Russian use of chemical or biological weapons may see countries such as Germany back sanctions on Russia's energy exports, according to one person familiar with the matter, a move that Berlin and others have so far resisted.
In all this, Biden will need to ensure that European allies are on the same page when it comes to communicating to China the consequences of providing Russia with any material support or help softening the blow of sanctions.
"We believe we're very much on the same page with our European partners, and we will be speaking with one voice on this issue," the White House's Sullivan said.
One EU official said allies will discuss how to send a joint message to Beijing, though it's not clear how hawkish the tone would be. France in particular believes the NATO allies shouldn't push too hard against China, two officials said.
"If it's seen at all that there are fractures in the relationship publicly, that will be damaging to Ukraine and that will be emboldening for Russia," said Josh Lipsky, a former State Department official in the Obama administration. "If it's seen -- both from a stagecraft and policy perspective -- that there's still unity in a way that Putin never expected, then I think he will see that he underestimated the West."
Popular in Europe
Biden, nevertheless, can expect a warm welcome in Europe. Public approval ratings of US leadership on the continent have soared under Biden, polling by Gallup found. US approval has declined in just one NATO member: Lithuania, an eastern-flank nation that borders Belarus.
But this week's meetings will test the limits of the US's power, should either Biden or his European counterparts push for bolder moves that some have been reluctant to take -- particular on energy. A major question hanging over the meetings is how hard to strike at Russian energy shipments, the lifeblood of its economy.
The US has banned all imports of Russian fuels, while Canada and the UK have banned crude oil. But Europe relies much more heavily on oil and gas from Russia. Germany and Hungary downplayed chances of a potential embargo on Russian oil ahead of the summits, deepening divisions over how to further punish Moscow.
There are signals that additional US pressure could be seen as grandstanding, given Europe has more to lose. As France's EU Affairs Minister Clement Beaune pointedly said earlier this month: "Americans have done it, but the Americans barely consume Russian gas."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.