BRUSSELS — President Joe Biden will meet with dozens of allied heads of state and governments Thursday to discuss new measures to punish Russia for its grinding war in Ukraine, testing his ability to persuade sanction-weary countries to support penalties on Moscow that could ricochet back on their own economies.
Biden, who has spent weeks devising ways to inflict maximum economic pain on Moscow, warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be on the verge of starting a dirty war in Ukraine but otherwise gave few hints of how he planned to rally world leaders in a day of back-to-back closed-door meetings.
“All I have to say I’m going to say it when I get there,” Biden told reporters before leaving Washington on Wednesday when asked what his message would be.
Despite working hand in glove with trans-Atlantic allies to raise the alarm about Putin's invasion, not all of Europe’s leaders are prepared to weather the economic blowback that could arise from penalties on Moscow's energy exports, a source of significant revenue for Putin's regime.
The fissures reveal how far some countries are prepared to go to punish Russia for rolling its troops into Ukraine and are expected to be front of mind in Brussels amid the White House's five-alarm warnings of Putin’s stepped-up chemical threats. While the president has said it is up to each leader to determine a country's risk tolerance, Moscow's attacks on civilians could make it harder for some to argue a pass for Russia.
Volodymyr Dubovyk, an associate professor of international relations at Mechnikov National University in Odesa, Ukraine, said Moscow’s energy sector has been largely exempted from the Western sanctions regime, sparing the Russian economy's “golden goose.” He said he hoped the United States could push European leaders to close some of these so-called loopholes.
“We’re seeing statements that European countries are going to try to gradually cut their dependence on Russian gas and oil, but it’s going to take time,” Dubovyk said, speaking to the Washington Examiner from Lviv. “Pressure on Russia should be happening right now. That’s how they fund the war.”
He said he expects the discussions Thursday to be mostly “about symbolism and showing that the West [is] still united,” with a peppering of practical announcements to shore up support for the European bloc's eastern front. “That is, of course, of little help or usefulness to us in Ukraine,” he added.
In an interview with Fox Business on Wednesday, Ukrainian politician Kira Rudik said that while her country was optimistic about its ground tactics against Russia, the shelling of cities has intensified, with two to three buildings in major cities destroyed each day.
The president has held back from pushing Germany and others to get off of Russian gas, relinquishing the coordinated actions that the U.S. has urged for other measures to alone step away from Russian oil and gas. Some countries have announced their intent to wean themselves off Russian energy, but critics say the monthslong time frame will prove too late to help Ukraine. European leaders disagreed in a meeting Monday on whether or how to impose sanctions on the sector, with Germany concluding that the bloc was too reliant on Russian fuel to come to an agreement.
If Biden helps unite fissured leaders to strike a deal, observers say he would make tangible promises to rout the Russian economy beyond conceivable measure.
In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pressed Biden to “step up the pace” of U.S. efforts to counter Moscow and “not act at the speed of bureaucracy.”
“President Biden should use the upcoming NATO summit to outline a plan to help Zelensky win with American and NATO weapons, intelligence, and humanitarian aid,” Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, said prior to the trip. “It’s time for the administration to stop self-deterring and outline a strategy to help get Ukraine what they need to win. Our goal should be simple: Zelensky wins and Putin loses."
Biden’s national security adviser told reporters that reducing European dependence on Moscow’s fuel lines is a “priority” for Biden and U.S. allies and will be discussed at length when they sit down in Brussels.
“The practical road map for how to do that — what steps have to be taken, what the United States can contribute, what Europe has to do itself — this has been the subject of intense back-and-forth over the course of the past few days and weeks,” Jake Sullivan said aboard Air Force One before noting that the U.S. would have “more to say” about this Friday.
There are other delicate issues that NATO and European allies are expected to weigh.
Dubovyk said NATO would also need to consider its response to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky preparing to seek neutral status for Kyiv. “He sees that Ukraine is not going to get membership anytime soon — and maybe never,” Dubovyk said, calling this a bitter pill to swallow but one that will change little in how Ukraine manages its territorial security.
“There is probably no perceivable difference in defending ourselves with our own army, plus certain allies who will be able to help,” Dubovyk added, with such an arrangement substituting for Kyiv’s pursuit of NATO membership.
In an address to the French Parliament on Wednesday, Zelensky accused a handful of large French companies of backing Putin’s war by refusing to cease operations in Russia. But he also offered praise for French President Emmanuel Macron, telling deputies and senators that the president had “shown real leadership,” suggesting deepening ties with someone who has acted often as a go-between with Putin during the crisis.
Another area of friction likely to arise Thursday is how far the alliance is willing to go to support Ukrainian defenses as Russia continues its assault on civilian centers.
While Biden and his top aides have slammed Putin as a war criminal, elevating their condemnation in an official statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday, the president has been insistent that he does not want to risk a U.S. military confrontation with Russia.
This underpinned a decision by Biden administration officials to shut down Poland’s offer to provide fighter jets to Ukraine by first delivering them to a U.S. air base in Germany.
Asked whether there had been any change in thinking on the Pentagon’s decision, Sullivan told reporters there had not. He said that while a subsequent Polish idea to send peacekeeping forces to Ukraine has not been formally discussed, the president remained opposed to sending any U.S. troops to Ukraine.
“We’ll have that conversation,” Sullivan said, “but our position, with respect to the deployment of U.S. forces in Ukraine, has been clear from the start, and it remains unchanged.”
The back-and-forth over the fighter jet proposal earlier this month confused observers who heard Blinken’s “green light” for Poland to act disappear once the U.S. was called to take on a role in the plan.
“We cannot afford long consultations and negotiations and red tape and bureaucracy,” said Dubovyk. “We’re in a situation where every day matters.”