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A new task for Biden: preparing allies for a long conflict in Ukraine


WASHINGTON — When President Biden met with his Western allies in Europe three months ago, the world rallied around Ukraine, and NATO suddenly had a new sense of purpose — its old goal, to contain Russia. We were talking about “crippling sanctions”. President Vladimir V. Putin was in retreat and rumors of victory were in the air.

Mr. Biden returns to Europe on Saturday evening at a time when everything related to the war is more difficult. While Russia’s oil exports have fallen precipitously, its revenues have actually increased, due to soaring fuel prices. After concentrating its efforts in southern and eastern Ukraine, Russia is making incremental but significant gains as the encircled Ukrainians begin to abandon key cities: first Mariupol, and now, in east, Sievierodonetsk.

Mr Biden must therefore prepare his allies for a bitter conflict – a return to the “long twilight struggle” of which President John F. Kennedy spoke during the Cold War – amid shocks in food and energy markets and inflation. in large scale. few imagined six months ago. Unsurprisingly, some cracks are already emerging, as popular discontent, and the upcoming elections, begin to worry Allied leaders.

White House officials say none of this will deter Mr. Biden from squeezing Russia even tighter, and the past few weeks have included behind-the-scenes efforts to reach agreements on new ways to isolate Moscow.

John F. Kirby, the former Pentagon spokesman who moved to the White House to coordinate messaging about Mr. Biden’s war aims, told reporters on Thursday to expect further steps to “target the Russian defense supply chain and continue to crack down on evasion”. of these unprecedented sanctions” – apparently a warning to China and India, which have continued to buy Russian oil at a discount.

Mr Kirby argued that Moscow was starting to suffer, four months into the war. “Because of our actions, Russia is struggling to make bond payments, getting closer to defaulting,” he said. “And our actions will only tighten the screws and restrict the revenue Mr. Putin needs to fund this war.”

The White House also plans to announce new measures to boost NATO capabilities, including a new “strategic concept” for the alliance, the first in a dozen years. At the time, there was still talk of integrating Russia into Europe; today it seems fanciful.

The main concrete measures will be the creation of a new “cyber rapid reaction” force which can intervene to help defend NATO members – and Sweden and Finland, the two countries whose requests are pending – against the escalation of cyberattacks designed to intimidate them. Similar commitments have been announced before, but Anne Neuberger, the president’s deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies, said in an interview that NATO needed to draw on the expertise and intelligence gathering of its most skilled operators in cyberconflicts.

“We recognized the need for a virtual capability to respond quickly to an incident if an ally experiences a significant cyberattack and requests assistance,” Neuberger said Friday. “It really reflects the lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine scenario – that if you prepare in advance and train in advance, you know how to react quickly.”

But the looming question will be how to deal with Mr Putin, at a time when Russia has been recast from another European power into a pariah state. His isolation will deepen, according to US officials. But when French President Emmanuel Macron said in May that the West must resist “the temptation to humiliate” Mr Putin, it was among the first public signs of a breakdown in the fundamental strategy of how far to push the Russian leader short of sending NATO troops into the fight – a step Mr Biden and other NATO leaders say they do not intend to take.

“Compared to the March trip, Biden faces an increased degree of trade-off between domestic and foreign policy goals,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based research group. “His priority will be to increase pressure on Russia and help Ukraine, but to do so when the West worries about oil and food prices, its remaining arms stockpiles and of a war that shows no end in sight.”

For now, Mr. Biden is under little political pressure at home to back down. Much of the debate about how much to increase the pressure on Mr Putin, without causing a major escalation in the war, is taking place behind closed doors among his staff.

But there are fears that rising gas prices and the cost of maintaining Ukraine’s weapons and food could start to dampen enthusiasm, especially if Mr Putin follows through on recent threats to limit the Europe’s gas supply in the fall. Mr. Fontaine noted: “Every leader he will meet is in the same general dilemma, and elections are looming in the United States and elsewhere. Western unity is high, support for Ukraine still very strong and the will to resist real Russia.

But he also said the summit meetings “show how enduring the various lines of effort will be as the war itself recedes.”

It’s the new and gritty nature of the conflict that differentiates these two summits – a meeting of the Group of 7, a gathering of the world’s wealthiest major democracies, at Elmau Castle in Germany and then NATO, from Wednesday in Madrid – of those who have gone before.

Just two months ago, the Americans were openly talking about the victory over the Russians and the reasonable hope that Mr. Putin’s forces would be forced to fall back to the positions they held before the February 24 invasion. At the end of his last speech on this trip, in Warsaw, after visiting refugees who had crossed the Polish border, Mr. Biden said this about Mr. Putin: “For the love of God, this man cannot stay in power.

White House aides immediately declared that the United States was not seeking to engineer regime change, just as it rushed a month later when Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, speaking with precision but too outspoken about America’s strategic goals, said, “We want to see Russia weakened to the point that it can’t do the kinds of things it did by invading Ukraine.”

Mr. Biden is now more cautious in his public tone, although his goals remain fundamentally unchanged. The question is whether he can begin to move his allies from a crisis response to a sustained response to the invasion, knowing that the expenses will increase and the pressure will increase as Mr Putin tries to use all the weapons at his disposal – such as limiting gas exports and continuing to block Ukrainian grain exports – to exert leverage over his adversaries.

“It is only natural that peoples and governments lose interest in conflicts as they drag on,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, wrote in Foreign Affairs this month. “The world stopped paying attention to the war in Libya” after the fall of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, he later added, and “disengaged from Syria, Yemen and other conflicts in progress that once made the headlines”. The same thing happened after Russia annexed Crimea, he said.

“Compromise with Russia may seem tempting to some abroad, especially as the costs of war rise,” he concluded, saying the only path was “a complete and utter victory for Ukraine”.

In public, everyone will agree. Although Mr. Biden says little about it at the summits, the debate within his own administration about what to send and what to keep at home replays every week in the meeting room. situation.

Mr. Biden, according to his aides, constantly wonders whether new weapons — like the advanced artillery that has just arrived on the battlefield or the advanced drones the White House is now planning to send — would escalate the war too quickly. and would give Mr. Putin another justification. for retaliation. But he also wants to make sure that Mr. Putin loses ground.

Hovering above the two dates, this perilous moment for the world economy. Inflation soared in the US and Europe, driven by supply chain disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic; an increase in consumer demand as economies reopen; and, in recent months, a spike in food and energy prices caused by the Russian invasion. Rapid price increases have hurt workers and families in the Group of 7 and eroded the standing of their leaders in the polls, especially Mr. Biden.

Despite all their calls for unity, leaders will struggle to find quick, concrete ways to work together to help ease this economic and political pain. They are ready to discuss infrastructure investments and other ways to unlock global supply chains; new measures to counter China’s trade practices that US leaders and others call predatory; and a series of questions surrounding inflation. But everyone fears that interest rate hikes are the prelude to a recession.

Perhaps most urgently for Mr. Biden, leaders should discuss ways to bring down global oil prices – and with them, the prices of gas-pump drivers – including possible changes in the way European nations have sought to harm Russia’s oil exports.

Leaders are also expected to spend a lot of time discussing global agriculture and how to increase the world’s food supply, as war cuts off access to essential sources of food for rich and poor countries alike. So far, efforts by the Biden administration to find a route out of Ukraine for its agricultural products have failed. Russia is doing what it can to tighten the noose, in what appears to be an effort to bring the country of President Volodymyr Zelensky to economic collapse.

For European allies, keeping Ukraine afloat, while containing Russia, was a mission barely discussed when the allies met a year ago. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscores a central challenge to U.S. engagement with key allies and partners,” said Ali Wyne, author of “America’s Great-Power Opportunity,” a new book examining the changing nature of great power competition.

He defined Mr Biden’s challenge as “translating the short-term unity born of reactive shock into lasting cohesion, born of affirmative goals”.

Jim Tankerley contributed reporting from Innsbruck, Austria.

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