The stakes for President Biden‘s meeting with NATO allies as war rages in Ukraine could not be higher, but the expectations are low for quick and concrete results as Europe and the U.S. show little appetite for their remaining options to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces.
With Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine just short of a month old, Mr. Biden will leave for Belgium on Wednesday. He will attend a NATO summit, a meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations and a session of European Union leaders to discuss ways to restrain Moscow and support Kyiv. He will then travel to Poland, which has taken the largest number of the more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees who have fled the fighting in their homeland. He will meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda on Saturday.
It will be Mr. Biden’s first trip to Europe since the war broke out on Feb. 24.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has pressed Washington and Brussels repeatedly in recent days to do more to help his country defend itself, will take “an active part” in the Brussels summit, a spokesperson said Tuesday.
The trip right now looks to be more symbolism than substance, even as the White House said it was preparing yet another round of sanctions against Russia. Ukrainian cities experienced some of the worst bombardments of the war, and U.S. and NATO leaders continued to reject measures that they feared could draw Western nations into a direct fight with Russia.
It was not clear as Mr. Biden prepared to leave that the U.S. and its allies would take major steps to boost the defense of Ukraine and punish Russia. Mr. Zelenskyy has pleaded with NATO to impose a no-fly zone over his country and requested MiG fighter jets to fend off Russian attacks.
The Biden administration and NATO leaders have adamantly opposed both requests. Although some European allies have expressed interest in supplying Ukraine with fighter jets, it’s unlikely such an agreement will be reached during the NATO summit.
“The American people should have low expectations for this summit,” said Michael John Williams, director of the International Relations Program at Syracuse University. “The administration is concerned with containing the conflict, not escalating it, and they view options like fighter jets and a no-fly zone as an escalation. You will see more of the same at this summit.”
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan suggested that no new policy shifts will be announced during the president’s trip.
Mr. Sullivan confirmed that the U.S. and its allies will announce additional sanctions on Russia, action on boosting European energy security and humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees. Those moves build on actions that Western nations have already taken.
“The administration worries that if it is too proactive, it will be seen as escalatory,” Mr. Williams said. “As a result, they are going to wait it out, which means a protracted conflict. I think they are very worried about nuclear weapons and what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin may do.”
On another front, Mr. Sullivan said the U.S. has seen no evidence that China has been supplying Russia with military aid and equipment in the Ukraine conflict, but that possibility remains a concern. China has supported Russia’s grievances in the war but said it backs a diplomatic resolution and denies helping arm the Russian forces.
Mr. Biden will take a broad approach to keep allies united against Mr. Putin as his attacks on Ukraine continue. The need to keep allies on the same page seems even more critical amid potential cracks in the alliance.
Even as Mr. Sullivan said the U.S. and its allies will hit Mr. Putin with harsher sanctions, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stressed that such penalties must be “manageable” for European countries that are far more dependent than the U.S. on Russian energy. Poland and other front-line states in Eastern Europe are also expected to press Mr. Biden for more American troops and weaponry to be stationed in the region.
Critics on the Hill
Republican lawmakers say Mr. Biden could accomplish a lot during this trip but aren’t certain about any agreements. Critics say the president has been too deferential to Moscow, unnecessarily limiting Western support for Ukraine out of excessive fear of provoking Mr. Putin.
“Crisis management is a core mission of NATO, and it must coordinate among the allies to quickly deliver everything Ukraine needs, whether that’s airplanes, medium- and long-range air defense, secure communications or other equipment,” Sen. James E. Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement to The Washington Times. “The Biden administration must lead NATO, and the alliance must help Ukraine win this conflict.”
Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had a list of suggestions for Mr. Biden.
“Biden needs to urge Europe to invest significantly more in its defense and closely examine a Russian oil import ban to further starve Russia’s war machine. Biden must also leave Europe assured that our allies and partners on the continent are prepared to speak with a common voice on the consequences Beijing must face for any and all support for Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine,” he said in a statement.
The pressure to help Ukraine has grown as its forces have proved unexpectedly dogged in resisting the larger and better-armed Russian invaders. Military experts have harshly criticized Russia’s war strategy with its forces stalemated in many parts of the country and unable to claim control of a major Ukrainian city.
Ukrainian forces were fighting to take back some of the territories that Russia seized in the past few days, and a senior U.S. defense official said they were “able and willing” to do so. Ukrainian fighters regained control of Markariv, a town 30 miles west of Kyiv, the armed forces said on Facebook.
U.S. officials said the Russian troops operating in Ukraine have also been plagued with logistics problems. A senior Defense Department official, briefing reporters on background Tuesday, said the Russian forces were having problems acquiring fuel for their combat vehicles and even feeding their troops. Some of the Russian soldiers were suffering from frostbite because they lacked appropriate cold weather gear, the official said.
“We don’t think they properly planned this,” he said.
Still, the same military experts said the situation is becoming increasingly dire in Ukraine as the Russians adjust their tactics and press their offensive against military and civilian targets alike. The mayor of Boryspil, a city east of Kyiv, urged residents to leave because of fighting “raging around the region.”
The Kremlin has dispatched more than 20 naval vessels to waters around Ukraine to take part in Russia’s invasion. The list includes an estimated 12 surface combatant ships, such as destroyers and frigates, and nine amphibious landing ships. Russian warships in the Sea of Azov shelled the port city of Mariupol on Tuesday after officials defied a Russian demand this week to surrender.
More than 200,000 people are trapped in Mariupol while the shelling continues, creating one of the most urgent humanitarian crises since the war began. The advocacy group Human Rights Watch described the situation as a “freezing hellscape riddled with dead bodies and destroyed buildings.”
Other Ukrainian cities are also suffering. Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, said about 300,000 people in Kherson, now largely in Russian hands, are running out of food and medical supplies. Mr. Nikolenko said Russia refuses to open humanitarian corridors to evacuate citizens, decrying its tactics as “barbaric.”
Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organization, estimates that some Ukraine towns have enough food to last only three or four days.
As the number of Ukrainians flee the war-ravaged nation, countries that are accepting the refugees say they are already stretched thin. It is estimated that more than 3.5 million refugees have now fled Ukraine.
Fitful diplomatic talks between delegations from Ukraine and Russia are ongoing in search of a cease-fire deal. Ukrainian officials say they are willing to discuss a neutrality arrangement regarding Ukraine’s hopes of joining NATO but say they will reject any final peace deal that cedes Ukrainian sovereignty over contested areas such as Crimea and the eastern Donbas region.
Deputy Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Tuesday that he expects 40,000 Ukrainian refugees in his country by the end of April. There are already more than 10,000 Ukrainians already in Ireland and that number is expected to double by the end of March.
“What we are seeing in the course of a few weeks is effectively a 1% increase in our population, only in the course of a few weeks, and that’s going to have serious impacts on education, on health care, on housing, on social protection, on public finances, even on things like greenhouse gas emissions,” Mr. Varadkar said.
— Mike Glenn contributed to this report.