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Biden talks tough on Putin, but European allies are less ready for a fight

President Joe Biden has warned Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that his country will face severe sanctions if it once again attacks Ukraine. A key question looms, however: Will European countries really go along with serious penalties on Moscow?

On the surface, Europe appears willing. European Union officials and national leaders from across the continent have promised huge economic penalties against Moscow for any new military incursion into Ukraine, in lockstep with their American partners.

After touring the front lines between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces on Wednesday, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell pledged that “any military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs” for Moscow.

Reading from the same script, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during a visit to Washington Wednesday that Russia would suffer “enormous economic consequences” for military action, though she, like other Western officials, stopped short of providing details, or pledging additional military assistance to Kyiv.

Even non-NATO countries such as Finland and Sweden are talking tough toward Russia. Given European nations’ trade links with Russia, a united response from the continent could do serious damage to Russia’s economy and perhaps even Putin’s political standing, more than U.S. sanctions alone.

But a closer look finds a bloc divided on how far to go, which could complicate Biden’s efforts to project a unified resolve.

While much of Eastern Europe — especially Poland and the Baltic states — is on high alert, the issue is nowhere near the top of the political agenda across most of the rest of the continent, where battling the pandemic and its economic fallout remains the priority. In Brussels, EU officials are more focused on why they don’t have a seat at the table for the Jan. 10 talks between U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva than what’s happening along the Russia-Ukraine border. Some countries are reluctant to undermine their business links with Russia; that includes Germany, which relies on Russian natural gas and has backed the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

For now, Biden administration officials prefer to look at the bright side.

“The Europeans are divided, but we’ve been positively impressed with their stance so far,” a senior administration official said. “The proof will be in the pudding, but no one should doubt serious sanctions if an invasion goes ahead.”

Added a U.S. official: “Whatever we decide — in concert with our allies and partners — is the right course for our collective interests and security, we are prepared to deliver severe costs to the Russian economy while minimizing unwanted spillover. Any costs that we would bear will pale in comparison to the impact we generate on the Russian economy and financial system.”

But European countries’ stances on how to respond to the crisis could depend on what Putin actually does, former U.S. officials said.

In recent months, Putin has amassed tens of thousands of troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine. If he orders his military forces to stage another land invasion, it will make it hard for most European countries to go easy on him. But if he takes steps that undermine Ukraine short of an invasion — cyber attacks, for instance, or incursions by mercenaries — that could complicate talks between Europe and the United States about how to react.

In 2014, Putin at first denied his government was behind an armed invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region, even claiming the troops were self-organized locals worried about threats to the area’s Russian-speaking population. It didn’t take long for the “little green men” to seize power and deliver Crimea to Russian control.

“Putin is very crafty at finding ways of poking us,” said Julia Friedlander, a former National Security Council official with expertise on Russia and Ukraine.

Another complicating factor for the Europeans is uncertainty about how long the tough U.S. stance on Russia will last, especially if Donald Trump returns to the White House after 2024. Although Trump’s administration imposed plenty of sanctions on Russia, Trump himself regularly sought better relations with Putin. Many European officials even question whether Trump would come to Europe’s aid if Russia were to attack a NATO ally, such as one of the Baltic states.

“If Trump wins the next election, we’re on our own,” one European official said. “And then what?”

Such concerns aside, some European leaders have at times given Putin the benefit of the doubt. In the wake of Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine in 2014, European powers, led by Germany, refused for months to bow to U.S. pressure to endorse sanctions against Moscow. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was particularly worried about the effect such a move would have on Germany’s substantial trade relationship with Russia.

Merkel insisted for months on fruitless dialogue with Putin in the wake of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea even as Moscow-supported separatists escalated the war in eastern Ukraine. President Barack Obama tried to win Merkel over when she visited the White House in May of 2014 — to no avail. It took the downing, several weeks later, of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with 298 people on board for Berlin to agree with U.S. demands to impose sanctions.

Former U.S. officials say there’s still room to punish Russia using sanctions.

The U.S. could impose new or additional sanctions on Russian banks and energy firms. There also are potential targets in Russia’s mining, metals and shipping sectors, according to former officials who deal with sanctions. Another option is cutting Russia off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a critical global network for exchanging financial information. That would be a particularly tough move against Russia’s finance sector, though Russian analysts and others have downplayed the seriousness and note the country is developing an alternative.

The trick is to calibrate the sanctions in a way that doesn’t rebound in too harsh a way on the European economy or, in the longer run, the U.S. economy.

European leaders for now appear intent on deescalating the crisis with Russia, even if it means mollifying Putin with concessions. Just before Christmas, for instance, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said it would be “false to link Russia’s behavior in the conflict with Ukraine with the operation” of the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline. That was taken as a signal that Austria would not support any punitive action toward Russia beyond the cosmetic.

One European diplomat said the U.S. has been transparent so far in how it plans to handle any new Russian aggression, but there is also consensus within the NATO alliance over rejecting the draft treaty with the U.S. that Moscow unveiled last month.

That treaty proposed by the Kremlin calls for the removal of NATO forces from any country in which they weren’t present before 1997 — effectively freezing out Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all alliance members that joined after that date.

The demands “are not acceptable in the 21st century, and it’s unacceptable that Russia is trying to veto deployments within NATO” countries, the diplomat said.

A second European defense official said the treaty draft “is basically [an attempt] to demolish NATO. Nobody in the West is going to say ‘yes’ to the whole package. I mean, that’s quite clear.”

Russia also says it wants legal guarantees that the NATO alliance will not expand farther eastward, a reading of agreements forged in the late 1990s that NATO says Moscow is misrepresenting, and a halt to weapons systems being set up near its borders.

The Biden administration has said any new Russian incursion into Ukraine would accomplish exactly the opposite of Putin’s desires, pledging to send new U.S. formations closer to the border to protect allies in the Baltic region.

“If there was another incursion, and if there was a request for additional capabilities” from allies, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, “we’d be positively disposed to consider those requests.”

Thousands of troops are organized in four battle groups from the U.S., U.K., Germany, Canada, France and elsewhere near the borders with Russia, “and some of those capabilities could be moved around” if the order came, Kirby said.

A number of European leaders are seeking talks with the Kremlin aside from the U.S.-Russia discussions scheduled for Jan. 10. (NATO and Russian officials are due to meet later in the week.)

Top French and German officials are expected to try resolving the standoff in talks with Russian and Ukrainian officials in Moscow on Thursday. Separately, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is trying to schedule a meeting with Putin following the Geneva talks, according to Germany’s Bild newspaper. A government spokesperson declined to comment on the report.

The two countries also provide the bulk of forces for NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, roughly 3,500 troops who can be ready to deploy quickly. The unit, which was formed in 2014 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, recently upgraded its ability to deploy from seven days to five. France took control of the task force from Turkey at the start of the year.

Domestic politics are an important factor in European leaders’ approach to the crisis.

In recent days, Scholz has taken responsibility for managing the crisis away from the foreign ministry, which is run by one of his junior coalition partners, the Greens. While the Greens favor a hard line against Moscow and want to suspend Nord Stream 2, Scholz’s party, the Social Democrats, prefers a softer approach.

Though Scholz has often talked tough on Russia, he faces strong pressure from within his own party to take a cautious approach. A conviction that engagement and dialogue are the only way to deal with Russia is central to the Social Democrats’ identity. It was that policy of détente in the 1970s, known as Ostpolitik, that Social Democrats believe won the Cold War and paved the way for German reunification.

Conversely, many in the party — and the German population at large — believe that NATO is partly to blame for the current crisis by expanding the alliance into what Russia perceives as its sphere of influence. Polls show they also blame Ukraine for exacerbating the crisis with an aggressive posture toward Russia.

“We must do everything in our power to reduce the threat of war by breaking the spiral of threats and counter-threats,” Rolf Mützenich, the leader of the Social Democrats parliamentary caucus, said recently, suggesting that both sides were at fault.

In real-world terms, that means Germany is unlikely to reverse its refusal to send weapons to Ukraine or take any other steps that Moscow might perceive as a provocation.

Biden and his aides have stressed that they are keeping European allies and Ukraine in the loop as the U.S. talks to Russia. Biden’s top aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, have been in touch with a range of foreign officials to discuss the Ukraine crisis, and U.S. officials will be in Brussels during the next week for a series of meetings at NATO HQ, including a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Jan. 12.

At this stage, however, the administration, like its European allies, is avoiding mentioning details about sanctions possibilities or new weapons shipments it says amount to negotiating in the open.

“We won’t telegraph the specifics publicly, but there is broad consensus between Washington and key allies and partners in Europe on the need for a high impact, quick action response” to Russian aggression, the U.S. official said.

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