U.S. Shores Up Ukraine Support as Energy Crisis in Europe Looms
In promising Ukraine billions of dollars in long-term military aid, the Biden administration is seeking to prove that U.S. support in the war can outlast Russia’s determination.
Rallying American lawmakers and the public around that assistance, and billions in more immediate help, has been relatively painless for President Biden. But he must also keep Europe on board as the Russian invasion has sent energy prices soaring and created what could become the continent’s worst economic crisis in a generation.
American officials insist they have not seen any cracks in the NATO alliance, whose members, to varying degrees, have agreed to back Ukraine in the defense of its homeland. Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes, from routing Russian troops in the northeast to isolating Russian units in the south, will also help shore up resolve in Europe, American officials say.
But the jump in energy prices in Europe, and the prospect of frigid homes in the looming cold months, has led to anxiety. Russia heightened those concerns by recently announcing that Gazprom, the state-owned energy company, would not resume the flow of natural gas to Europe through its Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
Mr. Putin, military and diplomatic analysts say, believes that a gas shortage will weaken European support for Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Russia had “weaponized energy” against the Europeans.
“President Putin is betting that these actions will break the will of countries to stand with Ukraine,” he said at NATO headquarters in Belgium earlier this month. “He’s betting that the Kremlin can bully other countries into submission.”
Mr. Blinken’s visit to NATO, and to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, came just as Ukrainian forces were beginning to make significant gains across the northeastern part of their country.
Pentagon officials say a decree that Mr. Putin signed last month raising the target number of his country’s active-duty service members by about 137,000, to 1.15 million, was another sign that he believed Russia could still win a war of attrition.
“He is signaling that he’s trying to ground this thing out,” a senior defense official said in an interview. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The Biden Presidency
With midterm elections approaching, here’s where President Biden stands.
- Defending Democracy: President Biden’s drive to buttress democracy at home and abroad has taken on more urgency by the persistent power of China, Russia and former President Donald J. Trump.
- A Tricky Message: Even as he condemns Trumpism, Mr. Biden has taken pains to show that he understands that not all Republicans are what he calls extremist “MAGA Republicans.”
- On the Campaign Trail: Fresh off a series of legislative victories, Mr. Biden is back campaigning. But his low approval ratings could complicate his efforts to help Democrats in the midterm elections.
- Questions About 2024: Mr. Biden has said he plans to run for a second term, but at 79, his age has become an uncomfortable issue.
Mr. Biden, for his part, appears determined to show that NATO’s commitment remains solid. During a stop in Ukraine this month, Mr. Blinken announced another tranche of military aid — about $1 billion for Ukraine but also $1 billion for other European allies and partners.
“Our support of the nation of Ukraine has set an example for the world,” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said, adding that support for Ukraine among U.S. allies remains strong. “How that will continue after the winter, when prices of heating go through the roof for people in Europe is uncertain, in my view. I only hope we can stick together and provide the support that Ukraine needs.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III announced in early September that Washington would send an additional $675 million in military supplies to Ukraine, the 20th drawdown from Pentagon stockpiles since the war began. And last week the Pentagon announced $600 million more for artillery and ammunition.
The new aid brings the amount the United States has pledged to Kyiv since the Russian invasion in February to about $15 billion.
“Vladimir Putin seems to believe that Russia can win the long game — outlasting the Ukrainians in their will to fight and the international community’s will to continue to support Ukraine,” Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, said at a news conference last month. He called that belief “yet another Russian miscalculation.”
During his visit to Kyiv, Mr. Blinken said that America and its allies must work to “sustain Ukraine’s brave defenders for the long haul.”
“That means the continued and determined flow of capability now,” he said.
Most of that flow has come from America.
But material support for Ukraine from Europe has faded. The total of new commitments of military and financial aid from six of the largest European countries decreased in May and dropped sharply in June, according to an analysis by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
In July, the last month for which data was available, none of those countries — Britain, Germany, Poland, France, Italy and Spain — made any significant new pledges.
“We were surprised that aid basically went to zero, especially from the big European powers,” said Christoph Trebesch, the institute’s director for international finance and macroeconomics and the head of the team conducting the analysis.
Mr. Trebesch noted that European countries were still distributing aid announced in previous months, and that some of that has been sent in secret. But, he added, the new data suggested that material support for Ukraine, particularly transfers of military equipment, could become scarce.
“This is all pointing more towards financing stalemate rather than financing Ukrainian counteroffensives,” Mr. Trebesch said. “It seems to be more about preserving the status quo than really allowing Ukraine to do something serious, both militarily and financially.”
Analysts say that Germany in particular has fallen short, in spite of its earlier rhetoric.
Markus Kaim, a senior fellow for international security at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said he and other analysts were at first “totally surprised” by Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s pledge to significantly raise military spending to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes” and to eventually eliminate the country’s dependence on Russian energy.
But the policy changes since then have been less dramatic, he said.
Critics say the German government has not done enough to help Ukraine. A particular sticking point is Germany’s refusal to send Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. Mr. Scholz and his government ministers have said that the German military’s arsenal was too depleted to send heavier equipment and that they do not want Germany to be the first country to send modern Western tanks to Ukraine.
Germany announced a 100 billion euro ($113 billion) increase in defense funding this year. Even so, it will not reach NATO’s goal of having each member spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on its own defense each year, a target Mr. Scholz vowed to meet, according to a forecast by the German Economic Institute, a think tank based in Cologne.
Jeffrey Rathke, a former senior U.S. diplomat and the president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, said Germany and other European countries would be in a stronger position to continue opposing Russia this winter.
“When you look at the public opinion,” Mr. Rathke said, “you see what I would call the readiness of the German public to be led to further steps and sacrifices in order to achieve the strategic objectives of supporting Ukraine and preserving the European political order.”
Christian Mölling, a research director at the German Council on Foreign Relations, also said he was optimistic that Europe would continue to present a united front against Russia but added that public disagreements on the issue would continue.
“It will be loud, sometimes dirty,” said Mr. Mölling, drawing comparisons to the policy debates at the height of the pandemic and the European debt crisis.
But, he added, “we are discussing all these things publicly because that’s how democracies do it.”
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.