Biden takes on Putin. His other opponent is time.

“The nations of the free world are more united and more deterred and more determined than at any time in recent memory,” Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, said on Tuesday, the eve of Biden’s trip. But he made it clear that the road ahead would not be easy.

“Ukraine will face tough days, toughest for Ukrainian troops on the front lines and civilians under Russian bombardment,” Sullivan added. “This war will not end easily or quickly.”

The pressures Biden faces at home are mirrored by his European counterparts. Although their domestic political situations differ, they are all trying to balance the moral imperative of acting on behalf of Ukraine, fears of a further escalation of the conflict, and the economic costs of implementing an aggressive sanctions regime against Russia. However, the difficulty of Biden’s job is more felt given the expectations much of the world is now laying on his shoulders.

“There is a high level of coordination and an extraordinary level of success in putting together a list of fairly severe sanctions,” said Ian Lesser, vice president of the German Marshall Fund and NATO expert. “But that brings with it its own challenge, which is to maintain that momentum through what’s likely to be a long, protracted period of confrontation with Russia.”

Biden will attend a trio of diplomatic summits in Brussels on Thursday to cement those alliances before traveling to Poland, the border state that has received the largest influx of Ukrainian refugees amid one of the biggest humanitarian challenges in decades.

Presidents rarely go overseas empty-handed, but up to this point the administration has been cautious about what else Biden can or will do. Officials said additional sanctions against Russia were expected, along with a concerted effort to crack down on Russia’s ability to circumvent those economic measures. There is also a promise of more funding and military equipment for Kyiv. But there are limits to what Biden can do and how far he is willing to go.

He has strongly opposed fulfilling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request for a no-fly zone, believing that trying to impose one over Ukrainian skies could lead to a disastrous confrontation with Russia. While Polish leaders have proposed a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, partly out of concern for their own security, such a move has little support within the Biden administration and among other allies, who view it as an escalation.

After Putin gave the order for the invasion, the Biden team spearheaded a crippling series of Western sanctions against Russia. Though some nations, notably Germany, needed more vigour, the White House persuaded most allies to sever financial ties with Moscow. It was a significant demand on Europe, whose economies are far more dependent on Russia than those of the United States.

And there are some fears it may prove too difficult.

The biggest focus may be on the topic of energy. To date, much of Europe has not stopped importing gas and oil from Russia; This could cause an energy crisis on the continent and send prices skyrocketing worldwide. In emotional video messages to ruling parliaments around the world, Zelenskyy has focused on existing energy ties as funding Russia’s war machine. Biden and Europe fear the alliance against Russia could fray if those energy demands are hit harder.

Biden administration officials are hoping Europe will take some tentative steps this week to move away from Russia’s energy supply. However, the question remains as to what the US could do to help European nations do this, and whether it will be through American natural gas exports or deals that could be brokered elsewhere.

Sullivan said Tuesday that Biden would “announce joint action to improve Europe’s energy security and reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas,” but gave no further details.

Many European nations have sent arms and equipment to Ukraine, but the fate of Poland’s MiGs fighter jets has become another flashpoint that threatens to cause tensions among the allies. Where there is more consistency within the NATO alliance is the commitment not to send troops to Ukraine for fear of unleashing World War III against a nuclear power.

But the biggest variable in keeping the alliance together is time. While Western sanctions have put Russia’s economy in a vise, Putin does not face the same domestic political considerations as others. Already punishing dissent in his country, he has the ability to weather the economic doldrums – at least for a while – and continue his grueling strides despite heavy losses in men and equipment.

For now, analysts said, Russian forces have settled into a campaign of brutal, long-range bombing of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and forcing them to flee. The West has little to stop them, other than continue to arm resistance fighters. The fear is that a bloody standoff that has turned into a humanitarian crisis will become an ongoing standoff. Or that it could get worse. One foreboding question remains unclear among Western military officials: what to do if Putin unleashes a nuclear or biological weapon or launches a strike inside NATO territory?

“There is still concern among some NATO allies when the Biden administration says, ‘We will defend every inch of NATO territory,’ what exactly could that mean? I think they need to discuss that in a little more detail,” said Daniel Hamilton, who has held various senior positions at the State Department, including deputy assistant secretary for European affairs.

“So much of this is political messages, but that’s important right now in terms of solidarity,” Hamilton said.

The other complicating factor is China, which the White House fears could become Russia’s economic lifeline. United by a shared hostility to the West, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping had promised deep ties between their nations. Biden last week warned Xi of “consequences” if he helped Putin. And on Tuesday, Sullivan stressed that the US has not seen any shipment of military equipment by China to Russia since Biden’s talk with Xi, though officials have been careful not to make any predictions about what might happen.

Sullivan added, “The President has made it clear to President Xi the ramifications and consequences of such a deployment of equipment, and they understand it very well.”

The partnerships Biden is working to preserve were the ones he built in his first few weeks as president as he struggled to stabilize longtime United States allies rocked by four tumultuous years of Donald Trump. His first trip to Europe last June was almost headlined “America’s Back” and showed Biden’s determination to stand with longstanding partners, including the NATO alliance that Trump almost torpedoed years ago.

“It’s seen as a very welcome departure from its predecessor when it comes to valuing transatlantic cooperation. And that’s very reassuring for Europeans,” Lesser said. “But it’s also conducting certain tests on the European side, where European leaders are trying to reinforce their positive perception of the Biden administration and its approach.”

Outreach to allies was just part of Biden’s rebuke of Trump’s transactional, inward-looking “America First” foreign policy. He also stated that the next century would be defined by democracies’ ability to ward off rising authoritarianism around the world. Biden took the point home, making a sharp break with Trump’s deference to Putin. During their summit last summer in Geneva, he specifically warned the Russian leader to stop meddling in elections and to condone cyberattacks.

Putin wasn’t listening.

Biden’s work with allies has been tested by the perception that Russia has failed to respond to his demands. It was also strained by its handling of the chaotic early days of last summer’s military disengagement from Afghanistan. In the early stages of the current crisis, the government has engaged allies in hopes of assuaging concerns. The White House, along with the UK and other nations, released near-real-time intelligence as it attempted to deter Putin from invasion and to prepare its people for the possibility of war.

“There’s a high level of transparency into what’s actually happening on the ground,” Lesser said. “But beyond that, it becomes very difficult to assess exactly how Putin will view the final in Ukraine, which he will settle for [and] what can deter him. This is exactly the kind of conversation the President needs to have in Europe because everyone faces essentially the same dilemmas.” Biden takes on Putin. His other opponent is time.

Fry Electronics Team

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