Europe is on the fringes of Ukraine-Russia-US diplomacy

The “Christmas surprise” invasion of Ukraine that some in Europe expected from Moscow did not materialize in the end, but Russian troops amassed near the border of the two countries have still not dispersed. This week, European capitals are trying to figure out what Russia’s intentions are.

Senior German, French, Ukrainian and Russian officials are discussing further military build-up today. Tomorrow, NATO foreign ministers will meet by video ahead of a summit between US and Russian officials in Geneva next week. Given the lingering deadlock, the bigger question for Brussels remains whether to use a carrot or a stick approach to convince Russia to cut back on its Ukrainian press.

Moscow was quick to bring its broader grievances to the forefront of discussions, namely NATO’s apparent eastward expansion and the alliance’s still open invitations to membership in Ukraine and to Georgia. Moscow has long viewed this expansion as an attempt to encircle and weaken Russia. Many in Europe wonder why NATO’s invitations to Georgia and Ukraine, made in 2008 during the last days of George W. Bush’s administration, remain on the table, causing diplomatic problems even as the prospect of the accession of the two countries now seems remote. Many in Brussels and Western Europe believe that membership invitations would unnecessarily upset Russia.

But many others, especially in Washington and Eastern Europe, believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is simply using the issue of NATO expansion as a diversion to obscure the real problem: the use of the threat of force – and possibly even invasion – to force concessions. from Kiev. Even to engage in a dialogue with Moscow on NATO’s intentions, they believe, is giving in to Putin’s distraction ploy.

This is the major divide that NATO foreign ministers will face when they hold their videoconference tomorrow. The European Union, as always, is divided between East and West on how to approach Russia. Perhaps because of this discrepancy, a similar meeting of EU foreign ministers has not been called to discuss the situation. In the end, those who take Russia’s grievances over NATO expansion most seriously are likely to have little to say about the outcome, as the issue is widely seen as a bilateral issue for Washington and Moscow to resolve. between them.

For its part, the Biden administration seems to speak for Europe in the conflict. Yesterday alongside the new German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken took it upon himself to declare that the pending status of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which, once operational, would bypass Ukraine for delivering gas directly to Germany, could potentially be used. as “leverage that Europe can use against Russia”.

“If Russia renewed its aggression against Ukraine, it would certainly be difficult to see gas pass. [Nord Stream 2] in the future, ”Blinken said. But that’s not Blinken’s decision to make. Baerbock is notoriously not a fan of the pipeline, but she did not explicitly echo the threat to shut it down if Russia invaded Ukraine. She only said that the new German government was committed to the agreement reached last July between Washington and the previous government of former Chancellor Angela Merkel that “there should be effective measures if Russia militarized energy” , as Baerbock said. But the wording of this deal is vague and Baerbock was limited in what she could say as the new German coalition government is divided on the issue.

The main focus of the Biden administration’s efforts at this time is to gain firm support from European countries that they will impose drastic retaliatory measures against Russia if it goes ahead and invades Ukraine. Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke on Tuesday with representatives from the Nordic countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland – after which they jointly said they were “ready to impose serious consequences for Russia if it engages in a new aggression against Ukraine. “

The events outside of Europe yesterday, in which the government of Kazakhstan called for the deployment of Russian troops to help quell the unrest that is quickly beyond the control of the authorities, could end up being a game-changer if instability in this country country distracts the Kremlin’s attention from the Ukrainian border.

In other news

Europe still awaiting new restrictions for less severe omicron cases. Despite a continued rise in new cases of COVID-19 across Europe, including France, Spain, Italy and the UK, European governments are still avoiding the Dutch lockdown approach to control the explosion omicron. But the Netherlands is not only the only European country to have put in place a lockdown in response to the new variant of the coronavirus. On the contrary, many European countries are actually relaxing recommendations on how long a person should self-isolate after testing positive or being exposed to the coronavirus. On Tuesday, Belgium followed France’s lead by reducing the isolation time for people vaccinated who tested positive for COVID-19 from 10 days to seven days and by relaxing the directive requiring quarantine for anyone awaiting a negative result after possible exposure to the virus. Europe appears to mirror the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, approach which controversially reduced isolation time from 10 to five days in late December, with no negative COVID-19 test result required to end the quarantine.

The CDC’s update comes as cases in the United States reach the highest levels seen since the start of the pandemic, with one million new cases recorded daily. But with the symptoms to fully those vaccinated are considered relatively benign, and with the proportion of the US population either vaccinated or infected now so high, the policy approach at this point in the pandemic appears to be shifting towards herd immunity. Health experts expect infections to spike this month before the new variant runs out in Europe and the United States, which could potentially offer a silver lining for COVID’s transition -19 from a pandemic to an endemic disease.

The presidential election in France is entering a silly season. We got a taste of what to expect over the next four months with a mini-scandal in Paris over the French government’s decision to hang the EU flag under the Arc de Triomphe on New Year’s Day. Year to mark the first day of the French Presidency of the Council of the EU, which will last for the next six months. French President Emmanuel Macron is due for re-election in April, and his right-wing opponents were quick to jump on display as proof of Macron’s contempt for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which sits in the vault of the monument. Macron’s far-right opponent in 2017 and until recently the most dangerous challenger, Marine Le Pen, was the first to leave the bloc, followed by the center-right presidential hopeful Valerie Pécresse. The flag was also flown under the arch the last time France held the rotating EU presidency in 2008, when Nicolas Sarkozy – from Pecresse’s own party, then known as the Union for a Popular Movement , or UMP – was president, without any controversy erupting at the time. But it was not an election year.

This time around, the EU flag was withdrawn the next day, with the Élysée emphasizing that it was still intended to be displayed temporarily for the first day of the New Year only. Pecresse is trying to ward off far-right voters by presenting himself as the only conservative candidate who could defeat Macron, who remains widely favored for his re-election. Observers should probably expect more of this kind of artificial outrage. for the next four months.

EU to designate nuclear and gas as green energy sources. Hours into the end of 2021, the European Commission quietly released a controversial proposal to include nuclear and gas in a “taxonomy” list of energy sources deemed sustainable for private investors – a list that will also have likely implications for government funds. . It was the result of a carefully crafted compromise between pro-nuclear EU member countries like France and anti-nuclear members like Germany, who wanted gas included as a consolation prize. But Germany’s new government is not as enthusiastic about gas as its predecessor is, now that the Greens are part of the coalition government and hold key climate portfolios.

The publication of the list has already sparked controversy. Austria is the proposal’s most vocal opponent and has even threatened to sue the commission if it is ultimately passed. But the proposal is a “delegated act” rather than legislation, which means that the European Parliament and the European Council have a significant hurdle to overcome in order to reject it. Twenty of the 27 EU member states, representing 65% of the EU’s population, are expected to oppose its blockade. So unless Germany changes its position and turns against the list, the chances of the proposal becoming law are high.

Dave Keating has been an American-European journalist based in Brussels for 12 years. Originally from the New York City area, Dave has previously covered the halls of the US Congress in Washington, courtrooms in Chicago, boardrooms in London, coffee shops in Paris and the climate campaigns in Berlin.

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