Brussels — President Joe Biden arrived in Brussels late Wednesday with the promise of more military assistance for Ukraine and further economic sanctions against Russia, embarking on a critical swing through Europe this week as the conflict enters its second month.
Biden is expected to announce the new round of military aid and sanctions Thursday, after a series of summits with NATO and European allies meant to showcase Western opposition to Russia’s invasion.
But the diplomacy underway in Brussels is also highlighting the dwindling options the West has to help bring an end to a war that has already claimed the lives of thousands and created the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.
The president’s trip to Europe, which will include a stop in Poland, comes as President Vladimir Putin of Russia has shown no signs so far that economic sanctions will sway him to end the military assault.
The U.S., along with its NATO and European allies, has steadfastly rebuffed calls from Ukraine to establish a no-fly zone over the country or take other steps that could risk a direct military confrontation with Russia.
The positions have increased the likelihood of a prolonged conflict, with Ukrainian forces refusing to surrender Kyiv and other urban centers, and Russia continuing to pound the country with artillery shelling and airstrikes, even as its advance stalls and it faces mounting military losses.
Ahead of the meetings in Brussels, Ukrainian officials expressed doubts the discussions would change the situation on the ground in the short-term, though some said they hoped Biden’s visit would produce concrete diplomatic gains for Ukraine.
“A membership action plan for NATO would be a clear sign that this fight is not for nothing, it’s a fight [for Ukraine] to become a part of Western society,” Sviatoslav Yurash, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, told Newsweek in a phone interview.
Russia has demanded in peace negotiations with Ukraine that it drop its push to join the security alliance. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has said Ukraine’s prospects of joining NATO anytime soon are slim.
Ukrainian officials said they would welcome any additional military aid that comes out of the talks in Brussels, though their priority remains a no-fly zone. The U.S. has already committed more than $1 billion in military assistance, and Biden is expected to announce details of more aid Thursday.
Defensive weapons from NATO allies have helped Ukraine mount a fierce resistance through the first month of the war. In recent days the Ukrainian government has said its forces have even launched counter offensives outside of Kyiv and in other areas to take back ground occupied by Russia.
Still, some acknowledged the assistance could be a double-edged sword going forward, since Russia is likely to view further aid from NATO and the United States as proof Ukraine is committed to embracing Europe and the West, potentially pushing Putin to continue the attack.
Russia’s demands for reaching a peace agreement, which also include a full “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine, have backed Putin into a corner because they’re impossible to meet, Maryan Zablotskyy, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, said in a phone interview.
“It’s very hard to give Russians an illusion that they’ve achieved something” in the negotiations, Zablotskyy said. “Russia for now is not moving back from its demands.”
It remains to be seen what other levers the U.S. and European countries can pull to try to change Putin’s thinking about the war. Russia is already facing crippling economic sanctions that have targeted the country’s top financial institutions and wealthy ruling class.
Earlier this month, Biden banned U.S. imports of Russian oil and gas, a step European nations that rely more heavily on Russian energy have avoided taking so far.
Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, told reporters Tuesday that Biden made clear when he announced the U.S. embargo that he was “not going to pressure” European allies to stop buying Russian energy, a sign he was unlikely to change course in face-to-face meetings with leaders in Brussels this week.
Yet by not going after Russia’s core exports, NATO allies are leaving Putin with the ability to continue financing the war even if the country’s economy keeps getting squeezed by sanctions, said Anna Mikulska, an energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
“Russian oil continues finding its way to the markets in Europe,” Mikulska said. “The worry is that already high energy prices in Europe would go even higher if there was a complete embargo on Russian oil and gas, and lead to a major economic downturn.”
Economic concerns over fallout from the war took a backseat Tuesday to renewed fears that Russia would consider using nuclear weapons after Putin’s spokesman refused to rule it out. Biden also warned ahead of his trip to Europe that Russia may be preparing cyberattacks in response to the international opposition to its actions in Ukraine. After Brussels, Biden will travel to Poland to meet with the country’s president and U.S. troops stationed there along with other NATO forces.
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