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U.S. accelerates Ukraine diplomacy as Europe slides into winter


Local resident Sergei stands amid debris of his apartment in a building heavily damaged in recent shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Horlivka (Gorlovka) in the Donetsk region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, December 13, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Nearly ten months into the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration is intensifying diplomatic efforts to ensure that the transatlantic alliance that opposes Russia’s invasion survives a bitter European winter.

In the past weeks, the administration has scrambled to adjust its signature inflation legislation to appease European governments whose support it needs on Ukraine, and secured an agreement from the G7 nations to cap the price of Russian oil.

President Joe Biden also briefly moderated his strong opposition to talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a signal to allies restless for a negotiated end to the conflict.

The Ukraine war is also the backdrop for the U.S.-Africa Summit, a relationship-building exercise that starts on Tuesday and brings together the leaders of 49 African nations, many of whom have expressed frustration with paying the economic price for the war, which the United Nations says has worsened a global food crisis.

The coalition of countries opposing Russia’s invasion – from NATO members to U.S. allies such as Japan and Australia – has proven resilient, defying predictions that rising energy prices in part caused by the war could fracture the grouping. But sustaining that united front has required diplomacy and compromise, say diplomats and U.S. officials, and will likely require more as the European winter tests the public’s support for Ukraine.

“(This winter) Ukrainians will suffer and Russia may just continue to make it harder,” said one senior European diplomat. “It may be more and more difficult for Europeans to preserve their unity and continue to deliver weapons, cash and assistance to Ukraine.”

John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, predicted the allies would remain united but acknowledged the stresses ahead.

“We certainly recognize that with the coming of winter, and the way Mr. Putin has weaponized energy specifically, there’s going to be enormous stress not just in Ukraine but throughout Europe,” he said.

U.S. and European officials met last week in Washington for trade talks focused on the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s capstone legislative achievement of 2022. The $430-billion law has angered European allies, who say that it unfairly subsidizes U.S. industry at Europe’s expense.

There is little appetite in Biden’s Democratic Party to change the law, the result of over a year of congressional wrangling. But in discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron ahead of the trade talks, Biden said the bill wasn’t intended to exclude partners who are cooperating with the United States and that “tweaks” are possible.

The administration has said little about what those changes might be, but in his remarks Biden suggested more loosely interpreting the term “free trade partner” to exempt the EU from some of the law’s restrictions.

While the disagreements aren’t yet resolved, the willingness to bend on such a core issue shows that the United States – and its European allies – recognize a need to tamp down disagreements for the sake of providing Ukraine with Western arms and other support.

“It is a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, there is an absolute recognition of the need for solidarity over Ukraine but on the other hand there are important public policy objectives the Biden administration is trying to accomplish in the United States,” said Ian Lessler, a vice president at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.

“There needs to be a nod to American national economic interest. And I think that’s recognized in Europe.”

There have been successes. Those include the recent agreement by the G7 coalition to cap the price of Russian seaborne crude oil at $60 per barrel, a compromise reached after months of discussions aimed at overcoming disagreement between countries such as Poland who wanted to set the cap much lower and others who worried about rising energy costs.

The U.S. also telegraphed a shift in its position on negotiations with Russia. After the meetings with Macron, who has advocated direct talks with Putin, Biden said at a news conference that he would be “prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war,” adding that Putin hasn’t done that yet.

The White House quickly walked back the comments, clarifying that it had no intention of speaking with Putin because talks would not yet be fruitful and that there would be no discussions “about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

Still, Biden’s remarks suggested a U.S. desire to meet France halfway on the question of Russia talks without alienating Ukraine and East European allies, who insist Russia must be defeated before any negotiation can begin.

“We’re now very much in line with the Americans,” said one French diplomat. “They have slowly moved to our position, which is to keep channels of communications open with Russia.”

Biden’s remarks also resonated with countries who feel caught in the middle of a standoff between the United States and Russia and are eager to see a negotiated end to the conflict.

Challenges remain, including a dispute between Hungary and Ukraine that has led Hungary to block Ukraine from participating in certain NATO meetings. And as winter sets in and energy prices soar the voices calling for an early end to the war will grow louder.

But diplomats are projecting confidence.

“Yes, it’s impacting energy prices and I’m not dismissing that as a problem,” said Ireland’s U.N. Ambassador Fergal Mythen. “I can say very strongly that unity of purpose between European countries and the U.S. will not diminish. This is a matter of life and death for Ukraine.”