BRUSSELS — Even before Air Force One touches down in Brussels to bring President Joe Biden to three Ukraine summits on Thursday, Western allies have already found what they are looking for — that all too rare sense of unity.
They have Russian President Vladimir Putin to thank for that.
After Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24 and its brutal war since then over the past month, allies from Washington to Tokyo and Brussels have acted in unison.
And they did it with such staggering speed to hit the Kremlin with unprecedented sanctions and offers of help to Kyiv. That symbolism has the space to trump urgent problem-fixing this week.
With staccato rhythm, Biden will attend a NATO, Group of Seven and European Union summits all within 12 hours of driving around Europe’s diplomatic capital from one headquarters to another. The only reason this is possible is because all agree on the major issues so, basically, little time will be needed to paper over deep differences.
On Friday, Biden will be traveling to Poland, the humanitarian hub of the crisis where more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees have arrived, and where U.S. forces have shored up NATO’s eastern flank.
WHAT BIDEN WANTS
Beyond the all-important handshakes, group photos and warm scenes of togetherness, Biden will use his time in Brussels to announce new sanctions against Russia while underscoring the importance of closing possible loopholes in the avalanche of Western measures that have already been enacted.
At a time when it is essential to avoid fissures in what’s been a largely unified Western response to Russia, the U.S. president will look to press important allies like Poland to dial back the idea of deploying a Western peacekeeping mission to Ukraine. It’s an idea that the U.S. and some other NATO members see as too risky as they seek to deny Russia any pretext to broaden the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.
For his domestic audience, look for Biden to once again underscore the heroics of the Ukrainian military and volunteers who have managed to hold off an imposing Russian military. He will highlight those remarkable efforts — as well as the generosity of the Poles and other allies at the front lines of the humanitarian crisis — as he redoubles his calls for Americans to stand firm against a Russian war that is spurring gas price hikes and adding to inflationary pressures in the U.S.
Overall, Biden also wants to revel in the scenes of unity at the headquarters of NATO and the EU, where memories of an unraveling trans-Atlantic bond riven with disputes under former President Donald Trump are far from forgotten.
WHAT NATO WANTS
That show of unity will also be paramount at NATO headquarters, where the United States has traditionally given orders, with the rest, sometimes grudgingly, going along.
The summit on Thursday will be a new opportunity for the 30-nation military organization to publicly show that Washington is consulting its allies, something that was sorely lacking under the Trump administration.
Biden and his counterparts are expected to discuss the kinds of “red lines” that might draw NATO out of its defensive posture — the world’s biggest security organization has mostly bolstered its own defenses since the invasion a month ago — to respond with force.
Nuclear, chemical or a massive cyberattack appear the most likely triggers, but NATO remains wary of any response that might draw it into a full-scale war with nuclear-armed Russia.
The leaders are also set to discuss the longer-term future of NATO’s defenses along its eastern flank, ranging from Estonia in the north, down around western Ukraine to Bulgaria on the Black Sea. Military commanders have been ordered to draw up options.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that the “new defense posture” would include substantially more land forces at higher readiness, more air power filling NATO skies and aircraft carrier strike groups, submarines and combat ships “on a persistent basis” at sea. Expect applause and full support when such issues are raised.
WHAT THE EU WANTS
Even if it gained a brutal enemy on its eastern doorstep, the 27-nation bloc also fully regained an old friend, and it will be able to shake on that friendship when Biden attends a summit of all EU leaders which had already been months in the making.
No European will mind. Together with the Biden administration, the EU has been standing shoulder to shoulder in pushing through four packages of sanctions against Putin, his advisers and oligarchs, cutting deeper than many would have thought. This comes after feeling looked down upon for four years under Trump, who among other things, even slapped sanctions on the EU.
“It is to show this message of unity,” said Europe Minister Clement Beaune of France, which holds the rotating EU presidency. He also set the scene for more sanctions pressure in a show of solidarity with Ukraine.
At the same time, the EU is hoping Biden won’t push demands for sanctions too far for a partner whose trade ties with Russia are far bigger and intricately intertwined.
“Sanctions must not hit European states harder than the Russian leadership. That is our principle,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Wednesday. “Nobody is served if we consciously gamble with our economic base.”
Such unity will also help the EU on the global stage since the optics of a strong embrace of Biden will also not be lost on Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom the EU has a summit set for next week.
WHAT UKRAINE WANTS
There won’t be a seat reserved anywhere for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, yet he will be on everyone’s mind — not least because he will have a video link at the NATO summit.
It has been crystal clear what he wants from Western allies.
With passion and rhetorical flair, he has pleaded with legislatures in the United States, the EU, Britain, Japan and Canada, for more military and humanitarian aid. But his demands for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone to protect his people have been rejected, with the alliance making clear it won’t risk an all-out war with Russia.
He will get the same reply from Scholz.
“I hear the voices of those who demand a no-fly zone or NATO peacekeepers in Ukraine,” the German leader said Wednesday. “In almost 80 years of post-war history we have successfully avoided the unthinkable – a direct military confrontation between our western defense alliance, NATO, and Russia. It must stay that way.”
Zelenskyy has been having a series of conversations with Western leaders in the days before Thursday’s summits and he expects them to approve more sanctions to punish Russia and more help for Ukraine.
“We will work, we will fight, as hard as we can, to the last, bravely and openly,” he said in a video address Wednesday.