E.U. ambassador in Washington: U.S. and European support for Ukraine will endure

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European and Ukrainian officials arched wary eyebrows at the United States in the days leading up to the midterm elections. As polling pointed to a possible anti-incumbent “red wave” catapulting the Republicans back into power in Congress with a decisive majority, there were fears that ascendant US right-wing nationalists marching in the shadow of former president Donald Trump may undermine the Biden administration’s plans for sustaining Ukraine’s resistance to the ongoing Russian invasion. Some Republican lawmakers and candidates warned that there would be no US “blank check” for Kyiv. Others even argued that all funding must end.

The “red wave” did not happen. Vote counting continues and it seems the nation is muddling towards tiny margins in both the House and Senate. In Europe, the poor showing of candidates endorsed by Trump led to sighs of relief. Still, as Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament, said in a statement, with 2024 now on the horizon, “there remains enough reason for the EU to prepare for further shifts in its relationship with the United States.”

Weaker-than-expected GOP results calm Europe’s nerves — for now

Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU ambassador in Washington, has a more confident view. In an interview the day after the elections, he told me he had “no doubt that there would be continuity” in US aid to Ukraine no matter the political dispensation of the next Congress. His conversations on the Hill have given him the impression of “unwavering bipartisan support for Ukraine even in circumstances where people in this country talk about polarization on virtually every other topic.”

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Both the United States and the EU’s 27 member states have committed billions of dollars in military and financial aid to Kyiv. There’s a degree of consensus among senior leadership among both the Democrats and Republicans that this support ought to continue as long as Ukraine is weathering Russian attacks. This week, the European Commission announced a proposed package of some $18 billion to help the Ukrainian government meet its short-term funding needs in 2023.

“This is an existential battle for us,” Lambrinidis said, adding that Europe is committed to Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” That’s no small order: The war has forced a bitter price on Europe; its societies and economies are affected by the major sanctions their governments imposed on Russia. A cold winter and skyrocketing heating costs are expected to add to the wider strains of the war, whose downstream effects have seen it be a catalyst for the collapse of a government in Sri Lanka and the onset of a likely famine in Somalia.

The war in Ukraine itself is exacting a brutal toll. The Pentagon believes that as many as 200,000 soldiers may have already died in nine months of fighting — 100,000 Russians and an equivalent number of Ukrainians, in addition to some 40,000 civilians.

Still, Western assistance to Ukraine has put the country in a stronger position to reclaim territory lost to Russia earlier this year. This week, after an apparent Russian retreat, Ukrainian forces entered the southern city of Kherson, a regional capital that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally claimed as part of Russia after staging bogus referendums in four so-called republics in territories controlled by the Kremlin and its separatist proxies

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Lambrinidis is aware of the need for this foreign support. Absent the aid, “the chances that Putin will prevail are extremely high,” he said. That’s not an outcome US or European officials are willing to countenance.

Pentagon sending Ukraine new air defenses as Russia pummels key cities

The EU ambassador cast the war and Putin’s brinkmanship over Ukraine as a challenge that had to be met. “This is an explicit effort by an extremely dangerous autocrat with nuclear weapons to blackmail democracies,” Lambrinidis said. “And if he were to succeed, for decades to come, Americans and Europeans’ capacity and presence in the world would be dramatically diminished.”

That’s because the precedent of “a victorious Putin” — who is, in Lambrinidis’s view, “China’s junior partner” — will lead to “an emboldened China in the next decades,” he said, and provoke potential clashes and conflagrations that could put the upheaval generated by the war in Ukraine in the shade.

Instead, the current crisis has shown the strength of transatlantic ties. “The indispensability of this partnership was something Putin absolutely was not expecting,” Lambrinidis said, gesturing to how the war has only strengthened European investment in shared security and led to the imminent expansion of NATO with Finland and Sweden poised to enter the military alliance.

The ambassador praised the Biden administration’s effectiveness at marshaling a collective response to the invasion. For Americans and Europeans, Lambrinidis said, Putin’s war has highlighted how “our security and prosperity depends on each other.”

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Meanwhile, amid economic pain and a degree of public unrest, European governments are trying to fast-track a transition towards renewable energy while also pushing through stimulus packages to help ordinary citizens. “We are decoupling rapidly from Russian fossil fuels at a huge economic cost, while supporting at a huge cost our economies and people.”

Biden’s Ukraine policy faces a bipartisan squeeze

Wary of dictating terms to the Ukrainians, few Western officials want to state publicly how they believe the conflict should end. Through back channels, the Biden administration has pressed Ukraine to show that it is open to dialogue, even though the prospect of actual talks is remote.

There’s also the question of what Russia wants. “Two need to tango and Putin has given no indication that he is ready to have serious negotiations,” said Lambrinidis. “Our support to Ukraine is imperative for them to be able to negotiate from a position of strength or at least equality — and not with a Russian gun to their heads.”

Rather than the famous chess grandmasters of the past century, Putin’s strategic impulses seem more that of an opportunistic poker player, the EU diplomat said, recounting an analogy put to him by Russian dissident (and chess legend) Garry Kasparov.

“Every time Putin tries to up the ante like a poker player who wants you to fold,” Lambrinidis said. “Are we going to fold? We’re not.”



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