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Transatlantic Take: Washington, Brussels

Did the Triple Transatlantic Summit Achieve Enough?

March 28, 2022
7 min read
Photo credit: Gints Ivuskans / Shutterstock.com
“A historical opportunity for unity.” This is how many observers described the gathering of leaders in Brussels last week for an extraordinary NATO summit as well meetings of the European Council and the G7.

This was President Joe Biden’s third such trip since taking office just over a year ago. The triple summit came at a tense and critical time for NATO and as Russia continues its war against Ukraine.

That NATO held three extraordinary meetings within a few weeks—the previous two being a foreign and a defense ministerial—is significant. And the US president participating in last week’s NATO summit, just a few months ahead of its planned and pivotal summit in Madrid, demonstrated the urgency and importance of US engagement, signalling a robust political commitment from Washington.

Biden’s decision to travel to Poland after Brussels was a particularly important signal to NATO’s eastern members for whom the war is next door. While he was in Poland, Russian missiles hit Lviv in western Ukraine, which close to the border. The president’s visit sent a signal to Europe, NATO, and Russia that the United States is committed to its European partners in this insecure time.

What came out of last week’s trio of important meetings in Brussels? Below are two takes from each side of the Atlantic.

Washington: Important Signals Sent but Difficult Steps Remain

Steven Keil

President Joe Biden’s trip to Brussels and Poland showed that NATO is in a challenging period between the war in Ukraine and its pivotal Madrid summit in June, which will produce a new strategic concept and a more robust posture to deter and defend against Russia’s threat. Political work must be done to ensure alliance unity in the interim and the United States must play a key role in this.

Nevertheless, while waiting for this change, in Brussels NATO announced new key initiatives, including four new NATO battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. This adds to previous decisions to augment the force size in the existing NATO battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. NATO also confirmed the tasking of military leaders to think through a new robust deterrence and defense posture, which will likely be considered in Madrid.

There were no breakthroughs on Ukraine’s continued requests for a no-fly zone or the transfer of military aircraft. However, unconfirmed reports suggest that the United States has been finding ways to transfer old Soviet Defense air defense systems like the SA-8 it has secretly acquired to help Ukraine counter Russia’s air assets. NATO members also continue to provide Ukraine with anti-tank capabilities and drones, which have been critical to its fight against Russia—a point emphasized last week. The EU also confirmed a decision to double its military aid to Ukraine. Moreover, the NATO allies are responding to concerns that Russia is considering the use of chemical weapons by providing Ukraine with equipment to detect and mitigate such an attack. But the lack of transfer of weapons like tanks or aircraft continues to be problematic for Ukraine, and something the United States is unlikely to deliver on.

Biden’s trip continued to demonstrate the difficulty in walking the line between supporting Ukraine and risking an escalation with Russia.

In this regard, Biden’s trip continued to demonstrate the difficulty in walking the line between supporting Ukraine and risking an escalation with Russia. The saga behind the failed transfer of MIG fighter jets from Poland to Ukraine—and the United States’ role in it—demonstrates the limits of what Washington and other NATO allies are willing to do. Nonetheless, the Biden administration has tried to be crystal clear about what it is willing to do, and that any attack on a NATO member is a red line that would be met with a full and forceful response.

Biden’s speech in Warsaw and his visit more broadly also tried to set the tone for a sustained confrontation with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In Warsaw, he described this as a “new battle for freedom.” This will require continued, dramatic policy shifts in Europe and the United States, including a transition away from energy dependence on Russia by Europe and massive investments in defense in NATO. Biden’s unscripted statement about Putin staying in power— which was immediately walked back by the administration as not suggesting a policy of regime change—caused discomfort in some NATO capitals but probably will not have a lasting effect.

Some of the outcomes in Brussels last week—like greater exports of liquefied natural gas from the United States, additional sanctions on Russia, and augmenting NATO’s deterrence posture—demonstrate progress. But many difficult conversations around budgets, investments, energy supplies, and costs lay ahead. While important, Biden’s trip was just another step on the path the United States and Europe need to take. And, given the intransigence of certain NATO members on several issues (for example, Hungary on support of Ukraine and various European countries on energy supplies), many hazards likely lay ahead.

Brussels: A Celebration of Unity but Divisions Behind the Scenes

Bruno Lété

The stakes were high for Europe at the triple summit in Brussels. As the continent faces its worst security crisis since the Second World War, EU leaders sought concrete steps in military deterrence, energy security, and the management of the Ukrainian refugee crisis. On all these fronts, the summits displayed unity and delivered important outcomes for Europe, but they also exposed important divisions inside the EU. 

NATO allies reaffirmed their commitment to collective defense through Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and decided to increase the alliance’s military presence on its eastern flank. Increasing the number of NATO troops, jet fighters, naval capabilities, and air defenses should reassure the alliance’s members in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. Despite calls for a no-fly zone or a humanitarian intervention in Ukraine, NATO also vowed again not to become a party to the war—a position widely supported among EU members. 

The EU and United States also signed a new gas deal, with the latter exporting an extra 15 billion cubic meters (bcm) of liquefied natural gas to Europe this year, with supplies increasing over time to reach an additional 50 bcm each year. (In comparison, Russia exported 155 bcm of gas to the EU in 2021). The European Commission has also been given a mandate for joint gas purchases to bring down energy prices.

G7 leaders agreed to close some loopholes in the package of sanctions on Russia. The United States also announced more economic sanctions against Russia and more military assistance for Ukraine. President Biden said that the United States would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, as the EU struggles to welcome millions fleeing the war. 

In Europe, clear divisions on the course of action are already emerging.

But, while the world’s democracies have been largely unified in confronting Russia since it invaded Ukraine, that unity will likely be tested as the cost of war hurts the world’s economy. In Europe, clear divisions on the course of action are already emerging.

First, not all European countries see defense spending as a priority. As Russia escalates its war rhetoric, the NATO allies reaffirmed in Brussels their intention to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, a long-time demand from the United States. To date only ten allies meet this target. While most European countries have announced plans to increase their defense budgets, it is already clear that only a handful will fulfil their pledge. This will perpetuate European dependencies on the United States’ military might and complicate EU ambitions around strategic autonomy.      

Second, European countries remain divided over energy security. Before the Brussels triple summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had called on the United States to increase its exports of liquified natural gas so the EU could reduce its dependence on Russian gas. Countries like Poland, Slovakia, and to some extent France went further and said they would be open to a total ban on oil and gas imports from Russia. This sharply contrasts with the position of countries like Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, and Italy, whose leaders have dismissed calls to boycott Russian energy supplies. This split is likely to sustain Russia’s position as a major energy supplier to the EU for a while.

Third, the EU’s mantra of not taking actions against Russia that hurt Europe is increasingly divisive. Beyond energy, some member states would like to see tougher sanctions, including closing loopholes on trust funds used by oligarchs, adding new names to the EU sanctions list, stopping Russian ships from docking in EU ports, and cutting off more Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system. In Brussels last week, other member states resisted such moves, evoking the potential economic cost for Europe. For example, the prime ministers of Belgium and Greece warned that new sanctions should always have a bigger impact on Russia than on the EU. This signals that if Russia refrains from further escalation in Ukraine— and especially if it accepts a peace deal—EU unity might be more difficult to maintain.