It can’t be easy being a European these days. Put aside the years-long Brexit trauma, rise of right-wing populism, soul-searching over the nature of the European project, or internal divisions, made more salient by all the above. What remains is a Europe whose foreign policy is squeezed by three great powers, the U.S., Russia and China, each of which relates to Europe in its own way, all of whom increasingly are prone to ignore, bypass, divide, or strong-arm the continent for their own ends. Europe is struggling to find its voice amid the crush.
Coming from Moscow or Beijing, the pressure is neither surprising nor new. True, Russia has been more assertive of late, a trend exemplified by its dealings in Syria and Libya. Moscow paid lip service to the Geneva process aimed at reaching a political settlement to the Syrian conflict and in which Europe has heavily invested, even as it set up the parallel and more coldly efficient Astana channel with Iran and Turkey. It seems to be seeking a repeat in Libya. It endorsed the European-led Berlin conference, stressing the need for a broad-based political agreement, respect for the arms embargo and a halt to external interference – even as it previously came to the aid of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his fight against the internationally-recognised government and even as it seeks to settle matters directly with that government’s principal foreign backer, Turkey.
For its part, China, is more akin to a long-distance runner. It is less visible yet equally constant, doggedly pushing its agenda through at times coercive economic diplomacy and forcing Europe into difficult choices when it comes to balancing its ties to Washington and to Beijing.
But over the past year especially, the game changer has been American. Time and again, the Trump administration has taken decisions and adopted policies that affect Europe without taking into account its views.
Yet, in a sense, the Trump administration is performing ironic services for the EU – sharpening the case for a more sovereign European foreign policy that some of Europe’s leaders have made since at least the 2003 Iraq war. Then, what was arguably the most dramatic, virtually unilateral decision by the U.S. since the end of the Cold War provoked damaging ripple effects with which Europe continues to contend. But, by turning an intermittent attitude into a systematic approach, President Trump could force a moment of reckoning.
Whether or not President Macron is Europe’s most effective alarm ringer, his appeal for an EU more militarily self-sufficient (to protect its interests when others will not), diplomatically autonomous (to stake out its own positions when America’s won’t do), and economically independent (to circumvent U.S. sanctions when those are aimed at prohibiting legitimate behaviour), merits a hearing. It also merits a healthy dose of realism, of course, for a more effective European foreign policy requires unity and strategic vision that often have been lacking.
On the military front, a succession of decisions by the U.S. president have highlighted Europe’s vulnerability to the fluctuations of America’s mood. The semi-withdrawal of U.S. troops from north east Syria, the killing of Qassem Soleimani and of an Iraqi Shiite militia leader, and U.S. plans to reduce or even zero out its force presence in West Africa all could have outsized repercussions on European security. The first two because European forces in Syria and Iraq depend on U.S. support and because any drawdown could damage the counter-ISIS campaign. The third because it affects the Sahel, viewed in Europe as a gateway for terrorism and migration flows into the continent. Yet Europe had no say in any of these.
Establishing a more autonomous European force would require overcoming prodigious political, economic and logistical hurdles. Even then it would face a reality that Washington has been slow to grasp, namely that addressing challenges like terrorism through purely military means won’t work. That is not an easy lesson to learn, as political leaders feel the pull of public anxieties and thus the need to advertise strength by flexing muscles. But facts speak for themselves: in the Sahel, intensified military efforts targeting jihadists have gone hand in hand with an uptick in operations by those very groups. Autonomous force or no, Europe should better balance military operations with politics, including support for efforts to calm intercommunal divisions that underpin violence and, possibly, to engage in dialogue with certain militant leaders. Still, greater European capacity to deploy forces, whether or not in the form of the European army both Macron and Chancellor Merkel have called for, could give the continent greater ability to protect its interests.
On the diplomatic front, Europe could do plenty to stand up for itself in the face of American deficiency or malpractice. Take one example: dramatic U.S. u-turns toward Israel-Palestine, from recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its annexation of the Golan Heights to decreeing that settlements do not violate international law – with far more in store as the U.S. administration unveils its long-awaited and ill-named peace plan.
Forging a united European position that clearly stands in opposition to the U.S.’s would be no small challenge, given divisions among European capitals. Nor is it clear that Europe could move from mouthing rhetorical support for an increasingly illusory two-state solution to taking a stand that, regardless of what happens in the occupied territories, all who fall under Israeli control must enjoy equal rights. Still, a countervailing European voice would be welcome, given the continent’s stakes in Middle East stability.
Finally, nowhere are implications of European financial helplessness starker than when it comes to Iran. The U.S.’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and imposition of maximum pressure on Iran has had cascading negative consequences for Europe – from Iran’s gradual erosion of its nuclear commitments and uptick in attacks in the Gulf to weakening the fight against ISIS. In response, European states have sought to provide Iran with modest economic relief to convince it to remain in the deal and moderate its behaviour. But the threat posed by U.S. sanctions – targeting Europe’s activity taken in accordance with its international obligations, no less – has hobbled those efforts. If U.S. dominance over global markets means U.S. control over swaths of European foreign policy, the challenge for Europe is to find effective ways to circumvent the current financial system and establish one immune from America’s long arm.
It is, indeed, not easy being a European these days, caught in several unenviable dilemmas. Europe can stick with the U.S. despite significant disagreement and feel impotent; challenge the U.S. despite predictable blowback and feel the pain; hedge its bets by bolstering ties with competing great powers despite profound discrepancy in values and world views and feel vulnerable.
Whatever it does, it should not short-change a central aspect of modern European identity – a sense of responsibility when it comes to resolving the world’s most dangerous situations, and the statecraft and resources to make a difference. As Crisis Group’s EU Watchlist this year describes, conflicts in which Europe can play a constructive role are legion – from areas of considerable geopolitical interest (such as Iran or Ukraine) to those that suffer from international neglect, like the Great Lakes, Burkina Faso or Bolivia. By throwing itself into resolving these crises, and by seeking more self-sufficient military, diplomatic and financial roles, the continent may not fully solve its identity crisis. But it could help make the world a safer place for when it finally does.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.