As the United States plunges ever deeper into a fresh Middle East conflagration — this time fighting Iran-backed non-state actors, including Yemen’s Houthis and Shiite resistance groups in Syria and Iraq — its closest allies from the EU and NATO stand divided.
These divisions reflect a long-standing failure of the EU member states and institutions to speak with “one voice” on the Middle East.
When the U.S. called for an international coalition to stop the Yemen-based Houthi militias attacks on the international shipping in the Red Sea, only a few European nations signed the joint statement: the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Italy. Of that initial group, only Britain, Denmark, Netherlands, plus Greece joined as the European contingent of “Operation Prosperity Guardian.”
Others like France, while condemning the Houthi attacks, expressed preference for an autonomous, European-led operation. Still others, like Spain, were skeptical of any involvement in any anti-Houthi action whatsoever.
So far, Britain has been the only navy to engage in actual strikes against the Houthis (so far, with limited success), as part of the U.S.-led operation. Meanwhile, EU defense ministers agreed to launch the EU-led “Operation Aspides” to help guarantee free navigation and the safety of commercial traffic — initially, under Italian command.
Securing maritime freedom is considered vital, as approximately 40% of EU trade with Asian and Middle Eastern countries passes through the Red Sea. But the precise mandate and rules of engagement for this mission remain unclear. The EU foreign ministers are supposed to decide on those questions at their meeting on February 19. The EU high representative for foreign affairs Josep Borrell, however, seems to have ruled out anything beyond defensive actions to protect ships and intercept the Houthi attacks, including taking part in U.S.-UK-led strikes against the Houthis or conducting their own offensive strikes.
Once the EU operation is set in motion, however, that distinction might become blurred. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, a top Houthi leader, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, declared that Italy will “become a target” if it participates in attacks on the group. That prompted a swift response from Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who insisted that Rome “will not be intimidated by the Houthi threats.” Yet he was also careful to emphasize the planned mission’s defensive nature. And it is notable that neither Italy nor the EU as a whole have followed Washington’s lead in designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization.
Reactions to the U.S. strikes against Iran’s allies in Syria and Iraq — in response to the deaths of three U.S. troops caused by a drone attack on Jan. 29 — present a similarly fragmented picture. Borrell assessed those strikes as a “domino effect” resulting from the Israel-Hamas war. He called on “everybody should try to avoid that the situation becomes explosive.” Britain, predictably, supported Washington's “right to respond to attacks” while condemning “Iran’s destabilizing activity throughout the region.”
Meanwhile, Poland’s hawkish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski emphasized that “Iran’s proxies have played with fire for months and years, and it’s now burning them.” The European Parliament, meanwhile, in its resolution on the situation in Gaza adopted in mid-January, pointed to Iran’s “aggressive actions and use of proxies as a means of deliberately destabilizing the region” as the principal cause of the escalation.
The rhetoric aside, there is no sign so far that the EU is gearing up to join the U.S. conflict with the Iran-backed “forces in Syria and Iraq, either militarily or through diplomatic support. There are good reasons behind such restraint: the open-ended nature of the U.S. commitment increases the risks of a direct U.S.–Iran clash. That, in turn, could incentivize Iran to move aggressively to obtain a nuclear weapon as an ultimate deterrent as it’s already a de-facto nuclear threshold state.
Such a step would ruin for good any prospects for a nuclear agreement with Iran, a policy still promoted by the EU. In fact, as recently as mid-January, Enrique Mora, the political director of the European External Action Service, discussed the nuclear file with the Iranian chief negotiator Bagheri-Kani at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Also, increased instability in Iraq and Syria and a decimation of the Shiite militias there could also create conditions for a revival of ISIS, their sworn enemies, who have committed atrocities on European soil as well as across the Middle East and beyond. EU officials have been warning about the growing risks of terrorism in Europe as a spillover from the war in Gaza for some time now.
And that brings us back to the root cause of the European divisions on the Houthis, Syria, Iraq and Iran: diverging perspectives on Israel’s campaign in Gaza. While all EU member states strongly condemned Hamas’ pogrom, their reactions belie different priorities. Some countries, such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany, are closely aligned with Israel and therefore, privilege Israel’s right to self-defense.
However, others like Spain, Belgium, Ireland, Slovenia, and, to some extent, France, see the war in Gaza and the Israel-Palestine conflict more generally as a principal cause of the expanding mayhem in the Middle East. They find it increasingly problematic to compartmentalize the Gaza carnage, Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and the growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran-backed Shiite groups in Syria and Iraq.
They think that taking a more forceful action against the “resistance front” would reduce the pressure on Israel to agree to a ceasefire in Gaza.
It is unlikely that the ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) imposing a number of measures on Israel on its conduct of war in Gaza will bridge the intra-European differences, despite the EU’s professed commitment to international law. The EU emphasized that the ICJ rulings are binding and have to be implemented “fully, immediately and effectively.”
Predictably, Ireland, Belgium, Spain and Slovenia issued statements to the same effect. Germany, despite its generally pro-Israeli position, joined them. France supported the ruling but failed to call for its implementation.
The real actions, post-ICJ ruling, however, reflect the remaining deep divisions: a number of countries announced that they will suspend the funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the principal humanitarian actor in Palestine, following the accusations against some of its workers for links with Hamas. Those include Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Romania and the Baltic states.
Others, like France and Germany, said they’ll wait for the results of the investigations on those alleged Hamas links, and still others, like Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and Slovenia, pledged to continue the funding. Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, stressed that defunding UNRWA “would amount to collective punishment” of Palestinian civilians.
To underscore the divisions further, the EU still failed to agree on sanctions against the violent Israeli settlers, due to the opposition from Hungary and Czech Republic, even though the U.S. has already announced that it will take that step.
It is, therefore, fair to expect that the EU and its member states will continue to muddle through, agreeing only on the lowest common denominator, further hobbling their capacity to act as relevant actors in the Middle East.
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%.