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Europe, U.S. work to appear united as they get set to face off with Russia over Ukraine

“The Kremlin will be doing everything it can to put pressure on all these potential fissures,” says retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges.

LONDON — With the threat of war looming over Ukraine, the West hopes a flurry of high-level talks the United States and NATO will have this week with Russia will avert a conflict.

The West faces a daunting task in trying to get Russia to back down, while addressing Moscow's demands that would reshape Europe's post-Cold War security landscape.

But just as crucial to the talks, according to officials and experts, is resolving suggestions of disunity between Washington and its European allies on how to approach the Kremlin.

“The No. 1 thing” for the talks to be successful “is that it’s not just the U.S.,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe. The Kremlin needs to know that whatever President Joe Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken say, it represents U.S. allies and that it is facing a united front, he added. 

If Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks “that Germany isn’t going to step up, or the U.K. is distracted, or France is focused on its own elections, then the risk is way higher,” he said.

Putin has massed some 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, leading officials and experts to fear he might be planning another invasion following 2014’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Putin has denied this is his plan.

Desperate to avoid all-out war, NATO convened an extraordinary meeting of its foreign ministers Friday. American and Russian officials are set to hold bilateral talks in Geneva on Monday, before a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels on Wednesday.

Image: Ukrainian soldiers walks at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Katerinivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Dec 7, 2021.
The war in eastern Ukraine between the country's military and Russian-backed separatists has killed 14,000 people.Andriy Dubchak / AP

The U.S. has declined to say exactly what it would do to Russia beyond financial punishments that go beyond anything levied before and providing extra defense assistance to Ukraine.

Current and former administration officials have previously said the measures could including cutting off Russia from the SWIFT international payment system — an unprecedented action that would effectively isolate it from the world's banks.

While Putin has denied planning an invasion, he said the "ball is in their court" for the West to respond to a list of demands the Kremlin issued last month that would significantly redraw Europe’s security landscape.

NATO dismissed the ultimatum, which included removing troops from Eastern European countries that joined the alliance in 1997, and blocking Ukraine from ever joining.

Putin has repeatedly suggested that Ukraine isn't a fully independent country, forever bound by culture, history and shared myth to its former Soviet allies in Moscow. Rather than him being the aggressor, he has accused NATO of inching further toward Russia's borders.

Washington has been eager to show unity with European allies and partners, with all parties issuing lockstep statements warning an invasion would be met with harsh financial punishments.

But there have been hints of division.

This week, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, appeared to voice displeasure at the E.U.’s absence from the talks, saying it “cannot be a neutral spectator in the negotiations.”

The reality is that the E.U. — a diverse group of 27 countries — is not united when it comes to Russia.

Some, such as the former Soviet Baltic states that neighbor Russia, want a hard-line approach, including bolstering NATO’s troop presence. Others, namely the continent’s big beasts France and Germany, have traditionally pushed for compromise.

French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a “reset” in Russia relations. And then-German leader Angela Merkel resisted calls to scrap the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Both countries have deep trading ties with Russia and would suffer reflected pain from any sanctions. Like most of Europe, they also rely on Russia for much of their natural gas.

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The fear for some on the continent, articulated by Borrell, is that the talks boil down to two Cold War superpowers trying to redraw the continent’s security map.

“We are no longer in Yalta times,” he said while visiting Ukraine on Wednesday, referring to the 1945 conference when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin took steps that contributed to Europe’s division into two hostile blocs until communism in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989.

Borrell said that the days of “spheres of influence for two big powers” should be over, and “in this dialogue there are not two actors alone, not just the U.S. and Russia.”

At the talks next week, “the Kremlin will be doing everything it can to put pressure on all these potential fissures,” Hodges said.

Image: Russian troops
Russia has denied that the buildup of troops and weapons near Ukraine is a prelude to invasion. AP file

Those hoping for a united front were buoyed last week after German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock presented a tougher tone than the one adopted under Merkel’s government. During a visit to Washington on Wednesday, she warned Putin would pay a “high political and economic price” for invasion.

Speaking alongside her, Blinken pushed back against suggestions of a rift, saying there was “very strong coordination and collaboration” with Europe.

William Taylor, the American ambassador to Ukraine under then-Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, said he believed collaboration was being treated as a priority: “I think there’s a very intense effort going on there.”

Even so, many in Ukraine feel the U.S. should be more proactive rather than reactive.

“We do see a lot of verbal support and a lot of high-level political support, that is positive,” Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at the London think tank Chatham House said, speaking from western Ukraine. But the extra assistance “should be delivered now — ahead of time — so that Ukraine can better protect itself and deter Russia by raising the cost of aggression.”

She added, “It should be very clear to Putin that the West’s job is to defend European security at all costs — not to just say they want to avoid a war.”