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Navigating Ukraine, Biden offers frank assessments of unfamiliar allies in private

Biden has riffed about some of his counterparts involved in coordinating a response to Russian aggression, according to people who have heard him use the descriptions.
President Joe Biden exits after  speaking in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Feb. 3, 2022.
President Joe Biden exits after speaking in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Thursday.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has for months grappled with differences within the Western alliance while navigating one of the trickiest foreign policy challenges to emerge since he took office: Russia’s threat to invade Ukraine.

While administration officials and outside experts say the U.S. and its allies are more closely aligned now than even just weeks ago, Biden has riffed during private meetings about some of his counterparts involved in this crisis, according to people who have heard him use the descriptions in closed-door sessions.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is no Angela Merkel, Biden has said, according to the sources. He’s described British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s demeanor as blustery, they said. And French President Emmanuel Macron, Biden has said, wants to be Charles de Gaulle, the sources said.  

As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden has described him as "a guy with nukes and no friends," according to people who’ve heard him use the description.

The president’s private descriptions of some of his counterparts offer a window into his thinking about some of the headwinds he’s faced while trying to corral a punishing international response to Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. Part of his observation, as he’s colorfully underscored, is that as he looks around Europe, he’s found few familiar faces, according to the people who’ve heard his comments. 

It’s an uncommon position for Biden, who’s been a leading figure in American foreign policy for nearly half a century and often leans on relationships in hashing out diplomacy. Indeed, the only world leader at the center of the Ukraine crisis with whom Biden has a history is Putin. 

Biden’s efforts to coordinate a united response to Russia have been complicated by divisions among NATO countries over how they perceive the threat posed by Moscow. Germany, for instance, has resisted appeals by Ukraine and other European countries to halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will deliver natural gas from Russia. On Monday, after meeting with Biden at the White House, Scholz again declined to make that public promise

France has pushed for the European Union, which the U.K. is no longer a part of, rather than NATO as the lead forum for negotiations with Russia. Eastern European governments, meanwhile, have argued for a tougher line on Russia and more weapons for Ukraine.

Those and other crosscurrents weren’t as pronounced even eight years ago when Russia invaded Ukraine, experts say.

“Some of the dynamics have changed” since the 2014 Russia invasion of Ukraine, said Donald Jensen, director for Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded body that works to reduce global conflicts. 

Jensen predicted that if Russia again invades Ukraine, most alliance members will come together with a coordinated response: “At the end of the day, they’ll all be on board.”

Asked about Biden’s comments about Macron, Scholz, Johnson and Putin, National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement: “This anonymous gossip doesn’t resemble in any way what the president says or thinks about his counterparts, whom he respects and values.”

“President Biden is pleased with the exceptional cooperation between the U.S. and our European Allies and partners, including as we address the ongoing crisis of Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders,” Horne said.

In 2014, when Russia was threatening the Ukrainian border, Europe and the U.S. were less politically fractured. The U.S. hadn’t repeatedly questioned the relevancy of NATO. Some key European economies weren’t as entwined with Russia’s. And then-President Barack Obama’s counterparts included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been in office more than eight years and had the stature and political capital to corral European allies around a united response. 

The French president at the time, François Hollande, was three years out from his country’s next election. And the British prime minister, David Cameron, was someone Obama had worked closely with for four years.

Biden has found a far different dynamic, as most of the world leaders he spent time cultivating relationships with, when he was a senator and then vice president, have left office.

Scholz has been in office for nine weeks. Macron, who took office after Biden had left Washington at the end of the Obama administration, is facing re-election in two months. And Biden didn’t meet Johnson, who is fighting to retain his job amid a political scandal, until just eight months ago. 

“I told the prime minister we have something in common: We both married way above our station,” Biden quipped at the time.

While Biden’s ire is aimed at Putin, people who have heard his comments said, he also has at times expressed frustration with the dynamic of his top European counterparts.

Several of them are facing domestic political concerns that make it difficult for them to unify around a robust response to Putin as he’s poised to once again redraw the European map.

“The fact that there are disagreements is pretty standard,” said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “There are probably more now based on the election situation with the French, and with a brand-new chancellor and without much of a relationship with the Germans.”

In one recent meeting with some members of his national security team, Biden noted Scholz’s inability to unite the transatlantic alliance in a response to Russia, as Merkel did in the past, given his newness to the office, according to a senior administration official who was present. Biden also in that same meeting again cast Putin as a lonesome leader with a nuclear arsenal, the official said, and doubled down on his characterization of Macron as seeking to be a storied French leader like de Gaulle.

Macron has been championing French-led talks with Russia, known as the Normandy Format, that also involve Germany and Ukraine. Biden sees Macron’s efforts to engage with Russia through the European Union rather than NATO as a way to amplify France — and therefore himself — as a more influential player than the U.S. or U.K., the people familiar with his comments said. 

Biden has made the comment even before the Ukraine crisis, said the senior administration official, who first heard it from him last year after a diplomatic clash between Washington and Paris over the U.S. decision to cut a deal with Australia for nuclear-powered submarines. Biden’s announcement of the deal had taken France by surprise and drew fury from Macron after Australia withdrew from a $66 billion agreement to buy French-made submarines.

Biden tried to repair strained relations with Macron over the submarine issue. While he didn’t fly to Paris for a meeting — Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the trip — the president met with Macron in Rome last fall and publicly conceded his administration handled the issue "clumsily."

On Monday, Macron spent five hours in discussions with Putin in Moscow. Afterward, Putin suggested his talks with the French president had been productive. While an Élysée Palace source said Putin committed to not take more military initiatives, a senior Biden administration official said Tuesday morning that the U.S. was still working to determine what transpired in the meeting between Putin and Macron.

Continuing his efforts to broker an agreement, Macron traveled to Kyiv on Tuesday to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

"A number of his ideas, proposals, which are probably still too early to talk about, I think it is quite possible to make the basis of our further joint steps," Putin said. Macron told reporters that "the next few days will be decisive and will require intensive discussions which we will pursue together."

Overall relations between the U.S. and its European allies are strong despite disagreements on certain aspects of a response to Russia, and Biden is not frustrated, administration officials say. 

Officials and outside experts stressed that the alliance agrees on the fundamental concern: that Russian aggression toward Ukraine should not go unchecked. It’s simply a matter of how. 

“The allies are lined up should the Russians move in heavy,” said Daniel Fried, former U.S. ambassador to Poland and a fellow at the Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council. “In the case of something lesser,” such as a cyberattack or the annexation of the Donbas region of Ukraine, Fried said, “more work needs to be done.” 

The Biden administration had hoped Monday's White House meeting between Biden and Scholz might move Germany closer to the hard line that the U.S. has telegraphed on economic sanctions against Russia if it invades Ukraine.

While Biden was definitive on the future of Nord Stream 2 should Russia invade Ukraine — saying Monday that "we will bring an end to it" — Scholz would not publicly commit to doing so. Asked if he would turn off Nord Stream 2 in response to a Russian invasion, Scholz said: "We are acting together. We are absolutely united, and we will not be taking different steps."

Germany’s economy, the largest in Europe, is closely tied to Russia’s, and any significant economic sanctions against Moscow could be a major drag on the country as well as Scholz's political standing.

Some administration officials privately have expressed frustration with Scholz’s reluctance, though Biden on Monday sought to showcase a united front amid questions about Germany’s resolve against Russia.

"There is no doubt about Germany’s partnership with the United States. None," Biden told reporters during a joint news conference with Scholz. "Germany is completely reliable, completely, totally thoroughly reliable. I have no doubt about Germany at all."

Johnson is facing his own domestic political headwinds, fighting to remain in office after revelations that 10 Downing Street held parties that violated his own government’s Covid-19 restrictions. The Biden administration expected the U.K. to be more closely aligned with the U.S. on a response to Russia than Germany or France. 

Johnson has delivered, officials said. At the same time, the British leader, who’s known for his disheveled appearance and blunt tone, is preoccupied with his political standing at home — something administration officials say Biden understands.  

Indeed, Biden has long applied the domestic adage that all politics is local to foreign policy, advisers have said, and he views some of his European counterparts’ positions through that lens. He’s even empathetic about their predicaments, administration officials said. 

Officials said differences between the U.S. and European allies, which Biden referred to in a news conference last month, cropped up in part because countries didn’t have the information that was causing such concern in the Biden administration.

Over months of sharing U.S. intelligence and scores of conversations with allies at all levels, including Biden speaking multiple times with European leaders, officials said the administration and European allies are closely aligned on the need for a quick and tough response to Russia if it invades Ukraine. On Wednesday, the White House said Biden spoke with Macron about the issue.

“The two leaders affirmed their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and reviewed our ongoing coordination on both diplomacy and preparations to impose swift and severe economic costs on Russia should it further invade Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement.