Western officials spun into overdrive on Thursday to contain any damage caused by Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron.
The U.S. president’s stray remark suggesting NATO powers might tolerate a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine came the same day as the French president’s assertion that Europeans should negotiate their own version of a new security order with Moscow.
The mistimed misstatements, if that’s what they were, by the commanders-in-chief of two of NATO’s major nuclear powers set off tremors in capitals from Kyiv to Ottawa, but in the end seemed only to reinforce Western unity in pushing back against Russia. It suggests that perhaps it was the Kremlin that should have been most alarmed.
Among the presidents’ main defenders was the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who used a brief appearance with Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly in Brussels to insist that everything was under control and that neither Biden nor Macron had said anything remotely out of step — an outlandish claim but one that he made without blushing.
“Nothing new, but important,” Borrell said of Biden’s comment. “Certainly there is a big threat on the Ukrainian border,” he continued, adding: “We are working together with the allies in order to be ready to implement an answer, which will be very costly for Russia if there is any kind of aggression against Ukraine. So, the wording of President Biden was exactly in the same direction in which we have been working.”
That wasn’t quite the way Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy saw things in Kyiv. “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,” Zelesnkiy tweeted. “Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.” Then he added a bit of embellishment of his own: “I say this as the President of a great power.”
As for Macron, Borrell noted that he had been present in Strasbourg when the French president delivered a speech in which he seemed to suggest that Europeans should cut their own path toward a security deal in Russia. But Borrell said nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he said, Macron had not said anything new or unusual at all.
“About President Macron, I was there, and I think it’s also an important statement but it’s part of what we have been saying since the beginning,” Borrell said, “that the Europeans have to be presenting their view on this issue, that nothing can be agreed about European security or the security in Europe without the participation of the Europeans.”
Borrell continued: “And President Macron didn’t say that the Europeans were going to present their own proposals to the Russians. He said that together with the allies, the Europeans have to have in mind, what do they understand as the security order in Europe. And on that, I completely agree with President Macron.”
Not everyone agreed with Borrell’s assessment, however.
Even some European officials who said they agreed with Macron’s ultimate goal for Europe to develop its own vision for a new security order acknowledged that the French president’s remarks were badly timed and suggested cracks in Western unity — fissures that they insisted do not in fact exist.
“It’s all about timing,” a senior EU diplomat said. “As a medium-term goal, it is certainly right that the EU should decide a common position on what security architecture we want. But this does not change the current reality on the ground.
“Such a discussion would take a lot of time,” the senior EU diplomat added. “While the talks right now are focusing on preventing Russia from a possibly imminent military aggression against Ukraine. Given the situation, it is not surprising that right now many EU countries from Eastern Europe are primarily looking to NATO and at the transatlantic alliance with the U.S. to defuse the crisis.”
Asked how much trouble Macron’s call for a joint European proposal caused, another senior European diplomat replied: “Trouble for whom? Those EU states who are members of NATO have their platform for discussions with Russia. All EU countries are represented in OSCE [the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe]. And by the way, do we have the content for such a proposal? So certainly his call raised many questions. But the real trouble is somewhere else: at the Ukrainian borders.”
Macron, in his speech at the European Parliament, had said: “The next few weeks must lead us to finalize a European proposal building a new security and stability order, we must build it among Europeans, then share it with our allies in NATO and then submit it to negotiation with Russia.”
An adviser to Macron insisted that the French leader had not suggested Europe should somehow go its own way, or to distract from the ongoing diplomatic cooperation to respond to Russia.
“This is not about establishing a parallel track between Europeans and Russians,” the adviser said. “It’s about consolidating the European position and including our demands in each track, dealing with each issue in the appropriate format: Normandy Format for Ukraine, arms control through NATO and OSCE. On the Helsinki Accords, yes there will come a time where it will be necessary for a dialogue on a high political level and indeed it could be an EU-Russia dialogue.”
The adviser added, “It would be crazy not to start a dialogue between the Europeans and Russia [in due time].”
Other European diplomats praised Macron on his substance if not his timing.
“As a Greek official, I can tell you we are supporting President Macron’s ideas for strategic autonomy,” said Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, Greek alternate minister of foreign affairs. “Further enhancement of the EU’s role in world affairs and European security in particular falls in our vision for EU.”
Focus on sanctions
For all the spinning and fretting, the diplomatic heavy-lifting — developing a package of sanctions that the West would impose on Moscow in the event of a new attack — continued apace.
Officials said diplomats were consulting on a daily basis as the U.S. and NATO prepared to respond in writing to Russia’s demands for security guarantees, many of which they have already dismissed as “non-starters.”
A Central European defense official said: “There is a solid consensus between allies, particularly when it comes to Russia’s demands.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Berlin, and they also held a broader meeting that included French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and U.K. Minister of State for the Middle East North Africa and North America James Cleverly — a format now being called the “Transatlantic Quad” to differentiate it from another group the U.S. forms with India, Japan and Australia.
Blinken, in a speech in Berlin hosted by a consortium of research organizations, disputed Moscow’s claims that its massive troop build-up on the Ukrainian border was necessary because its security has been put at risk.
“So far our readiness to engage in good faith has been rebuffed because in truth, this crisis is not primarily about weapons or military bases,” Blinken said. “It’s about the sovereignty and self-determination of Ukraine and all states, and at its core, it’s about Russia’s rejection of a post-Cold War Europe that is whole, free and at peace.”
Blinken is due to meet in Geneva on Friday with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
The continued frenzy of diplomatic activity illustrated just how effectively Russian President Vladimir Putin has seized command of the global geopolitical stage.
In Berlin, Baerbock welcomed Blinken noting that he had just come from Ukraine, where she visited on Monday, and she pointed out that Blinken would see Lavrov on Friday, noting that she had met him in Moscow on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Biden rowed back his comments about a minor incursion, saying: “Any — any — assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.”
In the end, it was Joly, the Canadian foreign minister, who perhaps summed up reality most succinctly.
“Russia is already in Ukraine,” she said, standing alongside Borrell. “We are talking about a real threat of a further invasion of Ukraine. So, in that sense, like my colleague just mentioned, a threat is a threat and we are very, very much concerned about this further invasion of Ukraine.”
Jakob Hanke Vela, Matthew Karnitschnig, and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.