Europe Has to Step Up on Ukraine to Keep the U.S. From Stepping Back
from Europe Program

Europe Has to Step Up on Ukraine to Keep the U.S. From Stepping Back

U.S. President Biden meets with European Commission President Von der Leyen, in Brussels.
U.S. President Biden meets with European Commission President Von der Leyen, in Brussels. Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS

Originally published at World Politics Review

December 9, 2022 9:56 am (EST)

U.S. President Biden meets with European Commission President Von der Leyen, in Brussels.
U.S. President Biden meets with European Commission President Von der Leyen, in Brussels. Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

The state visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Washington was meant to become a demonstration of trans-Atlantic unity. Instead, Macron bluntly warned that U.S. President Joe Biden’s promotion of trade subsidies could fragment the West.

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Trade is not the only danger to trans-Atlantic ties, however. Tensions over the war in Ukraine have relaxed since the U.S. midterm congressional elections but could ramp up again if Europe continues to fall behind the U.S. when it comes to providing financial and military support for Kyiv. Europe cannot afford a rift on this issue while Ukraine’s–and its own—security is on the line. As the U.S. prepares for the 2024 presidential race to begin, Europe should not take U.S. support in this war for granted. The European Union and its members need to increase their own efforts on behalf of Ukraine before a new crisis in trans-Atlantic relations erupts.

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Through its diplomatic engagements and financial and military assistance, the Biden administration has made it easy for European governments to follow rather than lead on Ukraine—and so far they have been comfortable doing so. That dynamic has reignited longstanding frustration, especially among Republicans, over perceptions of European free-riding and fueled calls for more equitable burden-sharing. That will be easy fodder for Biden’s critics in the lead-up to the 2024 elections.

Ukraine has received more than $18.6 billion in security assistance and $13 billion in direct economic assistance from Washington since the Russian invasion of Feb. 24. Some Republicans, including potential House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, have suggested that a Republican-controlled Congress would not support giving a “blank check” to Ukraine. Their ability to block aid packages supported by the Biden administration will be limited due to their weaker than expected showing in last month’s elections as well as divisions within the Republican caucus. But controversy over U.S. assistance to Ukraine will not dissipate anytime soon, especially as preparations for the 2024 presidential race heat up.

Even though the war in Ukraine is not a high priority for U.S. voters, former President Donald Trump, who announced his bid for reelection on Nov. 16, has been particularly critical of U.S support for Kyiv. Apart from Trump, other prospective Republican candidates in 2024, and perhaps Democratic ones should Biden choose not to run again, will be tempted to criticize the White House’s support for Ukraine at a time of high inflation and domestic economic troubles. The Washington Post reported that Republicans are now looking to cut economic assistance to Kyiv, while maintaining or increasing military aid. They are also pressuring the Biden administration for more oversight of weapon deliveries to Ukraine, even as the administration aims to pass a $37 billion Ukraine support package before Republicans assume control of the House in January.

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This is where Europeans need to step up their commitments if they do not want criticism of Europe’s limited support for Ukraine to become a significant strain on trans-Atlantic relations. While a few EU members and several other European states have made important contributions—as of early October, the U.K had pledged around $7 billion, while Germany and Poland had pledged more than $3 billion—they have not done as much as they could, or as much as some in the U.S. would like. Should domestic politics shift in the U.S. and curb Washington’s appetite for maintaining economic or military assistance near the current level, the onus of keeping up the support for Ukraine—and to protect the trans-Atlantic relationship—will fall on Europeans.

The U.S. has crucial stakes in this war, including its commitment to NATO’s Article 5 collective defense guarantee in the event of escalation, and the need to restrain Russian expansionism in order to focus on China. For now, it has been able to accomplish its aims at a relatively low cost. Yet, fundamentally, this is a war not just in Europe’s neighborhood, but in Europe itself. And if the war goes wrong, it is Europe’s security at risk.

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Europeans need a more substantial plan to support Ukraine not just to ensure their own security, but also to signal their long-term commitment and head off criticism of European free-riding on Ukraine ahead of the 2024 elections. Such a move would take the wind out of the sails of those on Capitol Hill calling to cut back U.S. assistance to Ukraine and criticizing Europe for not doing enough. And by showing a willingness to do more for Ukraine now, Europe will lower the risk of the U.S. doing less later.

First, the EU and its member states should announce that every dollar spent on the U.S. side for Ukraine will be matched by a commitment on the part of EU institutions and member states to spend at least the same amount. This would be an important symbolic statement to demonstrate the EU’s commitment to equitable burden-sharing on the war in Ukraine. Currently, there’s a gap: As of the beginning of October, the U.S. has committed $53 billion, compared with roughly $30 billion by EU members and institutions, according to the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine Support Tracker.

This gap needs to be closed on both economic and military support for Ukraine. In concrete terms, the EU should announce its aim to catch up with U.S. funding over an accelerated timeframe. Washington and Brussels could channel this assistance through a joint council where they commit to provide equal funding. Alternatively, the U.S. and the EU can come to a burden-sharing agreement where the U.S. commits to providing a greater share of military aid and the EU takes on the greater share of economic aid in return.

The EU and its member states have different instruments at their disposal to facilitate an increase in support: The European Peace Facility, a fund to reimburse member states for the military aid provided to Ukraine, has committed $3.2 billion to that purpose so far. This sum needs to be increased significantly to incentivize members to give more. Financial aid for Ukraine—in the form of grants, not loans—should be committed for the long term to provide insurance to Kyiv against future uncertainties in U.S. economic support. If not possible otherwise, and despite resistance from countries like the Netherlands and Germany, Europe will need to consider joint debt to provide the necessary financial support, as it has done already during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, Europe should step up its support on the battlefield, for instance by taking the lead on a European initiative to deliver Western-made battle tanks to Ukraine.

Second, Europeans have to improve their strategic messaging around their support for Ukraine to get ahead of U.S. criticism and prevent a return of the burden-sharing debate. Instead of complaining that their contributions are not sufficiently acknowledged or correctly calculated, the EU and its member states should publicly present their own monthly calculations on financial, humanitarian and military support as well as the costs of supporting the millions of Ukrainian refugees currently in their countries. This can be done without necessarily breaking it down to individual member states, as some do not disclose their military support publicly. But this topline number should be the one distributed to U.S. counterparts and featured in public messaging. In addition, Europeans should outline the costs to their economies of ending—or dramatically curtailing—their dependence on Russian energy.

Third, Europeans need to take the lead on reconstruction efforts for Ukraine. Now that Ukraine is officially a candidate for membership, the EU could give Kyiv access to the EU single market even before it becomes a member to support Ukraine’s economy. Europe can also signal its commitment to postwar reconstruction by pledging in advance to fund the rebuilding of critical infrastructure to European standards. Responding to one of Washington’s most prominent complaints, Europe should make clear that the bulk of this support will also be provided as grants rather than loans.

For now, support for Ukraine remains a consensus policy in Europe. Even the election of a far-right government in Italy, for example, has not impacted Europe’s approach. However, the moment to commit to long-term support for Ukraine is now: After the winter, Europe will be in an economically worse position, and will have to refill its gas storages once again. Consensus will be more difficult to achieve.

Europe needs to act now not only because internal divisions are likely to widen in the future, but also because of the U.S. political calendar. The Biden administration’s firm commitment to support Ukraine continues to provide cover for Europeans’ caution—even in a crisis that directly threatens core European values and security interests.

The war in Ukraine is another example of how, notwithstanding continuous discussions of European strategic autonomy, Europeans still yearn for U.S. leadership. Yet, support for Ukraine in the U.S., though broad, is not necessarily deep, and it still could fade into the background as the race for 2024 heats up. Given this uncertainty, Europeans need to put support for Ukraine on a more stable footing—while they still can.

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