The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to many ramifications on the economic, social, political, security and geopolitical fronts. In addition, the war has led to turbulence in the transatlantic alliance, with each side viewing the Russia-Ukraine conflict differently, particularly when it comes to providing financial and military assistance to Kyiv and the best approach to ending the conflict, which has caused havoc in European domestic fronts, with the cost of living crisis imposing extensive pressure on European governments. Given the proximity of the conflict, the Europeans are eager to end the conflict as soon as possible, however, the US side is not in a rush, viewing the conflict as a means to bog the Russians down in a quagmire and exhaust it, preventing a Russo-Sino strategic alliance rising in the future. As a result of these different calculations, transatlantic relations have experienced turbulence, and there is a need to look at perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic. In this piece, the European and US perspectives on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and transatlantic relations will be analyzed, with a forecast of the scenario that is likely to play out in the future. The piece will start off by discussing the European perspective, before moving on to the US one, ending with the conclusion.
The European Perspective
The rise of economic tensions between Washington and Brussels comes in the context of growing European demand for US military support to limit Russian military ambitions in Ukraine. The current transatlantic tensions are an unintended consequence of the rise of tensions between European countries and Russia. The military relationship between the United States and European countries is stronger than ever. Even neutral European countries have started to take sides and more openly support NATO and economic sanctions against Russia. Despite this unity in facing Russian military ambitions in Ukraine, one has to consider that the Biden administration’s focus on China is a challenge for European leaders. Europe is not anymore the geopolitical center of international dynamics. This is true even in the context of war returning to the European continent.
The US president has provoked negative reactions in Europe with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) that will provide subsidies to American companies. There is a sense in most European countries that the United States is taking economic advantage of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. This is especially true when looking at the price of US gas sales to European markets, the issue of the rise in US weapons sales to Europe and the question of sharing the economic burden of the sanctions imposed on Russia between the two sides of the Atlantic. There is a risk of an end of Western unity if the war lasts for many more months or years. Eventually, there is also a debate regarding the best means to find a political solution to the war in Ukraine: the diplomatic path through direct dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin or a never-ending military escalation against Russia until a total victory is achieved? The ability of this historic alliance to withstand the current tensions and turbulence will be tested in the coming months.
The first point of disagreement between the two sides is about the cause of the worsening European situation. From the European point of view, the unintended effects of the sanctions, the rise of energy costs, and the new US economic strategy focusing on national interests are the main explanations behind the economic decline of Europe. From the US point of view, it is rather European energy dependency on Russia and the lack of investment by European countries in their defense capabilities that best explain Europe’s current predicament.
Indeed, it is quite paradoxical to see that in the context of the rise of military escalation in Ukraine that the Europeans are unable to decide on new economic sanctions against Russia. This is not only due to the growing internal divide in Europe between the political elites and public opinion but also due to the specific situation of some European countries. For instance, the lack of political will in certain European countries such as in Hungary and maybe Italy, in the near future, is preventing the adoption of new economic sanctions against Russia.
Given the growing gap between the two sides of the Atlantic, one would expect a strengthening of European unity to confront the new economic challenges facing the continent. On the contrary, there is a crisis in French-German relations, mainly due to Berlin’s reluctance to develop projects at the European level to resolve the energy crisis on the continent since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war. The issue of German sovereignty and the risk of a European commitment to a new international strategy against Russia are difficult to understand in the United States. In Washington, the German energy model based on cheap gas supplies from Russia and, at the same time, on a strong economic partnership with China is perceived as a mistake. The French approach underlines the need for European “strategic autonomy” whereas in Berlin the official position defends European “sovereignty” but does not go beyond this like the French in order not to antagonize the Biden administration.
Last but not least, the transatlantic crisis of trust on trade issues is more difficult to manage for European leaders in general and for French ones in particular for several reasons. Firstly, there is growing tension about the flow of money into the US defense sector. European military purchases have to be understood in the context of US military support to Ukraine since the beginning of the war ($15.2 billion for the United States and €8 billion for the Europeans). Secondly, Europe fears to see a return to the situation of 2000; foreign policy scholar Robert Kagan explained that because of the asymmetric relations between Brussels and Washington, European countries were unable to exercise leadership when it came to confronting security threats. He then described the “division of labor that consists of Americans “making the dinner” and the Europeans “doing the dishes.” What was clear in 2022 was the worsening of the European economic situation and the return of governments focusing on their respective national interests which could led to the escalation of tensions between Brussels and Washington.
The US Perspective
On the other side of the Atlantic, US officials are expressing concern over how to keep Washington’s allies united on its position to counter “Russian aggression” in Ukraine. Protests across Europe due to rising inflation and the prospect of an economic recession mean that reaching an agreeable approach on the Russia-Ukraine war will be much harder for the United States and European sides. Additionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest nuclear threat against the West, along with Moscow’s decision to scale down gas supplies to Europe seem to be dividing the West even more.
A unified response to Putin’s nuclear threat is essential for ensuring the survival of Western democracies. Not surprisingly, the United States remains committed to strengthening Ukraine’s military capabilities to fight the Russian invasion, while reducing security risks to the member countries of NATO.
However, Washington also seeks a settlement to the Russia-Ukraine war, one that is acceptable to both sides, mindful that Putin is also calling for an agreement to end the conflict. From the US perspective, if the Europeans are unable to sustain the military competition with Russia, then they cannot expect more than what is already provided to ensure the security of NATO member countries. As Russia raises the stakes of war, by directly charging the United States and NATO for involvement in the Ukraine theater, the likelihood of confrontation with Moscow that Washington is keen to avoid is high.
Not surprisingly, preoccupation with the recent midterm elections weakened the Biden administration’s commitment to NATO’s Article 5 that speaks of collective defense. While thwarting Russian expansionism is critical to both the Republicans and Democrats, the US Congress is unwilling to prioritize and sanction a distant war in Europe, especially given the fact that the US economy is trying to recover from the economic disruption and slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
For now, the US Congress is backing the Biden administration’s plan to raise defense spending, but this does not mean that the US president can depend on the legislative body to give more military assistance to Europe than it already has approved. On February 2022 when the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, US forces in Europe shored up the defenses of countries bordering Ukraine.
The Biden administration conditioned its backing for Ukraine from the start on the premise of prioritizing US security interests first. On March 20, the US president traveled to Poland where some US forces had been deployed to, following a stop in Brussels, while rejecting a Polish request to provide Ukraine with MiG fighter jets. The United States also rejected Ukrainian pleas to set up a no-fly zone, fearing a direct confrontation with Russia.
On March 24, a statement issued by US President Joe Biden and the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen reiterated a joint US-European commitment to the strengthening of sanctions against Russia and the delivery of humanitarian relief to Ukraine, as well as energy and cybersecurity cooperation, but fell short of concrete US promises to bail out Europe’s economy. In exchange, in May, the US president refused to sanction the European company Nord Stream 2 AG responsible for constructing the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, to protect US ties with its transatlantic allies.
At the NATO Summit in Madrid on June 29, the US president announced moves to increase US troop presence in Europe and strengthen NATO’s eastern flank in the face of Russian threats. The announcement came on the heels of a 20,000 US military service troop buildup in Europe, that increased the number of US forces there to 100,000.
Although the US increased the number of its troops in NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force, transatlantic cooperation to support Ukraine has somewhat waned. In October, the US president had to push back against Congressional pressures, mainly by the Republicans, to stop offering Ukraine a blank check. Ukraine has received more than $19.1 billion in security assistance and $13 billion in direct economic assistance from the United States since the Russian invasion on February 24. From January 24 to November 20, 2022, the United States committed $47.8 billion, and European countries and institutions committed $51.8 billion to Kyiv, according to the Ukraine Support Tracker.
This massive military and economic assistance to Kyiv does not mean the United States should take a nosedive and defend its allies all the way. Washington must protect its national interest first to remain a strong and reliable power abroad. It must also address other foreign defense priorities and threats including from China, North Korea, and Iran. More importantly, keeping the United States safe is important for the Biden administration to ensure the reelection of a Democrat at the next presidential election in 2024.
The Biden administration’s IRA is a multi-billion-dollar bipartisan bill on energy and climate but is viewed by the Europeans as unfairly locking out European companies from the lucrative US market, and prioritizing “Made in America” investments. This act has forced European countries like France and Germany to consider starting their own subsidy programs.
Transatlantic tensions are also mounting over a number of other issues, such as over the hiked gas prices in Europe. It is highly unlikely that the US president will recalibrate the IRA’s clauses even though the act’s subsidy program along with his administration’s “Made in America” plan are seen by Washington’s European allies as a form of US protectionism* against Europe.
The US president has yet to respond to the calls by the European Chief Foreign Policy Representative Josep Borrell when he asked Washington to respond to Europe’s concerns. Washington says it is not to be blamed for the gas price hikes in Europe. In July, Republican Senator Ted Cruz attacked what he described as the Biden administration’s policy of “appeasement” toward Russia, blaming it for the “Russian invasion of Ukraine.” He also said that the US president was weak on the Nord Stream 2 gas deal between Moscow and Europe when he waived sanctions against it back in 2021.
Trying to convince the American people now that Ukraine is a bigger issue for the free world than the prospect of a looming economic recession is a hard task for the Biden administration. The US president sought to resolve transatlantic tensions during French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent trip to Washington in late November, vowing that the US focus on generating jobs will not come at the expense of Europe. But details are yet to be released about the sort of agreements made between the two leaders. What seems to be clear is that the US administration needs to see more European commitment to the war effort in Ukraine to boost the chances of the Democrats winning the presidential bid in 2024.
To conclude, after years of concern over transatlantic relations because of the former Trump administration’s harsh stance toward Europe, and its insistence on unilateralism at the expense of embracing a multilateral approach, there was hope that relations would be mended under the Biden administration, with its focus on working with allies and strengthening transatlantic relations. The Russia-Ukraine war added a sense of urgency to fortify transatlantic relations to impede the mutual threat of Russian aggression in the European continent. However, the Russia-Ukraine war has opened a Pandora’s box, with ramifications that have strained transatlantic relations, with the Europeans accusing the US side of not providing enough military assistance to Ukraine and exploiting the energy crisis for profit motives. The French plan of asserting European “strategic autonomy” is a dream now given the tightening of the US security umbrella over Europe, and the latter divided over how best to respond to the Russia-Ukraine war and its economic ramifications. With Paris and Berlin not really speaking to one another, London out of Europe, the European power houses are in no shape to dictate the course of the Russia-Ukraine war in terms of an agreeable approach to end the war. The Russians are fully aware of this division in the European house, and has proceeded with its war in Ukraine, without much fight back from the Europeans. Its blackmail tool of gas supplies further scattered the Europeans, and now with the tap cut off, the Europeans are looking for Gulf allies as well as US companies to bail them out at a tough economic time. The US side is irritated by the reluctance of the Europeans to take on board the security burden, particularly the Republicans are furious that the Europeans are wanting Washington to contribute more troops, arsenal and financial assistance when the conflict is happening on their doorstep. At the same time, the French insistence on independence from the United States irritated many foreign policy quarters in Washington, with these quarters now insisting that the French act more decisively to resolve Europe’s security crisis. The United States has other foreign policy priorities, particularly the Chinese threat, so it wants the Europeans to take responsibility of their own security, so it can focus on this and other geopolitical concerns, however, the economic ramifications, have seen the Europeans reaching out to China, which has irritated Washington further. There is no fix to the transatlantic relations dilemma at this current time, it was hoped that the Russia-Ukraine war would heal tensions and rifts and lead to a unified Western house, but this has not happened. In fact, more divisions and tensions have become apparent, providing Russia with more room to maneuver and enact its plans in Ukraine. With the 2024 presidential election not too far off, the Biden administration is likely to shift to a domestic focus, leaving transatlantic relations stranded for the time being. This will require the Europeans to shape up and act as a unified force in the face of Russia, and Paris and Berlin will need to start speaking more to sort out the mess in Europe, otherwise face the wrath of their publics who are drowning in the cost of living crisis.
* “Protectionism refers to government policies that restrict international trade to help domestic industries.” See “Protectionism,” Investopedia, April 11, 2022, accessed December 29, 2022, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/protectionism.asp.