Over the past few days, leaders in European capitals — not Washington — have taken the public lead on many of the most punishing actions designed to persuade Putin to halt his invasion.
But Biden administration officials say the latest steps against Russia simply reflect the culmination of what they describe as a months-long, behind-the-scenes strategy to fortify Western unity in the face of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The result, they add, is a testament to the strength of the transatlantic alliance, with who takes the lead — and when — often determined by logistical and regulatory considerations.
Biden has seen one of his major goals as rebuilding global alliances that he viewed as recently tattered, and persuading leaders with disparate interests and varied domestic concerns to come together. As Russia prepared its attack, officials say, Biden engaged in discreet diplomacy with European allies, and in recent weeks he has encouraged them to take action.
“They avoid the political downside of having the view that somehow big brother is corralling or forcing the junior partners to do its own bidding,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran diplomat and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s not just Joe Biden and the United States carrying the load.”
Even while much of the process may be stage-managed by the United States, he added, it helps European leaders domestically by presenting the response as a widespread global alliance and not just one orchestrated by Washington. The strategy is not without risk for Biden’s own domestic political concerns, depriving him of opportunities to tout achievements as he faces low approval ratings and attacks from Republicans who call his response weak.
“Putin would love to see this as a bilateral issue, but that would have been a trap,” Miller said. “The whole notion now is European-focused. That’s the new reality. You need to have as many European partners not just appear to be playing a significant and credible role, but really buying into this. And they managed to do it. Holding it together may prove more problematic.”
A senior administration official said the Biden administration for months had been pressing European allies to prepare for the possibility of Russian military action, and they have worked with different allies to use different tools to try to alienate Moscow economically.
“I think what you’re seeing over the past few days, is Europe is feeling the same sentiment, and so that’s what’s allowed us to take the kind of actions that came together over the weekend,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking. “Europe is watching the first land invasion in the heart of Europe in decades, and that changes the mentality.”
One European diplomat said the shift has helped elevate the concerns of Europe as part of a global response.
“It’s twofold, it’s a strategic moment, it’s a transformational moment in Europe,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly. “It’s not that the United States leads or doesn’t lead. It’s a multi-centric decision — it’s both Brussels, Washington, Paris, London, Berlin, and they go hand in hand.”
“It’s not the American leadership and everyone is following. That is not the case,” the diplomat added. “But it is more consensual, and I think it’s good for everyone.”
The result has been a more emboldened alliance, even with domestic concerns and leaders who have been tested in various ways. French President Emmanuel Macron is facing reelection, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced a barrage of questions about parties he attended during coronavirus lockdowns.
“Putin has done much more than any other to unite the Europeans and to go for a stronger European Union in terms of strategy, in terms of European sovereignty,” said the European diplomat.
French Ambassador Philippe Étienne said that the United States has been vital in helping to coordinate the response and that it has been an organized and unified one.
It has also seen the European Union take on a more robust role.
“I would go that far to say that you have seen a sort of transformation of the European Union with the kind of decision which had been taken — including in the field of defense,” Étienne said. “So, yes, it is definitely something which is impressive.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden deserved credit for many of the penalties being imposed on Russia — even if he wasn’t the one making the announcements.
“All of this coordinated action did not happen by accident. It wouldn’t have happened without the president’s efforts,” she said. “The order of announcements and how that has gone — I would not over-read into that, because we would not be here had the president not been leading this effort around the world for months.”
Biden last week said it would be difficult to exclude Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a secure messaging system that connects thousands of financial institutions around the world.
Although the idea was under consideration, some European countries had yet to agree to take the step.
Besides, he said, doing so was not nearly as significant as the wave of sanctions he had already announced.
“The sanctions we’ve imposed exceed SWIFT,” Biden said.
But the calculations seemed to change as Putin’s aggression continued, and as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made direct appeals to the West to cut Russia off from SWIFT. He named Germany and Hungary, appearing to indicate that they were holdouts.
The European diplomat said the speed with which SWIFT sanctions came together was one of the surprises in an otherwise well-planned response.
“The SWIFT part really unfolded during this week — it was not really ready, to be honest, 10 days ago,” the diplomat said. “I think there is a conscience in Europe — in the U.S., of course — but it is of course people we know, people who are in our neighborhood, 500,000 people who are coming to Poland, to the E.U.”
The senior Biden administration official said those sanctions came together quickly on Saturday.
“We were on the phone throughout the day, sometimes multiple phones at the same time, just to get the wording right and to make sure that all of our heads of state were comfortable with where we landed by 5 p.m. on Saturday,” the official said.
The changes announced by Germany had been in the works for much longer.
Germany announced last Tuesday that it planned to halt the certification of Nord Stream 2 — a controversial, $11 billion Russian natural gas pipeline to Germany — in response to Putin’s decision the day before to send “peacekeeping” troops into two Russian-backed separatist areas in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
That decision, which Germany took the lead in announcing, was months in the making, administration officials said, and involved numerous behind-the-scenes and back-channel conversations between the United States, Germany and other European allies.
Before Scholz, the German chancellor, visited Biden at the White House on Feb. 7, for instance, the two leaders had come to a general agreement that Nord Stream 2 would be taken off the table should Russia invade Ukraine, the administration officials said.
At the time, in a joint news conference after their meeting, Biden was unequivocal about what would happen to the pipeline if Russia invaded Ukraine. “There will be no longer a Nord Stream 2,” Biden said. “We will bring an end to it.”
But Scholz, while generally acknowledging that Germany was prepared to “act together jointly” with the United States and other allies, pointedly did not mention the pipeline by name, raising questions about Germany’s commitment.
Administration officials added that while they had no doubt about Germany’s commitment, they conveyed to Germany that, if and when the time came, Germany could announce the halting of Nord Stream 2 — the ideal outcome for everyone, the Biden administration argued — or the United States could impose sanctions effectively ending it.
Ultimately, however, when the time came, Germany did not waver. After a three-way phone call between Biden, Scholz and Macron to discuss a joint response to Putin’s initial aggression, Germany surprised the group by swiftly announcing it was halting the certification of Nord Stream 2.
No arm-twisting was required, said one French official familiar with the dynamic. And shortly thereafter, the Biden administration announced its own Nord Stream 2 sanctions.
Sometimes, the movements in Europe have happened faster than anticipated.
Asked on Thursday whether he planned to penalize Putin personally, Biden said, “It’s on the table.” The next day, the European Union announced it was sanctioning Putin personally. A few hours later, the United States did the same — a delay that a senior administration official attributed to time-zone differences.
On Monday, many European countries and Canada announced they were closing airspace to Russian flights.
The Biden administration did not immediately join the move.
“It’s not off the table,” Psaki said, “but I don’t have anything to announce and no decision [has been] made.”