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Biden heads to Europe to bolster the Western alliance

The president travels to Belgium and Poland this week, seeking to keep U.S. allies together and visiting a nation wary of Russian aggression

President Biden speaks at a Business Roundtable event. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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BRUSSELS — President Biden will confront the growing Ukrainian refugee crisis in the most direct way yet when he visits Poland this week, where he will pledge more American aid to alleviate human suffering, discuss the emergency with Polish leaders and potentially meet Ukrainians who have fled their homeland.

The visit is part of a trip to Brussels and Warsaw where Biden aims to reiterate American global leadership and, at a time when the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens to settle into an indefinite slog, bolster the NATO alliance and reassure Ukraine that the U.S. commitment is ongoing.

“For the past few months, the West has been united,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday. “The president is traveling to Europe to ensure we stay united, to cement our collective resolve, to send a powerful message that we are prepared and committed to this for as long as it takes.”

When Biden meets with European leaders on Thursday, the heads of state plan to announce new sanctions on Russia as well as new ways of cracking down on those who seek to evade the current sanctions. He will also seek to smooth over the emerging splits between allies who want to supply offensive weapons such as fighter jets to Ukraine and those who fear that doing so would escalate the confrontation with Moscow.

Biden’s decision to visit Poland was added to the itinerary only in the past few days, reflecting the country’s position at the center of an intensifying refugee crisis, as more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees have sought safety in Poland since the conflict began.

“Poland has taken the brunt of the humanitarian impact outside of Ukraine in terms of the refugee flows,” Sullivan said. “Poland is where the United States has surged a significant number of forces to be able to help defend and shore up the eastern flank.”

The United States has moved additional forces into Poland, one of the NATO countries closest to Russia, Sullivan noted. “Poland has to contend not just with the war in Ukraine, but with Russia’s military deployments to Belarus, which have fundamentally changed the security equation there,” he said.

While in Poland, Biden plans to hold an event related to refugees, which could include meeting with some of the Ukrainians who have been streaming across the border, but the details are still being worked out, according to three people familiar with the planning who requested anonymity to describe plans that were not yet finalized.

Amy Gutmann, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, told reporters this week in Berlin that the Biden administration is intent on “making sure that the U.S.’s concern and interest in helping with the refugee situation is front and center.” The United States is prepared to ease the burden on Europe by taking refugees, Gutmann said, but many of those fleeing the fighting may wish to remain closer to Ukraine in hopes of eventually returning home.

“Most refugees want to go back, if they can, when they can,” the ambassador said. “And most don’t want to move farther from home than they have to. That said, I know there’s a willingness on the part of the U.S. to accept Ukrainian refugees if they want to come to the U.S.”

At minimum, Biden will meet with experts involved in the humanitarian response, Sullivan said. “He will announce further American contributions to a coordinated humanitarian response to ease the suffering of civilians inside Ukraine and to respond to the growing flow of refugees,” he told reporters.

Biden has grappled with refugee issues since taking office. He faced criticism from liberal activists for wavering on whether to raise the refugee cap from the low levels of the Trump era. He wrestled with resettling thousands of refugees from Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal from that country last summer.

Poland is the biggest — and arguably the most pivotal — country on Europe’s eastern flank, with Ukraine and Belarus on one side and Germany on the other. Washington and Warsaw were recently at odds over whether to provide fighter jets to Ukraine, and Biden’s visit is an opportunity to assert that the alliance remains united despite such differences.

Biden’s trip, only his third overseas journey since taking office, will begin in Brussels where he will attend a NATO summit, a Group of 7 meeting and a session with heads of state from the European Union. He will then travel to Poland, a visit that will include a meeting with President Andrzej Duda on Saturday.

Despite some calls for him to do so, Biden does not plan to visit Ukraine, the White House said, given the dangers of entering a war zone.

More than 3 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine; more than half are children. Their parents are trying to explain the war to them. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

In Brussels, Biden will coordinate with allies on the next phases of military assistance to Ukraine as well as on ways to tighten the economic squeeze the West is seeking to inflict on Russia. Ensuring that companies and countries cannot find ways to evade existing sanctions, U.S. officials said, is at least as important as imposing new ones.

Sullivan said that Biden will also announce actions to enhance European energy security, including by cutting the continent’s dependence on Russian gas. The call to ban oil and gas imports from Russia has been sensitive for some Western allies, particularly Germany, which is far more dependent on that source.

Biden announced this month that he was banning all U.S. imports of oil and gas from Russia effective immediately, a dramatic effort to further isolate Moscow economically. The E.U. unveiled a separate plan to slash Russian gas imports by approximately two-thirds this year, but questions remain about how quickly member nations can achieve that goal.

In one sense, Biden’s trip to Europe may prove to be more symbolic than substantive, since it remains unclear just how much further the allies are prepared to go to punish Russia and bolster Ukraine’s defenses. The West has already unleashed a far-reaching package of sanctions against Moscow and provided billions of dollars in military assistance to Kyiv.

But diplomats and analysts said Biden’s visit to the heart of Europe at a time of war and upheaval has a powerful symbolic value nonetheless.

“The most fundamental deliverable is for the U.S. president to show up at the time of the greatest crisis in European security since the end of the Second World War,” said Ian Lesser, the vice president of the German Marshall Fund. “There’s an opportunity for American leadership, there’s an expectation for American leadership. That symbolism is actually highly important.”

Biden has made it clear since taking office that one of his top foreign policy goals is to reclaim America’s leadership role on the global stage, following President Donald Trump’s hostility toward key U.S. allies and his disdain for international alliances and agreements. From rejoining the Paris climate pact to seeking to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, Biden has tried to reengage the United States in efforts by the international community to take on large, complex problems.

Some allies were wary of this push initially, saying they had no guarantee that Trump or someone like him would not be elected later, and the rocky U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan further eroded some foreign officials’ confidence in American leadership. In rallying democracies’ opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biden appears to have restored some confidence levels.

Biden will probably receive a friendly greeting from European leaders in Brussels. The visit to Warsaw, however, could be trickier.

The influx of Ukrainians has rapidly become a crisis. Warsaw’s mayor warned in a recent interview with The Washington Post that the city is on the brink, struggling to provide enough housing, schooling and medical care for the refugees who continue to cross the border.

Biden will face pressure not only to pledge funds and other assistance to alleviate that problem, but also to smooth over a recent diplomatic spat between the United States and Poland.

The two nations recently engaged in a public disagreement after the United States essentially declined an offer from Poland to deliver MiG-29 fighter jets to an American military base for use in Ukraine. Biden administration officials raised concerns that Poland’s offer could increase tensions with Russia, which has said that any country hosting Ukraine’s military aircraft would be considered part of the ongoing conflict.

The United States, while supplying equipment such as antitank Javelin missiles to Ukraine, has shied away from anything that Moscow could interpret as a direct American confrontation with Russian troops.

“To my knowledge, it wasn’t pre-consulted with us that they plan to give these planes to us,” Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month. She characterized Poland’s unusual public offer as a “surprise move by the Poles.”

Biden also heads to Europe as coronavirus cases have been rising on the continent, fueled by BA.2, a version of the omicron variant of the virus. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki disclosed that she had tested positive for the virus and would not join Biden on the trip as planned.

Psaki also missed Biden’s international trip in October, when she contracted the virus for the first time.

In a statement, Psaki said she had two socially distanced meetings with Biden on Monday, but that the president is not considered a close contact as defined by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The CDC defines a close contact as someone who was less than six feet away from an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.

Biden tested negative on Tuesday, Psaki said.

Isaac Stanley-Becker in Berlin contributed to this report.

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