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A divided Europe confronts Russia with conflicting goals on Ukraine

Competing European agendas risk undermining U.S.-led diplomacy to deter a Russian incursion

Ukrainian service members unload antitank weapons supplied by Britain at Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv on Jan. 18. (Ukrainian Defense Ministry/Reuters)

LONDON — An increasingly anxious Europe is waking up to the threat posed by Russia’s military buildup on the borders of Ukraine, but deep divisions among and within European nations stand in the way of a unified Western response.

NATO and European Union officials have repeatedly stressed that the continent stands firm in its desire to prevent a Russian assault on Ukraine and in its willingness to inflict punishment on Russia if an invasion is launched.

But there is no unanimity on how best to go about deterring Russia or what measures to take in the event of an attack on Ukraine.

Europe’s three biggest powers, Germany, France and Britain, are pursuing sharply divergent approaches while also confronting domestic political distractions. Other countries are lining up on varying sides according to their geographical proximity to Russia, their dependence on Russia for their energy supplies and for reasons of history.

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President Biden drew ire when he referenced the divisions last week, suggesting that a response to Russian aggression could be complicated by “differences” within the NATO alliance.

But the differences were already on full display, even as Russia’s continued military buildup along Ukraine’s borders intensified fears that President Vladimir Putin is serious about launching at least some kind of incursion into Ukraine.

In a vivid illustration of how far apart European powers remain, British Royal Air Force planes were obliged to take a circuitous detour around Germany while delivering antitank weapons to Ukraine, diverting a flight path over the North Sea and Denmark that added several hours to the journey.

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British and German defense officials later denied that Germany had refused Britain permission to transport the weapons through German airspace, saying that no request to do so was made.

But Germany’s subsequent refusal to grant re-export licenses to Estonia to send German-origin howitzers to Ukraine underlined one key divergence within Europe, over whether to supply weapons to Ukraine.

German officials have cited their country’s decades-old policy of refusing to arm parties to a conflict, rooted in its unique history as the aggressor in World War II. Germany has also resisted U.S. calls for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to be included in any future package of sanctions to be imposed on Russia. The pipeline will bring Russian gas to Western Europe, making the region more reliant on Russian energy resources.

The German stance has drawn fire from Britain, Estonia and Ukraine, whose foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, denounced Germany’s position as “disappointing” in tweets over the weekend.

Britain, which advocates a robust response that includes arming the Ukrainian military, is unhappy that its planes must circumnavigate Germany to do so, said Tobias Ellwood, who heads the defense committee in Britain’s Parliament.

“To avoid a confrontation, to avoid embarrassing Germany we haven’t formally requested overflights,” he said. It’s symbolic “of the absence of any coordinated NATO effort to help a NATO ally and to help a European ally.”

“Russia notices all these things, and my concern is that it will egg them on to push the envelope even further,” he added in an interview.

France has meanwhile seized on the Ukraine crisis to advance its own ambitions for an E.U.-led security framework that could undermine NATO. In an address to the European Parliament, French President Emmanuel Macron urged the E.U. to launch a separate dialogue with Moscow over ways to reduce the tensions, potentially setting up a rival track to the U.S.-led diplomacy that has so far dominated the West’s efforts to tamp down the tensions.

With France heading into elections in April, Macron has domestic political reasons to promote his role as a key player in Europe’s dealings with Russia, said Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia during the Obama administration. But the speech further contributed to the sense that Europe is flailing in the face of perhaps the most serious threat to its security since World War II, she said.

“If Russia keeps getting away with what they’re doing in Ukraine and trying to alter borders, the entire international order will be in danger,” she said in an interview.

U.S. officials have warned that dissent within the Western alliance plays into Putin’s hands and say they are working to bridge the divides.

“I think one of Moscow’s long-standing goals has been to try to sow divisions between and within our countries and, quite simply, we cannot and will not let them do that,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on a visit to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

But Europe’s divergent interests put parts of the continent at odds with the United States as well. The Eastern European and Baltic states that feel most directly threatened by Russian expansionism are seeking a muscular response led by the United States. They have expressed concerns that Western European allies might be seeking to pursue an independent track that could weaken U.S. commitments to their security.

Elsewhere, factors such as Europe’s dependence on Russian gas for 40 percent of its energy requirements are fostering a reluctance to take a more forceful approach. A worldwide crunch in gas supplies has sent energy prices soaring across Europe, and many governments worry that further price hikes in the heart of winter will hurt them with voters.

The division between east and west “is definitely palpable, with many Western Europeans for a long time playing down the Russian threat,” said Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Most strikingly, she said, the divide runs through the heart of the newly installed and inexperienced German government, whose coalition partners have been publicly unable to agree on a unified vision for the Ukraine crisis. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats have a long history of warm ties with Russia, while his foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, has taken a more forceful stand.

Putin could hardly have chosen a better time to challenge Europe, said Ellwood, the British Parliament member. Britain is consumed by a leadership crisis triggered by revelations that Boris Johnson’s Downing Street staff partied in violation of lockdown rules. France is heading into an election. And Germany’s new government has yet to find its feet after 16 years of Angela Merkel’s leadership.

“He well recognizes that Europe’s main power base is France, Germany and Britain,” Ellwood said of Putin. “If these three countries are united, the rest of Europe follows. If you can sow divisions among these three then there’s no leadership, there’s no coordination and there’s no unity.”

Loveday Morris contributed to this report from Berlin.

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