Steady the Ship: EU-US Relationship in the Wake of the Ukraine Crisis

Written by: Aleksander Cwalina

The transatlantic relationship is back. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, the United States and its European allies in the European Union have marched in lockstep against Russian aggression. This has included sending arms and supplies to embattled Ukraine and severely sanctioning Russia – cutting the country off from combined European-American markets and financial institutions such as SWIFT.  

These events strike a much different picture today than they did merely a month ago.

In early January, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a distinct EU approach in talks with Russia that were separate but coordinated with the United States and other transatlantic allies. This messaging sparked controversy among both Washington and Brussels officials, who feared a divided approach would send mixed and ineffective signals to Moscow in the continent’s response to an invasion of Ukraine.

Macron’s strategy included flying in a flurry between Kyiv, Moscow, Berlin, and Warsaw to consolidate a unified European response and call for de-escalation on European terms, including face-to-face (at Versailles and Moscow) and telephone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin – numbering nearly 11 talks between the two presidents this past month.

Whereas the United States and allies have been shutting down Russian embassies and expelling Russian diplomats, Macron has kept an open line to Paris in the hopes for a diplomatic end to the conflict.

To some, this is simply a push on Macron’s part to boost poll numbers ahead of the April presidential election. To others, this represents a French tradition instituted by Charles de Gaulle of playing a leading role in European affairs separate from non-European allies (i.e., the United States). In a post-Angela Merkel Europe, the latter is attempting to fill the European diplomatic power vacuum. Germany has also experienced a change in heart in response to the conflict.

Early in February, Berlin not only refused to send military aid but also forbade other European allies from using their ports and airspace for their own weapon deliveries, such as those from Great Britain and Estonia – possibly as a result of the three-way ruling coalition’s division on sending arms to conflict zones, with the ruling Social Democrats in favor of negotiation and its partners the Greens and Free Democrats favoring a more stringent response.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats also hesitated to include the Russian-German natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 in the sanctions, fearing that natural-gas dependent Germany will be cut off from a large portion of its national electric source.

As the threat against Ukraine turned into a reality, Germany unblocked EU countries from sending German-made equipment, sent anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to Ukraine themselves, and announced massive investments into defense – upending previous German pacifist reluctance to do so. However, Scholz has also resisted calls to ban imports of Russian gas and oil (as the US, EU, and Japan are planning to do), citing a lack of current alternatives for energy supply.

Through close coordination with its respective member states and transatlantic allies, the European Union has unified against a common threat. But where is the United States?

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has led talks between the US and the EU, traveling to Europe to meet with European Commission president von der Leyen and other European counterparts. Blinken has underscored the need for diplomatic unity between the EU and the US in sanctioning Russia and providing support for Ukrainian citizens fleeing into the EU.

In terms of everyday staff and American personnel on the ground, however, there remains room for improvement.

As of early February, American President Joe Biden has not appointed ambassadors in Berlin, London, or even Kyiv. These crucial capitals represent a continued 68 ambassadorial vacancies out of 190 – well into the first year of the Biden administration.

The reason for many of the ambassadorial vacancies remains a mystery to even Washington insiders. 

On one hand, Biden has faced resistance from Senate Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley in confirming seemingly non-controversial candidates. Both senators have cited the administration’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and lack of sanctions on Russian gas as particular sore points, with Hawley going as far as demanding the resignation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and others in the State Department before allowing any Biden nominees to go through the Senate. 

On the other hand, the Biden administration has been unduly slow in simply nominating candidates to be confirmed by the Senate. In an article for Foreign Policy, Idaho senator and ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch criticized the administration for either not putting forward candidates at all, or for rushing nominations without the necessary paperwork or procedure. 

The few confirmed candidates thus far, such as Rahm Emmanuel (ambassador to Japan) and Eric Garcetti (ambassador to India), have also come under fire by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Critics claim that top donors and close party surrogates receive priority over career diplomats with experience in foreign policy and their assigned countries. 

The administration’s hesitation to appoint key ambassadors and diplomatic staff has also made ripples among US allies across the Atlantic. 

Earlier in 2021, former French US ambassador Gérard Araud termed Biden a “big disappointment all over Europe,” claiming that the United States’ focus on China has left crucial US-EU issues such as tech taxation/regulation and cybersecurity by the wayside.

Araud’s concerns have been echoed by other European diplomats throughout Biden’s first year. Though interests are more aligned than in the Donald Trump administration, diplomats from European countries large, medium, and small bemoan the lack of access, bureaucratic plodding, and long stretches of silence from Washington.

Speaking openly on the condition of anonymity to POLITICO, various European foreign officials painted a starkly different picture from Biden’s push for renewing transatlantic relationships. According to the diplomats interviewed, top officials from Washington do not contact their European partners or issue invitations as much as in previous administrations, with months passing between phone calls. Others complained that they are left in the dark about crucial matters, including those directly relating to Ukraine and Russia, and have to rely on public NATO statements to get a read on the White House.

The invasion of Ukraine has tested the transatlantic partnership and paved a common agenda for both the European Union and the United States for the coming months. It is now up to the United States to stay the course and invest time, energy, and staff in fostering goodwill across the Atlantic.