Europe fears US abandonment

Manal Lotfy in London , Friday 2 Jun 2023

With the election season starting in the US, many Europeans fear US disengagement from the conflict in Ukraine.

Europe fears US abandonment
People rush to take shelter during a Russian rocket attack in Kyiv (photo: AP)


The long-awaited Ukrainian counter-attacks against Russian forces that aim to retake captured territory have not yet begun, but recent Ukrainian operations inside Russian territory have prompted military experts to say that the next stage of the conflict will witness an increasing number of Ukrainian “daring operations” inside Russia.

These may force the Russian leadership to reposition its forces and increase the numbers of its soldiers in the border regions, they say.

The latest of the bold Ukrainian operations came on Tuesday, when Moscow was attacked by two dozen aerial drones. The Russian Defence Ministry announced in a statement that five drones had been shot down and the systems of three others jammed, causing them to veer off course.

Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the Russian authorities called the incident a “terrorist attack” by the “Kyiv regime”.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin downplayed the incident, claiming that the attacks caused “insignificant damage” to several buildings. Two people received medical attention for unspecified injuries but did not need hospitalisation, he said. The residents of two high-rise buildings damaged in the attack were evacuated.

The attacks constitute one of the deepest and boldest strikes into Russia since the war began in February last year. They are the second on Moscow in the last few weeks. The Russian authorities said two drones had targeted the Kremlin earlier this month in what they portrayed as an attempt on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s life. Last week, Ukraine also launched a marine drone attack on a Russian ship in the Black Sea.

Strategically, the Ukrainian drone attacks inside Russian territory will not change the military balance of power on the ground in Ukraine, but they symbolically mean that no place in Russia is immune from the effects of war, which could be a blow to Russian morale.

Meanwhile, Russia continued a wave of bombardments of Kyiv that began on Monday. At least 20 Shahed explosive drones were destroyed by air-defence forces in Kyiv’s airspace in Russia’s third attack on the Ukrainian capital in the past 24 hours, according to information from the Kyiv Military Administration.

Overall, Ukraine shot down 29 of 31 drones fired into the country, most in the Kyiv area, it later added.

In recent weeks, Kyiv’s western allies have pledged to boost military support for the Ukrainian military in preparation for counter-offensives against Russian forces. Nonetheless, western officials are cautious about how effective Ukraine’s counter-offensives will prove to be.

Amid doubts about the Ukrainian counter-attacks and European differences over the extent of military and economic support for the country, the outcome of the war might depend on a US administration that is determined and capable of continuing support for Ukraine.

In a sign of Europe’s desire for US President Joe Biden to continue for a second term in office, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave his endorsement to Biden’s re-election last week.

Addressing pupils at a primary school close to Berlin, Scholz accused former US president Donald Trump of being “divisive”, saying that he would be bad not only for the US but also for Germany.

“If all people are only against each other, then there cannot be a good future, and that is why the former president certainly stands for a great division in the country,” Scholz said.

“I think the current president is better, so I want him to be re-elected.”

It is uncommon for European leaders to announce their support for a particular candidate in US presidential elections. Nonetheless, there are historical precedents for this.

In 1940, then British prime minister Winston Churchill endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt for re-election to lead the US and its western allies through WWII. In 1960, French president Charles de Gaulle endorsed John F. Kennedy for election as US president, perceiving him as best able to deal with the former USSR during the Cold War.

In 1980, then German chancellor Helmut Schmidt endorsed Jimmy Carter for re-election as US president, praising his calmness in dealing with a volatile world after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

In 2008, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy endorsed Barack Obama as US president, saying that Obama was the best person to rebuild the western alliance after eight years of the George W. Bush administration.

There are risks associated with endorsing a particular US presidential candidate, above all if the preferred candidate then loses. This makes for an awkward relationship with the elected president.

There is always also the possibility that the preferred candidate wins but does not live up to expectations.

But despite the risks, the German Chancellor likely saw it as important to clarify Europe’s terms for a strong transatlantic relationship and to pressure the Republican Party candidates to change their stance on the war.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has warned that he has no intention of giving a “blank cheque” to Ukraine. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who announced his intention to run for president last week, described the war between Russia and Ukraine as a “border dispute”.

Former president Trump told the US network CNN that he would meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war, but he refused to commit to backing Ukraine against Russia. 

Washington’s European allies are increasingly nervous that the US is about to turn inwards in preparation for a polarising election campaign. The interest of US voters in the outcome of the war does not reflect real preoccupations with this international issue, but rather a preoccupation with the impact of the war on the US economy.

The war has negatively affected almost everyone, including US citizens who are suffering from a cost-of-living crisis like billions around the world. Opinion polls over the past few months have shown US impatience with the amount of military and economic support provided to Ukraine.

The Republican candidates are using war fatigue in the US and promising to stop unlimited support for Kyiv.

It is too early to predict what US foreign policy will look like after the upcoming elections. But the election of a Republican candidate will likely mean a change in US policy towards the war, and this will be a major blow to European confidence in it as a reliable security partner.

But even if Biden is re-elected, this does not necessarily mean the current approach will continue. Developments on the international stage are rapid, and a US president’s second term often differs greatly from the first as more focus is placed on internal issues to strengthen a domestic legacy.

As the level of trust between Europe and the US has fluctuated dramatically over the past two decades due to US wars and military adventures in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, it is difficult to say whether Europe can trust Washington to complete the task in Ukraine.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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