Europe’s unity will help it weather the winter, says top U.S. diplomat

BRUSSELS — The Biden administration believes European nations can navigate a looming energy crisis accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine without eroding continent-wide support for the war, a top official said on Friday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who touched down in Brussels for talks with European and NATO officials, touted European unity as a key factor in Ukraine’s success to date in countering the offensive launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin in February. But he also acknowledged the campaign to isolate Russia was now taking a toll on the finances of ordinary Europeans, potentially testing resolve.

Blinken expressed confidence that new measures being considered by the European Union and steps being taken by the United States would prove effective in mitigating rising energy prices and that Europeans would understand that the costs of inaction would be greater.

“We won’t leave our European friends out in the cold,” Blinken said in a press briefing alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “We can, we will, emerge stronger and in a better place and that’s why it’s so vital that we stay the course, that we stay united.”

Blinken spoke as European Union ministers met in Brussels to discuss a mounting energy crisis facing the continent, where a longtime reliance on Russian fossil fuels has combined with global inflation to create surging prices for consumers.

Six months into the war, the E.U. has taken significant steps to reduce its reliance on Russian energy. But prices continue to spike and the bloc is increasingly split on how to respond. The European Commission has asked member states to mull drastic measures, including a windfall tax on some energy producers, a price cap on Russian gas and mandatory targets for reducing energy consumption. In an attempt to tame inflation, the European Central Bank this week raised interest rates for the second time this year.

“In the coming months our unity and solidarity will be tested, with pressure on energy supplies and the soaring cost of living caused by Russia’s war,” Stoltenberg said.

Officials in Ukraine have sought to head off any erosion of European support for the war. President Volodymyr Zelensky last week warned that Russia is preparing for a “decisive energy attack on all Europeans” this winter. The only way to fight back, he said, was to stay united on sanctions to limit the Kremlin’s oil and gas revenue.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady, reminded Britons that high prices are nothing compared to what Ukrainians are going through. “The prices are going up in Ukraine as well, she said, “but in addition our people get killed.”

“So when you start counting pennies on your bank account or in your pocket,” she continued, “we do the same and count our casualties.”

Putin has replied to Western attempts to limit Russian income with defiance, threatening to further cut energy supplies. Despite Western sanctions, high prices have allowed Russia to reap significant profits.

Blinken cited steps the Biden administration had taken to temper energy prices at home and abroad, including authorizing a major release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and redirecting natural gas toward Europe. He said Russia’s decision to cut off gas supplies via the Nord Stream I pipeline provided further evidence of the need for Europe to wean itself off Russian energy.

“Is there going to be a cost to this? Is it going to be challenging? Yes,” he said of Europe’s energy outlook. He said he hoped the moment would prove an opportunity to make Europe’s energy outlook more diversified and climate-friendly.

“The challenge is to get through the coming winter,” he told reporters in Poland before arriving in Brussels.

Western nations will also face heightened urgency in coming months on military support to Ukraine. Data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, which tracks pledges of weapons and money, has shown significant gaps between what countries have promised and what they have actually delivered to Ukraine. In July, Europe’s major powers offered no new bilateral military aid, the institute found, deepening concern about follow-through.

E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned this week that weapons stocks in the bloc are running dangerously low. “The military stocks of most member states has been, I wouldn’t say exhausted, but depleted in a high proportion,” he said, “Because we have been providing a lot of capacity to the Ukrainians.”

U.S. officials described Blinken’s talks in Brussels, and a visit to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian leaders earlier in the week, as setting the stage for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly later this month, where U.S. officials will attempt to project global unity in support of Ukraine.

In Kyiv, Blinken announced more than $2 billion in U.S. security aid for Ukraine as Ukrainian fighters seek to recapture territory now controlled by Russia.

A senior State Department official, who spoke ahead of Blinken’s Kyiv visit, said that Russia’s steps to reduce energy flows — including halting Nord Stream — were having the effect of hardening European sentiment against Russia rather than turning them against the war. The coming months will prove how lasting that feeling will be.

“It’s not going to be cold and dark,” another senior State Department official said of the coming winter. “It’s going to be expensive. That’s the main thing that they have to grapple with.”

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