Biden heads to Europe amid pressure to ramp up support for Ukraine

Biden heads to Europe amid pressure to ramp up support for Ukraine

 The trip will provide a high-profile leadership moment for the president on the world stage but also spotlight rising calls for the U.S. to do more.

BRUSSELS — President Joe Biden heads to Europe on Wednesday under increasing pressure at home and abroad to do more to aid Ukraine, as he tries to walk a fine line between providing support and deterring Russia while avoiding further escalation. 

Biden is scheduled to attend a last-minute emergency meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels to discuss the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While in Brussels, he also plans to attend a meeting of Group of Seven leaders and a European Council gathering. He is then scheduled to travel to Poland, which has found itself on the front lines of the military and refugee crisis, to meet with its president.  

The trip will provide a high-profile leadership moment on the world stage for Biden in one of the worst periods of European conflict since World War II. But it will also come with pressure to respond to calls to do more for Ukraine from Democrats and Republicans at home, European allies and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“It will feel very flat if there is this giant meeting of NATO, the most powerful alliance in the world, and the only outcome from it is a statement of solidarity. That will not look like a strong move,” said Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Obama administration. “That will be demoralizing for Zelenskyy and uplifting for Putin.”

McFaul said he is also looking for the NATO and European Union countries to come together at the summit on new sanctions against Russian oligarchs and top officials, to provide additional military equipment to Ukraine and to ratchet up economic moves, like an oil embargo. 

“If we want to put more pressure on this economy, there is lots more we can do,” McFaul said. “I would hope of a meeting of so many people there would be something like that.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said there would be an announcement about additional sanctions and sanction enforcement efforts in the coming days, after the U.S. has met with its allies.

He said Biden will also discuss at the meetings Thursday what the long-term troop presence in Europe should look like. Another topic: the potential for Russia to use nuclear weapons and how the U.S. and its allies should respond if that occurs.

If Biden and the other heads of state gathering fail to strike the right tone, they risk a split-screen moment where they will appear to be comfortably gathering in Brussels and posing for photos while images of a humanitarian crisis play out on television and Zelenskyy pleads for help as his capital is under assault.

“I worry that it’s a lot of hoopla. There’s a lot of expectations and there’s a lot of demands for the U.S. and NATO and the E.U. to do more because of what we’re seeing on our television screens every hour,” said Barry Pavel, who was a defense policy and strategy adviser to the National Security Council during the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations. “So I’m worried that if it’s just more of the same, it could end up not helping, but end up underwhelming. So I think it’s a fine line that’s going to be tread here, and I hope the administration errs on the side of doing a lot more.”

At home, congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been pushing Biden to do more to support Ukraine, particularly around that nation's request for fighter jets and additional sanctions on Russian oligarchs. Republicans have seized any opportunity to accuse Biden of being weak on Putin.

White House officials say a key purpose of the trip, along with discussing how to coordinate the assistance for Ukraine, will be to reassure NATO countries of America’s support and act as a show of unity against Russia that could deter a potential invasion of NATO territory.

Originally published on NBCNews