Does Biden lead in Ukraine?

One of the most criticized statements in the history of US foreign policy was former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s remark in 2003 that Germany and France were “old Europe.” Now even old Europe agrees: Rummy was right.

Rumsfeld’s critics included then-Sen.-turned-US President Joe Biden, who is due to meet with European leaders on Thursday over Vladimir Putin’s attempted destruction of Ukraine.

Let’s break through the diploma talk: if Mr. Biden and the Europeans don’t get Ukraine right, Europe’s future is over.

Putin is Hitler. He is trying to exterminate a people and wipe out their cities. World War II was not fought in Europe to prevent future nuclear exchanges between Russia and the United States. It was waged because Europe witnessed the indiscriminate killing of civilians under the Nazi military doctrine, now revived by Mr Putin and the Russian General Staff.

Ever since emerging from the ruins in 1945, the collective European memory has never entirely lost its reluctance to allow that horror to resurface on its soil. It’s happening now.

Leaving Mariupol this week – almost 90% of it destroyed – Greek Consul General Manolis Androulakis said: “I hope no one will ever see what I saw.” Mariupol, he said, is now “Guernica, Coventry, Aleppo, Grozny, Leningrad “.

Rumsfeld’s critics chose to ignore that rather than write off Europe, the former defense secretary was optimistic about his responsiveness.

When asked about leadership in Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Rumsfeld replied, “You think of Europe as Germany and France. Not me. I think this is old Europe. If you look at the whole of NATO Europe today, the focus shifts eastwards.”

He was referring to Poland and the Baltics, the NATO members that had warned France and Germany — and US presidents — for years that Putin’s Russia posed a clear and present threat.

But the full Rumsfeld quote contains this, recalling when he was Ambassador to NATO: “I found that on every important issue, Europe . . . when there is leadership and when you are right and when your facts are convincing – Europe is responding. And they always have.”

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, addressing Congress, put Rumsfeld’s first requirement for success with Europe – if there is leadership – directly to Mr Biden: “I wish you were the leader of the world.” No such luck so far. In the four weeks of the Putin war, it was hard to tell if Mr. Biden was leading from behind, alongside, above or below. The only place he’s rarely seen is in front. It’s hard not to notice. A Wall Street Journal poll found that 52% of Americans don’t think Mr. Biden will run again, largely because of his age.

Just as the world needs Mr. Biden to step it up, somehow he doesn’t seem committed to anything commensurate with the scale of the Ukraine disaster, or his office. Speaking at a Democratic Party fundraiser last week, Mr. Biden once mentioned Ukraine, saying: “Russia and Ukraine are another reason why we need to break our dependency on fossil fuels.”

Timeless ambition may have propelled Mr. Biden to the presidency, but by instinct and habit he remains a lifelong companion of the US Senate. He talks, he advises, he considers “options”. Forward moves, even in the face of World War III, will be incremental at best, such as imposing sanctions on members of the Russian State Duma.

The old Europe is trying to reform itself into a single, new Europe, united by a powerful NATO. But that’s in the future and involves tough questions about paying for a decent military deterrent.

The harder question is: Where will old Europe be in the next four weeks when Mr Putin launches cruise missiles from Russian territory or the Black Sea at homes, schools and hospitals across Ukraine? The increasingly clear answer is that Mr. Biden and Europe will remain on the short side of what Ukraine needs militarily to force Mr. Putin into a ceasefire and negotiations. Worse, to get it over with, they could pressure Mr. Zelensky into an early de facto surrender.

As is so often the case, President Zelenskyy was right about the very point of the call for Poland’s MiGs, or a no-fly zone. As long as Mr. Putin rules the skies, nothing will stop his obsession with wiping out Ukraine as a sovereign nation.

Yes, it is true that a literal “no-fly zone” is impossible. But this three-word phrase has become an excuse for confining Ukrainians to suboptimal levels of military technology. What Ukraine needs are the tools to convincingly establish a “hard-to-fly zone.” They must be able to withstand a significant deterioration in Mr Putin’s airstrikes given their ground offensive.

The US and NATO should make clear their intention to move more effective air defense weapons and technology, such as the Patriot missile defense system, to where they work best. Another excuse for not providing more advanced anti-aircraft systems than the Soviet-made S-300 of the 1980s is that it would be too difficult to train Ukrainians on such sophisticated equipment. For real? Ask Russia’s generals.

A good formula remains: provide American leadership and facts. Europe will react.

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