When President Biden met his Western allies in Europe three months ago, the world was rallying behind Ukraine, and NATO suddenly had a new sense of purpose — its old purpose, containing Russia. There was talk of “crippling sanctions.” President Vladimir V. Putin was in retreat, and talk of victory was in the air.
Mr. Biden returns to Europe on Saturday night at a moment when everything about the war is harder. While Russia’s oil exports have fallen precipitously, its revenues have actually been on the rise, a function of soaring fuel prices. After concentrating its efforts in Ukraine’s south and east, Russia is making incremental but significant gains, as the Ukrainians, surrounded, begin to give up key cities: first Mariupol, and now, in the east, Sievierodonetsk.
“Compared to the March trip, Biden faces a heightened degree of trade-offs between domestic and foreign policy objectives,” said Richard Fontaine, the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington research group. “His priority will be to increase pressure on Russia and aid to Ukraine, but to do so when the West is worried about oil and food prices, its remaining weapons stocks and a war that shows no end in sight.”
For now, Mr. Biden is under little political pressure at home to back away. Most of the debates about how much to turn up the heat on Mr. Putin, without provoking a major escalation in the war, take place behind closed doors among his staff.
But there is concern that rising gas prices and the cost of keeping Ukraine armed and fed will begin to wear down enthusiasm, especially if Mr. Putin makes good on recent threats to limit gas supplies to Europe in the fall. Mr. Fontaine noted: “All the leaders he’ll meet are in the same general dilemma, and elections loom in the United States and elsewhere. Western unity is high, support for Ukraine still very solid and the desire to resist Russia real.”
But he also said that summit meetings “demonstrate how sustainable the various lines of effort will be as the war itself grinds away.”
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