- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting that U.S. and Western European political and societal resolve to back Kyiv will soon break down so that his military can proceed with its dismemberment of Ukraine, the top European Union diplomat in Washington warned in an interview.

It’s a message that EU Ambassador to the United States Stavros Lambrinidis said Americans should weigh carefully as Mr. Putin’s war enters its second year. At this precarious inflection point, he said, the West must not lose sight of the conflict’s broader geopolitical stakes.

The Greek diplomat is at a critical nexus of the struggle, as top officials in the U.S. and Europe seek to sustain popular support for Ukraine in the second year of what many fear could be a long, bloody and costly struggle. Opinion polls already suggest a slight softening of U.S. support for Kyiv, and EU member nations are divided over how tough a line to take in opposing Mr. Putin’s forces.

“I know it’s been a year and people tend to get tired after a while, especially when it’s bad news and they have to follow it every day,” Mr. Lambrinidis told The Washington Times in a wide-ranging interview ahead of the Feb. 24 invasion anniversary.

“This is exactly what Putin is counting on that we would do,” he said. “So my question would be: Are we going to let him do it? And the answer is, no, we cannot. Because if we do, our capacity to project our democratic footprint on the world stage for decades to come will be dramatically diminished.

“Although this war from this side of the Atlantic may seem to be thousands of miles away, there is no safe distance when an autocrat sitting on nuclear weapons is convinced that he can bend the will of American and European leaders to his own through force,” the envoy said.

SEE ALSO: Part One: Chaos wrought by Russia in Ukraine reveals chilling reality: How far will Putin go?

“[Putin] has not simply tried to wipe Ukraine off the map,” he said. “He has also said that he’s trying to show that the West is weak, that NATO is weak — that we don’t have the guts and the capacity to follow through, and that the world order has to change from one that is based on the U.N. Charter and international law and the rights of countries to self-determination to one where might is right.

“This is precisely what China would also like,” he said. “Therefore, this war is not far away. It’s right here.”

Beijing watches

As a lawyer, politician and former foreign minister of Greece, Mr. Lambrinidis, 61, has lengthy experience in the turbulent world of European politics.

He has represented the EU in Washington since 2019 and appeared to relish the challenge of keeping the West united in the face of adversity. He is delivering a message of unity amid mounting skepticism from within the Democratic and Republican parties over the  Biden administration’s aggressive policy of economic and military support for Ukraine.

Far-left and far-right groups joined forces over the weekend for a “March Against the War Machine” rally in Washington. Speakers criticized the Biden administration’s spending on the war, and some went so far as to call for massive cuts to the Pentagon budget and a disbanding of NATO.

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a leading conservative Republican voice in Congress, said last week that it’s time to let European allies take the lead in supporting Ukraine so the U.S. military can focus its resources on the larger threat posed by China.

Mr. Lambrinidis said the division of labor in backing Ukraine was not an “either/or proposition.”

Mr. Putin’s prestige and power would have soared last year, he said, if the U.S. and Europe had not rallied together behind Kyiv and helped Ukrainian forces resist Russia’s initial onslaught. Backed by Western money and arms, Ukraine subsequently managed to retake territory with counteroffensives, and both sides are reportedly gearing up for new offensives this spring.

“This success of the Ukrainians, this diminishment of Putin, could not have happened unless Americans or Europeans together had used the collective economic and military firepower against him,” Mr. Lambrinidis said.

The Russia-Ukraine war, he said, should be understood in the context of a wider global geopolitical clash involving China. He said a Russian victory in Ukraine would embolden Beijing to engage in its own aggressive military actions, including against Taiwan, without fear of being blocked by the West.

“The war in Ukraine is, of course, connected to what’s going on with China,” the ambassador said. “Beijing is watching very closely. If the West backs away from Ukraine, China may see it as a clear sign that the West lacks resolve and can be bullied militarily and economically.”

The ‘price’ of freedom

The European Union’s 27 member nations have collectively committed roughly $73 billion in financial, military, humanitarian and refugee assistance to Ukraine, notably less than the roughly $115 billion committed by the U.S. government alone.

Mr. Lambrinidis emphasized additional costs that European nations are shouldering, including taking in millions of Ukrainian refugees and shifting away from purchases of oil and natural gas from Russia, which was Europe’s top energy supplier before the war.

“If you look at the effects of this war in Europe, you will see that they are magnitudes higher and greater and more painful than the effects anywhere else in the world,” he said. “When the price here and the gas pump went up to $6, the price in Europe was $12 to $13.”

On the broader energy front, an EU fact sheet noted that the bloc — of which Ukraine is not a member — has moved at “lightning speed to decouple from Russian fossil fuels,” even as energy prices across Western Europe soar to rates as high as 10 times their pre-war levels.

U.S. energy companies, particularly in the natural gas sector, have benefited by signing contracts across Western Europe to fill the gap created by Russian cutbacks in the past 12 months. In addition to rejecting Russian oil, the EU has imposed nine rounds of economic and other sanctions against Russia.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said a 10th slate of sanctions, to be announced on the anniversary of the invasion, will target companies selling technologies used by the Russian military, including specific components for drone manufacturing.

The need to maintain support for Ukraine in the weeks and months ahead is not only a message for Americans, he said, but also for the Europeans he represents.

“It is as important, if not more important, to communicate back to Europe …,” the ambassador said. “There really is no price you can place on freedom.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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