Biden limps to G-7 as allies fret over his troubles at home

US President Joe Biden's domestic problems are snowballing and his Democrats may not survive midterm elections. PHOTO: AFP

BAVARIA, GERMANY (BLOOMBERG) - United States President Joe Biden's political fortunes have changed dramatically since his first Group of Seven summit last summer, or even his last visit to Europe in March.

It could not come at a worse time for his international allies as Russia settles into a long war with Ukraine.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who will welcome G-7 leaders in the Bavarian Alps, views Mr Biden as a driving force in sustaining pressure on Moscow and believes that unity among allies could fray once again if Republicans win back the White House in 2024, according to a German government official who requested anonymity to discuss internal thinking.

It was only a year ago, on a sandy English beach in Cornwall, when European leaders celebrated that Mr Donald Trump was gone and that the US had returned to the multilateral orbit.

Now, that relief has been replaced with a sense of foreboding about whether Mr Biden's Democrats survive midterm elections and the President's political longevity.

Several G-7 leaders are concerned that a midterm defeat would limit how much Mr Biden can promise and get done in the months ahead, according to a senior French government official.

Biden's problems

As Mr Biden heads into back-to-back European meetings - first the G-7 in Germany and then a Nato summit in Spain - his domestic problems are snowballing.

His presidency has been rocked by inflation and soaring petrol prices.

On Thursday (June 23), the justices dealt Mr Biden a setback before he departed for Europe, making it easier for Americans to carry guns in public.

And on the global stage, it is clear that four months after President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Russia's neighbour, he has not been deterred by international sanctions and the conflict has settled into a war of attrition.

White House officials expressed confidence in President Biden's standing going into the meetings and said he deserves credit for organising global opposition to Russia's invasion.

The US and its allies are in closer agreement than ever on many issues, including China, energy and supply chains, White House spokesman Andrew Bates said.

"President Biden pledged that he would revitalise America's standing in the world based on common values, and he has delivered; this is a watershed moment in which our alliances are now the strongest they have been in the post-Cold War era," Mr Bates said in an e-mail.

"The President's leadership has been central in unifying the world to defend democracy and freedom against aggression and brutality," he said.

The challenge

In this new phase, the challenge for the US and its allies is sustaining pressure while averting further damage to their own economies.

Mr Douglas Lute, who served as US ambassador to Nato during the Obama administration, said getting everyone to agree on what to do next for Ukraine will keep getting harder.

The economic pain will "frankly test the alliance's ability to remain unified", he said in an interview.

Mr Biden's counterparts at the G-7 have put elections behind them. But he is staring at the prospect of Republicans seizing control of one or both chambers of Congress in November amid mounting speculation about whether he will run for re-election in 2024.

The President got a bump in the polls for his immediate handling of Russia's Feb 24 invasion of Ukraine, but that quickly dissipated amid voter outrage over the rising cost of living and growing fears of a recession.

Attempts to explain inflation away as a "Putin price hike" have not gone down well with the public.

What to do with Ukraine

Ukrainian forces in Sieverodonetsk in the Luhansk region on June 19, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Domestic US political tumult forms the backdrop to the G-7, where European countries are weighing a US proposal for a complicated change to their hard-won sanctions on Russian oil.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, has already floated the idea of a peace agreement that does not "humiliate" Moscow.

At the G-7, it is hard to imagine anyone will ask Ukraine to make territorial concessions, especially with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attending virtually.

Mr Biden, for example, was so visibly affected by the plight of Ukrainians on his March trip to Europe that in an unguarded moment, he said Mr Putin could not remain in power.

Privately, especially in an intimate one-on-one setting, the question of how to find a way to end the war looms large.

Allies will be eager to understand how and if Mr Biden's thinking on the war's endgame has shifted, given that the US alone has the ability to change the reality on the ground, either with a military intervention that it has ruled out or by finding a way to supply Ukraine with even more weapons at an even faster rate.

The US on Thursday announced plans to provide Ukraine with an additional US$450 million (S$624 million) in advanced weaponry that includes patrol boats, rocket systems, along with military education and training.

It is an uncomfortable debate, but one that is rapidly coming down the track.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been Mr Biden's most engaged ally on Ukraine, broached the topic in a Wednesday op-ed in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

"Below the surface, there are different approaches to the Ukraine crisis emerging among Western countries: Do you fear that the Europeans are pushing for a quickly negotiated solution?" Mr Johnson wrote. "There is a risk of Ukraine fatigue around the world, and that's clear."

Mr Biden this week denied fatigue is setting in but acknowledged there is "going to be a bit of a waiting game - what the Russians can sustain and what Europe is going to be prepared to sustain".

How seriously Americans take Mr Putin's nuclear threats is part of the bigger geopolitical calculus, with some allies fearing that the Russian leader could dare to go there, while others believe it is an empty threat typical of Moscow's tried-and-tested playbook.

Russia's shadow

Pro-Ukrainian activists call for a complete ban on Russian energy in Brussels on May 29, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Finland and Sweden's accession to Nato will also be a subject of talks but no resolution is expected at the Spain summit, according to the person familiar with the Biden team's thinking.

Curbing Russia's oil revenue - which fuels its war machine - is however a tangible, though complicated, target for this gathering and one that will test the common resolve of allies.

The goal is to keep Russian oil on the market for buyers, including India and China, and prevent already high oil prices from surging, while also curbing Russia's profits from the sales.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said this week that the US is speaking with Europeans about setting a cap on the price of Russian oil by possibly easing a European Union ban on insurance for the transportation of crude and other petroleum products from Russia.

But EU countries are sceptical because it would require them to rewrite the legal text of their latest sanctions package, according to people familiar with the matter.

It takes a lot to get 27 nations to agree, and there is little appetite to re-litigate what was a long negotiation process.

An oil price cap is not expected to be implemented by the conclusion of the G-7 summit, but several officials believe an endorsement for the idea will be included in the leaders' joint statement.

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