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Biden heads to Europe as war rages in Ukraine

Joe Biden's trip to Europe is a major test for the American president. After nearly a month of horrific fighting in Ukraine, the war seems to have no end in sight and tensions between Russia and the West just keep getting worse.

(CN) — U.S. President Joe Biden headed to Europe on Wednesday amid a raging war in Ukraine and growing tensions between Russia and the West.  

Biden's presence in Europe will help steer events in Ukraine and set the tone for the West's response to the catastrophe taking place on the eastern border of the European Union and the NATO alliance. Biden and European leaders are expected to announce more sanctions on Russia, additional military support for Ukraine and the deployment of even more troops on the borders with Russia.   

Upon leaving for Brussels, Biden again accused Russia of being so brutal as to consider unleashing chemical weapons in Ukraine. “I think it’s a real threat,” he told reporters.   

Russia has scoffed at the allegation and says the U.S. was funding bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine and harboring plans to help Ukraine rebuild a nuclear arsenal, which Kyiv dismantled following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Top Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, argue Russia’s invasion would have been prevented had Ukraine maintained its nuclear weapons or become a member of NATO. 

Russian claims about the U.S. bioweapons labs are prompting speculation that the Kremlin may use such allegations as a pretext for the use of chemical weapons. Contrariwise, Russian sources allege Ukraine may launch a chemical strike in order to provoke even more condemnation of Russia and draw the West into fighting on its behalf. 

Biden is coming under pressure from Republicans and others to establish the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” for NATO. So far, Biden has rejected calls for NATO to defend Ukraine against Russian missiles and warplanes, warning that direct confrontation with Russia could spark World War III. 

The war in Ukraine seems to have entered an even more brutal phase with an increasingly desperate Russia relentlessly pounding Ukraine's army with its artillery and warplanes and Ukrainian forces showing no sign of weakening their resistance and even claiming to be going on the counteroffensive.   

For now, though, Russia is making slow gains in eastern and southern Ukraine. It resumed heavy bombing of Kyiv, the capital, on Wednesday and fierce fighting was reported on the outskirts.  

After 28 days of war, many cities, towns and villages in Ukraine have been turned into apocalyptic landscapes of bombed buildings, rubble-strewn streets, torched and abandoned tanks and transport vehicles, stunned and wounded civilians and death.  

A clear number of civilian and military deaths remains impossible to provide, but the death toll is certainly in the thousands. On Wednesday, the United Nations human rights agency said it had recorded 977 civilians deaths and 1,594 wounded civilians.  

A Ukrainian firefighter sprays water inside a house destroyed by shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

On Wednesday, anonymous NATO sources told Western media that up to 15,000 Russian soldiers may have been killed so far and that up to 25,000 others may have been wounded, captured of deserted. This number cannot be verified but must be read with skepticism. The number of Ukrainian military deaths is unknown, but Russia has inflicted heavy losses.  

According to Western intelligence sources, most if not all of the 150,000 to 200,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders before the invasion have been sent to fight. 

Russia’s army is made up of conscripts, contract soldiers and reserves and, all combined, number more than 1 million. But for combat, it relies heavily on about 260,000 conscripts between the ages of 18 and 27, according to a briefing by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington military think tank.   

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But Russia is up against a formidable foe in Ukraine with its army of some 150,000 troops and an order by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for a general mobilization of all men between the ages of 18 and 60. Thousands of civilians have taken up arms. Ukraine’s military has been massively and rapidly scaled up since 2014 when the collapse of a pro-Russian Kyiv government in what has been called a U.S.-backed coup prompted Russia to annex Crimea, the base of its Black Sea Fleet.    

Biden will hold a NATO summit on Thursday and then make a trip to Warsaw, bringing him close to the war zone.  

Poland, a traditional foe of Russia and now one of Europe's most hawkish nations when it comes to confronting Russia militarily, is becoming ever more involved in the Ukraine war. It is providing shelter for roughly 2 million Ukrainian refugees, acts as the chief transit point for the flow of NATO weapons into Ukraine and its political leaders are urging the West to get even more militarily involved in Ukraine.  

Warsaw's far-right nationalist government, run by the Law and Justice party, proposed sending its MiG fighter jets to Ukraine and replace them with American planes. At first, the idea was welcomed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken but then it was rejected by the White House because the plan envisioned transferring the warplanes via the U.S. Air Force base at Ramstein, Germany, and that would create a risk of Russia seeing it as an act of war by the U.S.  

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's de facto political leader, made a symbolic train trip on March 15 to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. While in Kyiv, Kaczynski proposed sending NATO peacekeepers into Ukraine.  

On Wednesday tensions between Warsaw and Moscow worsened after Poland announced it was expelling 45 Russian diplomats, alleging they were spies.  

“Russia is our neighbor and will not disappear from the map of Europe, but the aggression against Ukraine proves that it is a hostile state, and even hostile to Poland,” said Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Lukasz Jasina at a news conference.  

RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency, reported that Poland also froze about $33 million held in the Russian embassy’s bank accounts. The agency also ran a story saying a monument celebrating the Soviet Red Army was being removed in a Polish village called Chrzowice in southwestern Poland. Across Europe, anti-Russian sentiment is running high as governments seize the property of Russian oligarchs, including mansions in London and superyachts, and Russians who express support for the war are banished from cultural institutions, most notably the conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Valery Gergiev.  

On Wednesday, Moscow was hitting back by announcing that “hostile nations” will have to buy its oil and gas by paying in rubles, a move that angered some in Europe. It was seen as a method to shore up Russia’s pulverized currency. Moscow also said it would expel an unspecified number of American diplomats, a tit-for-tat move after the U.S. kicked out 12 Russian diplomats at the United Nations in New York City last month. Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have recently expelled Russian diplomats too.   

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a cabinet meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Raising the temperature even more, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday said in an interview on CNN, when asked, that Russia could not rule out the use of nuclear weapons if it faced “an existential threat,” citing Russia’s long-standing policy on nuclear warfare.    

Still, the comment raised alarm and was condemned by the White House on Wednesday. 

“It’s not the way a responsible nuclear power should act,” John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. But he added that the U.S. is not about to “change our strategic deterrent posture” based on Peskov’s comment.   

Biden's trip will see him coming to Europe amid a continent-wide crisis, one that many accuse the American president of having a big hand in creating because as vice president in the Obama administration he supported a violent uprising in 2014 that led to the overthrow a pro-Russian president in Ukraine. Those events during the so-called “Maidan Revolution” led to Russia's annexation of Crimea and the explosion of armed conflict in Donbas, as eastern Ukraine is called. The region is home to many ethnic Russians who were opposed to the Maidan Revolution in 2014.  

While vice president, Biden also was given the assignment to handle relations in Ukraine and he got heavily involved with its internal politics. His son Hunter Biden is also facing potential criminal indictment for his business dealings in Ukraine following the Maidan Revolution, a subject that casts a shadow over Biden himself.  

But Biden's role in Ukraine will not be on the table as he meets with European leaders to formulate the next steps to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin's wild and destructive gamble to invade Ukraine and stop NATO from expanding its influence in the former Soviet republic.  

 “Wars can make or break political careers. They present opportunities for leaders to show off their statesman bonafides, or alternatively, to flounder,” the Eurasia Group think tank said a briefing note. For Biden, the test will be to “shore up allied resolve against Russia’s assault on Ukraine.”  

“Biden likely hopes he can rally European countries to put further pressure on Moscow and force the Kremlin to make some concessions,” the think tank said. “Can he pull it off?”  

Since Biden has rejected Zelenskyy’s requests to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine because that would risk drawing NATO into the war, the transatlantic allies will be under pressure to come up with new sanctions and other actions to punish Russia.  

The White House has asked Turkey, a NATO member, to transfer Russian-made S-400 missile systems to Ukraine, but so far Ankara has balked at that idea out of fear of drawing the Kremlin's ire.  

It looks doubtful that the EU will stop Russian oil and gas imports with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz saying that such a move would ruin European economies.  

Still, the West is expected to announce new sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs and top officials. On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will agree on Thursday to boost troops levels in Eastern Europe.   

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.  

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