The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, visited Ukrainian troops in the contested Donbas region last Wednesday, staring through a fence at the positions of Russian-backed separatists.

“We are no longer in the Yalta times,” he said, when the great powers met in 1945 to divvy up postwar Europe. “The European Union is the most reliable partner of Ukraine,” he insisted, and it “cannot be a spectator” while the United States, NATO and Russia discuss European security.

To some, Mr. Borrell’s visit was a sign of Europe’s new interest in strategic autonomy and its desire to be a significant player in its own defense. To others, his visit was risky posturing and a demand for attention that only displayed the hollowness of the European Union’s actual weight in a world of hard power.

The inescapable fact is that when the United States and Russia sit down in Geneva on Monday to discuss Ukraine and European security, Europeans will not be there. And when NATO sits down with Russia on Wednesday, the European Union as an institution will not be there — although 21 states are members of both groupings.

Even as leading nations of the European Union, like France and Germany, have pursued their own talks with Moscow and are integral members of NATO, it is embarrassingly obvious that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia regards both NATO and the European Union as subservient to American desires and decisions.
That rankles the Europeans to no end in “a very tricky moment in international affairs in Europe, unprecedented since the end of the Cold War,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst. “It’s our security, but we’re not there.”

Part of the annoyance is “the traditional European conundrum that too much American leadership is unpleasant and too little is also unpleasant,” he said. “But the less reassuring part is that Europeans are wondering about the consistency” of President Biden after the Afghanistan failure and his desire to turn strategic attention to China. And they worry that Mr. Biden will be badly weakened after November’s midterm elections and that Donald J. Trump may retake the presidency in 2024.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has vowed repeatedly that no decisions will be made about Europe without the Europeans, and no decisions about Ukraine without the Ukrainians — who are also largely absent from the talks. Washington has worked to ensure that Mr. Borrell and other non-NATO European leaders are regularly briefed.

But there is always a tension between the global vision of the United States, with China as the central challenge, and that of the Europeans, who have Russia as their central security challenge, said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

President Emmanuel Macron of France has been pushing Europe to do more for its own defense, especially with Mr. Trump having disparaged NATO and with Mr. Biden looking toward the Indo-Pacific. But the Europeans remain divided over how to deal with Russia, their troublesome neighbor and source of much of their gas and oil.