When it comes to Russia, Joe Biden had big plans. He promised to reverse what Democrats claimed was Donald Trump’s conspicuously obsequious approach toward relations with Vladimir Putin. He said he would repair America’s ties to its transatlantic allies and present a united front against Russian aggression. He said he would “impose real costs on Russia for its violations of international norms,” oppose the construction of energy-transit networks that would isolate post-Soviet republics like Ukraine, and arm Kyiv to help it fight back against the Moscow-backed proxy forces occupying its territory. He said all this, and Americans bought it. We were duped.
At the outset, the Biden administration did display some early resolve to counter the Russian menace. This White House froze the withdrawal of American forces from Europe begun under its predecessor and expanded the sanctions regime against Moscow it inherited. The president also dispatched defensive weaponry to Ukraine, though not the offensive technology the Trump administration dispatched to Kyiv. But Biden’s infamously dubious foreign-policy instincts didn’t take long to reemerge.
Before long, Biden was legitimizing Russia’s threats against Ukraine by providing Vladimir Putin with bilateral summitry as a reward for brinkmanship. He abandoned his promise to oppose the construction of the Nord Stream II pipeline circumventing the post-Soviet states, which he had once called a “bad deal for Europe.” He all but surrendered to the Taliban, who American officials have long admitted benefit from Russia’s material support. When the Kremlin was implicated in a cyberattack against U.S. systems, Biden responded not by warning Moscow against such actions in the future but by delineating 16 crucial elements of American infrastructure that were “off-limits,” omitting and thereby licensing attacks on the potential Russian targets Biden left unenumerated.
The fruits of what one analyst feared was Biden’s policy of “sleepwalking into a reset with Russia” are now ripening. Far too many eerie indications suggest that Russia’s buildup of troops along Ukraine’s border is no bluff. The time has come for the West to not just cajole but compel Moscow to abandon its designs on that country by raising the costs of such an adventure to unacceptable levels, lest it risk a new land war in Europe and all the risks to Western security that would entail. But Joe Biden has not done that. Not only has the president failed to deter Putin, he has communicated—in terms no practitioner of statecraft would fail to recognize—that the West lacks the will to stop Putin from doing his worst.
When he was asked about Russia’s threat to the post-Cold War order in Europe, Biden turned in an enigmatic performance that communicated nothing so much as his own confusion. “My guess is he will move in,” Biden said when asked if he believed a Putin invasion of Ukraine was imminent. He reversed himself only minutes later. “I don’t think he’s made up his mind yet,” the president said. “If he invades, it hasn’t happened since World War II,” Biden marveled wrongly. Russia became the first power to invade and annex sovereign European territory since 1945 in 2014 when Moscow captured and reintegrated the Crimean Peninsula into the Russian federation. Worst of all, while expounding on the mother of all sanctions regimes he would impose on Moscow only after Russia took the irreversible step of reinvading Ukraine, Biden qualified that the Western response to something less than a full-blown invasion might be modest and absorbable.
“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do,” Biden ruminated. “But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the forces amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine.” With this, Biden exposed deep divisions within the Atlantic Alliance over precisely how or even whether to respond to a calibrated violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. The reporters present picked up on the permission structure Biden had erected around a deniable invasion of Ukraine and asked the president to clarify his remarks. The clarification was worse than the original comments.
“Are you saying that a minor incursion by Russia into Ukrainian territory would not lead to the sanctions that you have threatened?” one reporter asked. “That’s how it did sound like, didn’t it?” Biden acknowledged, suggesting he was gearing up to issue a more unequivocal ultimatum. But nothing unequivocal was forthcoming. “So, the question is, if it’s a—something significantly short of a significant invasion,” Biden continued. “It’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page,” he said. “There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do depending on what happens.” The president went on to note that harsh sanctions against Russia impose economic costs on Europe and America, too, and he implied that the Alliance would fracture over whether to punish Moscow if Russia’s aggression took a form more familiar to observers of geopolitics.
The effect of Biden’s remarks was immediate. European capitals—Kyiv, in particular—erupted with indignation. “They watched those remarks, I think, with horror,” CNN’s Matthew Chance said of the Ukrainian government. One Ukrainian official said Biden had all but given Moscow a “green light” to invade. The White House immediately went to work cleaning up Biden’s comments, but it was wholly insufficient. “He was referring to the difference between military and non-military/para-military/cyber action by the Russians,” National Security Council Spokeswoman Emily Horne said. Some difference. Even if you believe Russia is parsing the fine distinctions between the president’s statements and their post-facto revisions by his more responsible staffers, “para-military” incursions are precisely what Moscow executed both in Crimea and in the Donbas region. There, Russian proxy forces have transformed the area into a warzone and carved out illegitimate “republics,” though the Russian currency and passports held by the residents of these puppet states leave no one confused as to who is in charge.
The president’s words and actions carry more weight than any half-hearted statement walking them back. Courtesy of his performance in Afghanistan, Putin has all the evidence he needs to conclude that Joe Biden will blink in defending American interests against an aggressor if he thinks the costs of such an effort are too high to bear. Biden has exposed the very real and now fully confirmed tensions within the Atlantic Alliance over how to respond to Russian aggression, if there is any response at all. All the tough talk in the world cannot undo that. Joe Biden has sown the wind. Now, we await the whirlwind.