During his campaign for the White House, President Joe Biden pitched himself as an elder statesman whose decades of foreign policy experience could guide the United States back to its place at the head of the international order.
On Tuesday, Biden may face the most important test yet of that promise.
A video call with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the second bilateral meeting between the two leaders, is expected to focus on the growing Russian military presence on its border with Ukraine—and on the potential for swift American action should Putin invade its southern neighbor for the second time since 2014.
But Biden, contending with multiple political crises domestically and still politically bruised from the debacle in Afghanistan, may not have as much room to maneuver as he might need to prevent Putin from attempting another smash-and-grab annexation or invasion of Ukrainian territory.
U.S. officials have attempted to tamp down speculation that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is a matter of when, not if. But from U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, officials have noted that the buildup along Ukraine’s border, along with disinformation campaigns about supposed domestic troubles in eastern Ukraine, are in keeping with the leadup to Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
“We know what President Putin has done in the past,” Psaki told reporters on Friday, following Blinken’s remarks. “We see that he is putting in place the capacity to take action in short order, and should he decide to invade, that is why we want to be prepared in an area we have expressed serious concern about.”
The issue is age-old—Russia has long viewed Ukraine as “one people” with Russia and territorial expansion has been the name of the game for years. Case in point: Russia’s successful annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing conflict in the Donbass. But Russia’s recent buildup of troops and military equipment along the Ukraine border is raising alarm that Russia is perhaps more serious about an incursion into Ukraine than it was in April this year, and perhaps preparing to launch an even larger assault than its 2014 campaign.
Russia is expected to keep surging its troop levels up to 175,000 by early next year, with equipment positioned to run a rapid ramp-up, according to U.S. intelligence assessments, The Washington Post reported.
So far the Biden administration’s plan to deter Russia is complete with economic sanctions and measures meant to deter Putin from encroaching any further into red line territory—including a nuclear option of cutting Russia off from the global communications network used to facilitate payments and transfers between banks or other measures aimed at Putin’s cronies, CNN reported.
But even the degree of severity to any economic sanctions imposed on Russia in response to an invasion is a difficult needle to thread. Sanctions without enough bite to impose material harm on the Russian economy would ultimately do little to discourage further aggression in the region and beyond. However, sanctions that are too aggressive could harm American allies in Europe who increasingly rely on Russian oil and natural gas imports to meet their energy needs.
“We believe that we have a path forward that would involve substantial economic countermeasures by both the Europeans and the United States that would impose severe economic harm on the Russian economy, should they choose to proceed,” a senior administration official said, adding that they felt that the potential plan of action would “send a clear message to Russia that there will be genuine and meaningful and enduring costs” to a military escalation in the region.
The president’s public opinion ratings have yet to recover from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was widely seen as a humanitarian disaster and a humiliating defeat despite decades of fighting, thousands of military casualties and trillions of dollars. The potential of another foreign entanglement—even without U.S. troops on the ground—risks further undermining Biden’s argument that his administration would return competence to U.S. foreign policy.
Biden finds himself between a rock and hard place in other ways. Overdo the preparations for an eventual Putin-led incursion, and the administration runs the risk of looking like the “boy who cried wolf” if, as some analysts have warned, Russia doesn’t actually invade Ukraine. But go too soft on Russia or act too slowly in response to Russia’s increasingly menacing buildup of troops and equipment and Biden runs the risk of essentially opening the door for Russia to take more drastic measures.
”The U.S. and our European partners have tried appeasement with Putin before,” ambassador John Herbst, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush, told The Daily Beast. “We did it with Georgia in 2008 and what we got was the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014. We did it with Crimea in 2014 and what we got was military intervention in Donbass in 2014. We know appeasement does not work.”
But the economic measures alone might not be enough to break down Putin’s resolve, says Herbst.
“The more the better,” Herbst told The Daily Beast, saying the U.S. ought to run with both economic measures and military measures. “We should be further enhancing our military presence in the East of the alliance… we should be trying to do it now in a timely manner; in the Baltic states, in Poland, and Romania.”
The complicated nature of the tripartite relationship between Russia, Europe and the United States has already caused major headaches for the Biden administration on the diplomatic front. Nearly 100 nominees for State Department positions and ambassadorships have been held up by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) over Biden’s refusal to implement congressionally imposed sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a now-completed natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Biden has held off on implementing all of those sanctions at Germany’s request in the hopes of repairing U.S. relations with the country, which became historically frayed under the Trump administration.
In an indication of the delicate nature of Biden’s tightrope act, the president spent much of Monday speaking with European leaders to “coordinate his message and ensure that he goes into that conversation with President Putin with allied unity and strong transatlantic solidarity,” according to a senior administration official. Included on the crowded conference call was Biden, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom.
All five of the leaders “agreed that their teams will stay in close touch, including in consultation with NATO allies and EU partners, on a coordinated and comprehensive approach” to the crisis, according to a readout released on Monday night.
The alternative is to speak a language Russia may understand best: military force. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) are working to bump up the Department of Defense’s security assistance to Ukraine by $50 million in an attempt to use military aid as a deterrent signal to Russia to back away from the kill.
As to when the U.S. ought to step up its military aid and station more American troops abroad to counter Russia, that’s a delicate balance as well, Shaheen told The Daily Beast.
”There have been a lot of requests from the Baltic countries—from Poland—to increase the number of American troops who are being stationed in Europe in close proximity to Russia’s border,” Shaheen said. “We’ve got to be very thoughtful about our response because we want to be very clear with Putin that an incursion into Ukraine is not acceptable. But we also don’t want to provoke an incident that will give him an excuse to come into Ukraine.”
Putin “claims that NATO and the West are threatening Russia… on the Eastern European border, so being very careful about how we respond is really important so that we don’t give him an excuse to go into Ukraine as if he’s protecting his own interests,” Shaheen added.
But the Biden camp seems reluctant to press onwards with a more dramatic military focus. Asked whether Biden would tell Putin that direct military intervention was on the table if the Russian military moves into Ukraine, the official called the suggestion “precipitous public saber-rattling,” and left it to Biden himself to say under what circumstances the U.S. military would get involved.
“The United States is not seeking to end up in a circumstance in which the focus of our countermeasures is the direct use of American military force,” the official said, “as opposed to a combination of support for the Ukrainian military, strong economic countermeasures, and the substantial increase in support and capability to our NATO allies.”
The official pushed back on the notion that dramatic public threats of retaliation, or even private ones, would be an effective tool to warn against Russian aggression, promising that Biden would participate in the bilateral talks “in a professional, candid, straightforward manner… without any kind of rhetorical flourish or finger-wagging.” (Biden, then, will likely avoid repeating his contention from last spring that Putin was “a killer,” a comment that angered the Russian government at the time.)
In terms of whether the Biden administration and NATO have properly deterred Russia from running an incursion through to the end so far, the jury is still out, said Shaheen.
“I don’t think we know that yet,” Shaheen told The Daily Beast. “And I think we’re still really ramping up. That’s why the president is talking to Vladimir Putin tomorrow, that’s why there are a number of high-level State Department officials who have been dispatched to different countries in Europe and to NATO to talk to them.”