Since last April, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to intimidate Ukraine’s pro-Western government by building his military forces along the border between the two countries in what appears to be a prelude for a full-scale invasion. At the same time, Putin has been demanding a guarantee from NATO that it will not allow Ukraine to become a member of the alliance, and that it will pull back US and NATO military forces which have been stationed in Poland and the Baltic states, which are NATO members, ever since Putin ordered the invasion of and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
President Joe Biden took the possibility of a direct US military response to a Russian invasion off the table last year, shortly after the Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border began. Since that time, Biden has been trying to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine by warning that the US and its NATO allies would impose such severe sanctions on Russia in retaliation for any further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty that they would cripple the Russian economy.
However, Biden undermined that effort to deter Putin from invading Ukraine by making a careless comment during his televised press conference last week. In a long and rambling answer to reporters’ questions about the threat of a Russian invasion, Biden suggested that a relatively “minor incursion” by the Russian military into Ukraine might not trigger a serious US and NATO response. “I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it depends on what it does,” Biden said. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight [with our NATO allies] about what to do and not do.”
He also suggested that Putin might still be undecided about whether to go forward with the invasion. “I’m not so sure that he is certain what he’s going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” Biden said.
Eventually, Biden managed to say that the US response to a military invasion of Ukraine would be so painful to Putin and Russia that it would not be worth the price. But by then, the damage had already been done to any deterrence Biden might have hoped to achieve.
Biden also wasted a golden opportunity to offer a robust defense of NATO’s “open door” policy, which offers any nation willing to meet NATO membership requirements the opportunity to join the military alliance. Instead, Biden suggested that Ukraine would not be joining the NATO alliance anytime soon because it is currently incapable of meeting those requirements.
“The likelihood that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the near term is not very likely, based on much more work they have to do in terms of democracy and a few other things going on there,” Biden said.
Biden’s comments deeply disturbed Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. In a tweet the next morning, he rejected Biden’s implication that even a low-level military invasion of one country by another could be excused by the leaders of the international community.
“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” Zelensky wrote. “I say this as the President of a great power.”
BIDEN UNDERCUTS NATO UNITY
Biden’s press conference comments also undercut the united front on Ukraine among NATO nations that the US had been trying to hold together. Biden conceded that there are “differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens, the degree to which we have to go.”
By building up the Russian military threat along Ukraine’s border, Putin has succeeded in exposing serious disagreements over Ukraine policy among NATO members, weakening the alliance in the face of the most serious threat to European security since the end of the Cold War.
EU president Ursula von der Leyen announced this week that $1.35 billion worth of new emergency aid to help the Kyiv meet financial needs “due to the conflict.” But Germany, in particular, has put obstacles in the way of other European countries which sought to send military equipment to Ukraine to enable it to defend itself. For example, the German government refused to give Estonia an export license to send its German-origin howitzers to Ukraine. The artillery pieces date back to the Cold War, when they were deployed by the East German army. Some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the surplus artillery pieces were sold to Estonia, but still remained under German government control.
To justify their refusal, German officials have cited their country’s decades-old policy of refusing to arm parties to a conflict, rooted in Germany’s history as the aggressor in World War II. However, observers suspect that Germany’s new socialist chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who took over last month after Angela Merkel stepped down, denied the request for the arms transfer to Ukraine because does not want to anger Russia, upon whom Germany is now dependent for 50% of its energy supplies.
In addition, recent air delivery of antitank weapons to Ukraine by British Royal Air Force planes took a circuitous detour around German air space, which added several hours to the flight, because British officials knew that they would not receive flyover permission from German authorities.
Tobias Ellwood, who heads the defense committee in Britain’s Parliament, explained in an interview that, “To avoid a confrontation, to avoid embarrassing Germany, we [Britain] haven’t formally requested overflights,” he said. It’s symbolic “of the absence of any coordinated NATO effort to help a NATO ally and to help a European ally.”
“Russia notices all these things, and my concern is that it will egg them on to push the envelope even further,” the British lawmaker added.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron, who is running for reelection to a second term in April, has taken advantage of the Biden administration’s failure to defuse the explosive situation with Russia to suggest that the EU bypass the US by launching its own separate dialogue with Moscow in seeking ways to avoid a Russian military invasion of Ukraine.
DANGERS OF A PRESIDENT WHO TALKS TOO MUCH
Biden loves to talk, and this is another example of the trouble that a president can get into when he talks too much. During his decades as a US senator and vice president, Biden developed a well-earned reputation in Washington for his frequently embarrassing verbal gaffes. As a result, almost all his public remarks over the past three years have been tightly scripted, and his presidential campaign and White House staff members have gone to great lengths to shield him from the press and discourage him from answering unscreened questions shouted at him by reporters.
However, Biden’s plunging job approval numbers have increased the political pressure upon him to go on the offensive by publicly defending his administration’s failed policies. During his press conference last week, President Biden doubled down in support of his policies which have been rejected by a growing majority of the American people according to recent polls, announcing that he would launch a new effort leading up to November’s midterm elections to convince the American people that his administration has accomplished a great deal on their behalf.
However, the diplomatic uproar which was touched off by his careless remark on the Russian threat to Ukraine quickly overshadowed his domestic policy statements, and once again raised doubts about Biden’s competence to lead the free world.
BIDEN’S GAFFES AREN’T FUNNY ANYMORE
Biden’s tendency to put his foot in his mouth during his years in the Senate and as President Obama’s vice president were often dismissed by his many friends in Washington and the media. They were treated as one of the more endearing characteristics of his friendly, informal personality, and made up a part of the broader public image that he deliberately cultivated as a sometimes impetuous but always authentic and kindly Uncle Joe.
However, the uproar created by Biden’s reckless Ukraine comments demonstrated the dangers inherent when America’s commander in chief uses unclear language in response to the threat of a war started by a hostile nuclear power. As a candidate during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden himself frequently criticized President Trump’s often intemperate rhetoric as posing a potential danger to national security.
“The words of a president matter,” candidate Biden said. “They can move markets. They can send our brave men and women to war. They can bring peace.”
Many observers fear that Biden’s unfortunate press conference comments will encourage Putin to continue ratcheting up the Russian military presence along Ukraine’s border. They fear that Putin now has more reason to believe that, in the face of any Russian aggression towards Ukraine short of all-out war, Biden is likely to back down and agree to Putin’s demands for major NATO security concessions.
HOW WILL PUTIN REACT?
In the current confrontation between the US and Russia over the sovereignty of Ukraine, Biden has blinked, and Putin is certain to respond by pressing his advantage. The Russian dictator now has every reason to believe that he will once again be able to get away with blatant military aggression against Ukraine, as he did when he invaded Crimea in 2014, and suffered only token economic sanctions from President Obama and America’s NATO allies in response.
Members of Congress were also highly critical of Biden’s careless press conference remark, which immediately raised doubts around the world about the US commitment to maintaining Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of blatant Russian military escalation and intimidation.
“The president’s press conference was an absolute train wreck that will have serious consequences,” Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse said in a statement. “President Biden basically gave Putin a green light to invade Ukraine by yammering about the supposed insignificance of a ‘minor incursion.’ He projected weakness, not strength.”
WHITE HOUSE DAMAGE CONTROL
White House officials were quick to recognize that Biden’s answer was a serious diplomatic blunder, and immediately launched a major damage control effort to walk back his remarks. Both the National Security Council and Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, issued statements saying that “any Russian move across the Ukraine border” would be met with a “swift, severe, and united response.”
The morning after Biden’s press conference, Vice President Kamala Harris said in an ABC News interview that, “What I can tell you is that the president has been very clear that if Russia takes aggressive action, it will be met with serious, severe, and a unified response and consequences. And that position that we have taken is grounded in a number of values that we hold dear, including the importance of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity in this case of Ukraine. We have not wavered from that perspective.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was meeting in Berlin with representatives of the German, British, and French governments to discuss a common strategy in response to the Russian threat. After emerging from that meeting, Blinken told reporters that, “We cannot choose the path for Moscow, but we can make crystal clear the stark consequences of that choice.”
In an interview Sunday on CNN, Blinken said that the US has focused with its European allies on building up the threat of “massive consequences” for Russia to dissuade Putin from sending his forces into Ukraine, while at the same time leaving the door open to reach a peaceful solution with the Russian dictator through diplomacy.
“The purpose of those sanctions is to deter Russian aggression, and so if they’re triggered now, you lose the deterrent effect,” Blinken said.
A STEPPED-UP US MILITARY RESPONSE
The Pentagon announced that it has put 8,500 US active-duty ground troops on high alert for possible transport to Eastern Europe in response to the latest increase in Russian military forces surrounding Ukraine. NATO also announced it would be “putting forces on standby and sending additional ships and fighter jets to NATO deployments in eastern Europe, reinforcing Allied deterrence and defense as Russia continues its military build-up in and around Ukraine.”
These forces are in addition to an equal number of NATO and US troops stationed in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as Poland, since 2014. Their deployment was the only strategically significant US and NATO response after Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea, in clear violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
A $200 million shipment of American weapons and ammunition also arrived in Ukraine last week, intended to bolster the preparedness of its armed forces to repulse a possible Russian ground attack.
Ironically, the embarrassment created by Biden’s press conference misstatement with America’s NATO allies has probably forced his administration to step up its response to Putin’s military buildup much more forcefully than it would have done otherwise.
RUSSIAN BUILDUP CONTINUES
Meanwhile, the provocative Russian military buildup which began last April, and has already placed more than 100,000 fully equipped troops along Ukraine’s border, continues. The Belarusian Defense Ministry reported that Russian troops continue to arrive in the country, which borders Ukraine, ahead of a major joint Russian-Belarus training exercise scheduled for February 10. Video has also surfaced on social media showing Russian military convoys and trains carrying military equipment moving across southern Russia and Belarus toward Ukraine.
Kremlin officials have also announced a naval exercise involving 20 vessels from Russia’s northern Baltic Fleet, and plans to send 12 Su-35 fighters, two S-400 anti-aircraft missile battalions and a Pantsir-S air defense system to Belarus.
Putin and other Russian officials have repeatedly denied any plan to invade Ukraine, and assert that Russia has a right to move its troops and hold military exercises on its own territory and with its allies, such as Belarus.
A Kremlin spokesman accused the pro-Western Ukrainian President Zelensky of building up military forces to threaten areas of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of Russian-supported separatist militias. He also accused the government in Kyiv, along with the US and NATO, of creating “informational hysteria,” by spreading “lies and fake news” about an imminent Russian invasion. The threat of a Ukrainian government attack against the separatist region is “now very high,” the Kremlin spokesman claimed.
US-RUSSIAN DIPLOMACY GOING NOWHERE
In a series of conversations between Putin and Biden, as well as a negotiating session held last week in Geneva between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia has demanded guarantees from the US that NATO will halt its eastward expansion which has been underway since 1997, reject any future application for membership in the alliance from Ukraine, and roll back its military deployments in Eastern European NATO member states, which Russia claims pose a threat to its national security.
US diplomats responded to the demands for a major rollback of NATO forces in Eastern Europe as non-starters. Instead, they offered to negotiate a new series of agreements with Russia regulating the placement of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons along the border between the Russia and its neighboring Eastern European countries, which had been former Soviet republics or members of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact. But that offer will not satisfy Putin, who put his troops on Ukraine’s borders in an effort to bring Ukraine back under Russia’s sphere of influence, if not outright military control, as Crimea is today.
The only agreement which came out of Blinken’s hastily arranged 90-minute meeting with Lavrov was the secretary of state’s promise to submit a written US response to Russia’s demands that the NATO alliance halt the expansion of its membership further into Russia’s traditional Eastern European sphere of influence, and reduce the current scope of its military presence there.
Lavrov described his talks with Blinken as “useful and frank,” which is a diplomatic way of saying that they were blunt — and probably hostile — and went nowhere.
Secretary Blinken told reporters after the talks, “We are doing everything possible to make clear to Russia that there will be, as I said, a swift, severe, and united response to any form of aggression by Russia directed toward Ukraine.”
RUSSIA TRYING TO SUBVERT THE UKRAINE GOVERNMENT
Last week, the British government claimed that the Russian intelligence service is working with four former pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians, who had been associated with former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, on plans to destabilize the current pro-Western Kyiv government and replace it with a pro-Moscow regime.
Yanukovych was ousted as president in 2014 by a series of massive public demonstrations in Kyiv in opposition to his pro-Russian policies. After Yanukovych fled to Russia and was replaced by a pro-Western regime, Putin reacted by launching the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and instigating a separatist war in the largely Russian-speaking Donbas industrial region in eastern Ukraine.
The British Foreign Office named Yevhen Murayev, a former member of Ukraine’s parliament, as the leader of the new pro-Russian Ukrainian government that Putin is hoping to install.
In response, Murayev, who is the owner of a pro-Russian television channel in Ukraine, told the London-based Daily Telegraph, “I have a hard time digesting stupidity and nonsense: Maybe someone wants to shut down yet another independent TV channel. As someone who has been under Russian sanctions for four years, barred from Russia as a national security threat, and whose father got his assets frozen in Russia, I find it hard to comment on the Foreign Office’s statement.”
Emily Horne, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, suggested in a statement that the US has no reason to doubt the suggestion by British intelligence that Moscow is planning to overthrow of the government in Kyiv. “This kind of plotting is deeply concerning. The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically-elected partners in Ukraine,” the statement said.
Two days before the British government’s announcement, the US Treasury sanctioned a group of current and former Ukrainian officials, accusing them of helping Russia lay the groundwork to install a Moscow-friendly government in Ukraine.
“Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force,” the Treasury Department said.
One of the former Ukrainian officials sanctioned by the Treasury was former deputy head of the Ukrainian National Security Council, Vladimir Sivkovich, who was also one of the four named by the British Foreign Office as a collaborator with Russian intelligence.
The Treasury statement said that Sivkovich was working with “Russian intelligence actors” to build support for Ukraine to officially cede Crimea to Russia in exchange for a truce in Donbas, where Russia has fueled a separatist war against Ukrainian forces.
WHAT IS THE US COMMITMENT TO UKRAINE’S SOVEREIGNTY?
During a meeting last week with Russian officials, representatives of all 30 NATO members rejected Putin’s demands for security concessions and reasserted the alliance’s “open door” policy under which it would consider granting membership to the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia if they met the alliance’s other entry requirements.
Until it becomes a member of the alliance, Ukraine’s sovereignty will not be protected by Article 5 of the NATO charter, under which all members of the alliance, including the United States, are obligated to come Ukraine’s military defense if it comes under attack.
Nevertheless, the US and Britain do have an obligation to do something to protect Ukraine against the threat of a Russian invasion based upon a written commitment their leaders made to Ukraine 28 years ago. In 1994, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Britain, and the United States signed the Budapest Memorandum, which provided Ukraine with security guarantees in return for its agreement to give up the nuclear weapons left on its territory when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Article 1 of the memo states that: “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment … to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”
Article 2 of the Budapest memo states that the same countries “reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”
While the terms of the Budapest Memorandum are not as binding on the US under international law as Article 5 of the NATO treaty, it does at least imply a US guarantee of Ukrainian sovereignty and the safety of its border from invasion by the Russian military.
WHY PUTIN IS OBSESSED WITH THE UKRAINE
Vladimir Putin and other Russian nationalists who pine for the restoration of the Soviet-era empire in Eastern Europe have always viewed Ukraine as an integral part of Russia’s history, cultural heritage, and national identity. Before the gaining its independence following the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine had been ruled by Russia for more than 300 years. During that era, Ukraine served as Russia’s most productive agricultural breadbasket, and a major source of food to feed its population.
Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula has always had great strategic value to Russia’s rulers. It was the site of the Crimean War from 1853–1856, in which an alliance of Britain, France, and the Ottoman empire fought an effort by Czar Nicholas I to expand the Russian empire into Eastern Europe. Today, the Crimean naval base at Sevastopol is the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and its only port with direct access, through the Bosporus Strait, to the Mediterranean Sea.
The leaders of the Soviet Union also pursued an ongoing campaign to “Russify” Ukraine’s population. As a result, about 30% of the people who live in Ukraine today are native Russian language speakers. Putin claims that his interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs is justified by the need to defend the rights of its Russian-speaking population against the anti-Russian policies of the pro-Western government in Kyiv.
During the Soviet era, Putin was a colonel in the KGB, and was personally and professionally dedicated to maintaining Russia’s status as a global superpower. In 2005, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.” He has always viewed the restoration of Russian control over the Soviet-era empire in Eastern Europe, beginning with Ukraine, as his main mission and future legacy as Russia’s president.
WHY DID PUTIN PRECIPITATE THE CRISIS NOW?
This raises the question of how far Putin is prepared to go in risking a war with Ukraine, and why he has chosen to do so now. The answer to the second question is easier than the first. Biden has revealed his poor judgement as a leader in botching the withdrawal from Afghanistan, now coupled with his revealed desire to avoid a serious response to a “minor” Russian invasion.
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has warned that Putin “has shown himself to be comfortable using military force, energy supplies, and cyberattacks to destabilize countries and governments he views as adversarial.” By using a combination of these techniques, Putin has in recent years repeatedly succeeded in making mischief, mostly at the expense of United States, while expanding Russia’s global influence at minimal cost.
WHY THE US IS IN A WEAKER POSITION
Russia is in a much stronger strategic position now in relation to the United States than it had been during the Trump administration. Thanks to Trump’s policies, the United States finally achieved energy independence, and was then in a position to drive down the global price of crude oil, thereby undermining the main strength of Russia’s economy.
In addition, Trump went out of his way to avoid public comments that would provoke Putin. As a result, Trump was harshly criticized in the mainstream media for seeming to kowtow to the Russian dictator, but at the same time, the tactic denied Putin an easy excuse to portray Trump as an enemy of Russia.
But because of the Biden White House war on domestic fossil fuel production, the US is no longer energy independent, or the world’s swing producer of fossil fuel energy. Due in large part to suppressed domestic US energy production, the price of oil has doubled since Biden took office, creating a windfall for the Russian economy. In fact, US consumer complaints about the high price of gas at the pump forced Biden was a few months ago into the embarrassing position of publicly begging Putin and the leaders of Saudi Arabia to pump more oil. Putin, of course, said no.
THE DECLINE OF THE US MILITARY
The US military also lacks sufficient capacity to fight a conventional war against Russia in Ukraine, while continuing to meet its obligations in the Far East in the face of a major military buildup by China which is threatening its neighbors, including Japan and South Korea,
This is not a problem of Biden’s making. Over the past two decades, while both Russia and China were enhancing the capabilities of their militaries, US military preparedness suffered because previous presidents, with the exception of Trump, failed to keep pace. As a result, the US military no longer has enough first line naval vessels, aircraft, or combat troops to simultaneously fight Russians troops invading Ukraine and a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. To make matters worse, Biden has been reducing the annual Pentagon budget, when adjusted for inflation, to further increase domestic spending on his liberal policy agenda priorities.
WHY PUTIN DOESN’T FEAR US SANCTIONS
Biden’s threat to impose crippling economic sanctions on Russia by denying it access to US financial markets is also not credible, because it would make it more difficult for America’s European allies to make the dollar-denominated purchases from Russia, which account for 40% of their energy supplies.
Even with Russian oil and natural gas, Europe has faced a chronic shortage of energy over the past year. Putin could mount a devastating response to US and NATO sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine by cutting off Russian energy supplies to America’s allies in Europe during the current cold winter months.
Because of this combination of geopolitical and strategic circumstances, and a lack of respect for Biden’s poor record on foreign policy matters even before he became president, Putin may believe that this is the best time for a confrontation with the US and its NATO allies to achieve one of his most important goals as president: reasserting Russia’s historic dominance over Ukraine.
WILL UKRAINE FIGHT BACK?
The greatest deterrent to Putin ordering an invasion of Ukraine once his troop buildup is complete is probably the fear that Ukraine will fight back. Even if the clearly superior Russian military achieves a quick victory after invading Ukraine, Russian troops could then get bogged down in a long and costly guerilla war similar to the one which eventually persuaded the Soviet Union to abandon its eight-year military occupation of Afghanistan in 1988.
At this point, President Biden has forfeited any diplomatic leverage he had to force an acceptable peaceful resolution of this crisis with Russia, which leaves the crucial question of war or peace in Eastern Europe entirely in the hands of the Russian dictator.