President Biden’s first press conference in 10 months, on the eve of his inauguration anniversary, made headlines. But not the kind he wanted. Asked about Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine, NATO’s lack of unity and the likely failure of economic sanctions to deter Vladimir Putin, Biden replied that “I don’t believe the idea that NATO will not be united. . . It depends what [Russia] is doing. It’s one thing if it’s a small raid and then we argue about what to do and what not to do and so on.”
In one fell swoop, Biden showed he didn’t understand his own Ukraine policies, undermined the government and people of Kiev, and handed Moscow an engraved invitation to make a “minor foray” into Ukraine.
That was bad enough, but further answers made his position even more incomprehensible. He said, “and so I have to make sure everyone is on the same page as we move forward… But it depends on what [Putin] does, with regard to the exact – how far we will be able to get total unity on the Russian – on the NATO front.”
Biden was right that Putin “calculated what the immediate . . . and the long-term consequences of [sic] Russia will be.” At the moment, Putin has the initiative and a wide range of options. America and the West are reactive and divided, as Biden almost admitted. Putin is following a strategic playbook that spans the entire former Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact “allies,” based on his 2005 precept that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
The United States and NATO are only responding tactically to this strategic threat. The West focuses on avoiding impending hostilities, while Putin strives for continued hegemony over former Soviet territories. The White House still does not understand that Putin does not need to conduct a total invasion of Ukraine to gain significant new benefits. Taking ‘pro-Russian’ territories, leaving behind an independent Ukraine or installing a Moscow-friendly government could be Putin’s real goal. Or he can take political or military steps elsewhere, for example in Belarus, Georgia or Kazakhstan, where the alliance seems totally unprepared.
Worse, Moscow is now sucking Washington into negotiations over “security guarantees” that weaken and divide NATO itself. Biden said, “NATO will not take Ukraine at any time in the coming decades,” an astonishingly casual mistake. George W. Bush was ready in April 2008 to accelerate Ukraine and Georgia as NATO members, but Germany and France objected. Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia and in 2014 invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea and seized control of the Donbas. NATO has never allowed a country with unwanted foreign troops on its territory, because that would effectively put NATO into a state of war with the occupying country. Of course, in all cases, Russia is the aggressor, with its “minor raids” not only in Georgia and Ukraine, but in many others.
Russia creates an artificial crisis and then graciously moves to resolve it by “accepting” exactly the target it sought in the first place. Biden’s response has been completely backward, indicating that he is willing to discuss restrictions on Ukraine’s NATO candidacy and restrictions on missile and troop deployment near Russia’s borders, all key Kremlin demands. This is a big mistake, which will only lead to further demands. Russia, which consistently violates international obligations, is the aggressor, not NATO, which has always been a purely defensive alliance. Geographical restrictions on NATO’s deployment endanger its members and benefit Russia, as Poland, the Baltic States and other Central Europeans fully understand, even if Germany and France do not. Russia has always feared violating a NATO member’s border, but a weakening of NATO resolve undermines even its historically successful defensive purpose, as Moscow clearly understands.
The downward spiral
Playing a little ball with Putin, as Biden does, will not lastingly protect Ukraine or other threatened states. Biden’s inadequate and now incoherent policies do not deter Russian military action, and embarrassment simply encourages Putin to increase his demands. We risk a downward spiral of NATO concessions to avoid military conflict today, but that likelihood will only increase soon after.
Indeed, the situation may be so far past Putin inevitably emerges as the winner. The last hope is that Biden immediately changes course and seizes the initiative, insisting that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will never work until Russian troops leave a country they don’t want. More weapons and more NATO troops are urgently needed, not to fight but to train and practice with Ukrainians, increasing Moscow’s uncertainty and risk. To do that, of course, will require strength from the Europeans, especially France and Germany, who may well be missing them.
This is Putin’s calculation, which has not been changed by Biden’s statements and last week’s negotiations.
Time is on Putin’s side.
John Bolton was National Security Adviser to President Donald Trump from 2018 to 2019 and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006.