President Biden arrived at the White House 10 months ago with two top foreign policy priorities: he wanted to rebuild the alliances his predecessor eroded, and he wanted to focus on US competition with China.
History, and other great powers, do not always cooperate with the grand designs of presidents.
The most dangerous international crisis at the moment does not come from Asia, but from Russia’s traditional enslavement of Vladimir Putin.
Biden has no choice but to tackle Putin’s challenge — and his Republican adversaries could advance American interests if they stop denying the president the tools he needs to do so.
Putin’s goal, which he has expressed clearly and often, is to restore Russia’s dominance over the empire lost after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Their immediate aim is to reverse the expansion of the NATO, US-led military alliance to Russia’s western borders.
Putin has assets: a surprisingly strong economy with rising oil revenues, control over much of Europe’s natural gas supply, a military proficient in secret warfare, and the ruthlessness to act when it deems fit.
In recent months, he has warned neighboring countries, including Poland and the three smaller Baltic republics, all NATO members, that he considers their integration into the coalition an unfriendly act.
He supported Belarus, his closest ally, when his dictator imported helpless migrants from the Middle East, drove them to his border and demanded that neighboring Poland accept them as refugees.
In his most dangerous action, Putin has moved more than 90,000 troops to the borders of Ukraine, the former Soviet republic, which he invaded in 2014 to seize the Crimean peninsula.
The threat of a full-scale invasion has put the United States and its allies into crisis-fighting mode.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III hosted Ukraine’s defense minister at the Pentagon earlier this month and delivered Coast Guard cutters to Kiev’s navy. British officials said they were preparing 600 troops for deployment in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron said his country would “protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
But they all apparently stopped, saying that they are ready to go to war for Ukraine – because they are not.
In contrast, Putin sees Kiev’s alignment with the West as a direct threat.
He has often said that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and that the two countries should be closer partners if not truly reunited.
And he has long warned that NATO membership is a “red line” for Ukraine. (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has told Ukraine it can apply for membership, but has carefully held off on starting the formal process.)
In recent months, Putin has drawn his red line closer. Earlier this month he suggested that any NATO presence in Ukraine, including military aid and training, could cross the border.
For Putin, NATO advisors and equipment are slowly turning Ukraine into a de facto satellite of the Western Coalition. He’s not completely wrong.
Russia’s experts agree that it may not want to invade the whole of Ukraine – a move that would be costly militarily, economically and diplomatically – as much as it wants to stop the country’s westward drift.
“Putin doesn’t want Ukraine to have any talks with NATO,” Fiona Hill, a National Security Council official during the Trump administration, told me last week. “He wants Ukraine to be completely, irrevocably neutral.”
“He’s testing us,” Hill said. “He waits to see how everyone reacts. If there’s a strong enough reaction, he may back off. The softer our reaction, the more likely he is to leave.”
So the United States and its allies are trying to stop Putin from going to war, sending public warnings and private messages about the consequences of the invasion.
What they need most is to build and publicize consensus on the specific sanctions that would apply in the event of Russian military action. But European countries, whose economies are more closely tied to Moscow than ours, are reluctant to commit.
“It’s a test of our ability to engage in collective action,” Hill said.
A second useful move would be a motion from Biden to address the problem; Putin likes to be taken seriously as the leader of a superpower.
The president should not accept Putin’s demands that Western countries limit military aid to Kiev, but he can make it clear that the aid is only for defensive purposes and does not mean Ukraine will move closer to NATO membership. .
One more move: Senate Republicans should lift their blockade on Biden’s nominees as ambassador. The United States has no ambassadors in Poland, France or Germany because sans Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri have blocked their confirmation. There has been no US ambassador to Ukraine since Mary Yovanovitch was fired by President Trump in 2019; Officials say Biden has not nominated anyone for the position because of the blockade.
“We can’t put pressure on our counterparts in crisis if we don’t have an ambassador,” Hill said; Lower-ranking diplomats “do not have equal power.”
Here’s a broad lesson for the president and his allies: The United States is still the only superpower with interests, influence, and allies in every corner of the world. They do not have the luxury of choosing where the next crisis will come. One test of a great power is whether its leaders can walk and chew gum at the same time.