Biden seeks to ward off second Ukraine-Russia fight

When Joe Biden was vice president, he was the point person on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and became so vested in the crisis that some academics believed it would pose problems for him if he decided to run for president. 

“I didn’t much care,” Biden wrote in his 2017 book Promise Me, Dad. “There was an important principle at stake: big countries ought to not beat up smaller ones, especially after they had given their word not to.” 

Biden as president, Biden is trying to ward off a renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine, which could further imperil his political standing if he is not seen as standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“This is an issue that is close to his heart,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council under President Obama.

Kupchan said Biden knows Ukraine well and cares about the country, while another source who served on the National Security Council during the 2014 crisis said Biden was personally invested in Ukraine’s success and was “frustrated by the lack of progress at times” during the previous standoff.

Biden, who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a senator, earned a reputation in the Obama White House for taking more of a dove-like approach when it came to foreign policy. He was famously skeptical of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, in 2011. 

“He was definitely more cautious than others in the cabinet and saw his service as asking Obama the hard questions,” said Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security who served as a foreign policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). 

In the current crisis, Biden has weighed whether to deploy thousands of troops to defend countries on NATO’s eastern flank, while remaining firm that the U.S. will not send troops into Ukraine to fight a war against Russia. 

“His current views are shaped by a true belief that Russia should not be redrawing post WWII national boundaries,” said the source who served on the National Security Council under Obama. “I think he is a true believer that we cannot stand by and allow Putin to get away with it but at the same time, Ukraine isn’t a member of NATO and he believes there is no justification for the U.S. to insert itself into a ground war with a non-NATO member.” 

This time around, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden and his administration are focused on rebutting the misleading Russian narrative about the tensions.

“One of the lessons that we have learned is certainly — and the president has learned — is certainly that it’s important to call out this disinformation and to make clear to the American public, to the global community what they’re trying to do here, and the fact that it is not accurate,” Psaki said Wednesday. “They’re trying to set the predicate for war.”

For Biden, diplomacy and relationship building in foreign affairs have always been front and center.

One longtime Biden aide put it this way: “Everything to him is about relationships and he came into this office knowing more about the players than any other president. He not only knows most of them. He has relationships with them.” 

Biden entered the White House wanting to strengthen NATO and U.S. alliances after former President Trump spent four years stunning and snubbing U.S. allies. 

Biden’s full-court diplomatic effort to solve the current crisis has involved near daily meetings and calls between the U.S. and its European counterparts. Biden held his third call in two months with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday.

Biden’s relationship with Putin, who he called a “killer” last year, has been a complex one over the years. When he met with Putin at the Kremlin in 2011, the Russian leader asked him to take a look around his office. In his 2017 book, Biden noted that the furnishings were “elaborate and impressive.”

“It’s amazing what capitalism will do, isn’t it?” Biden recalled telling Putin at the time.

Biden also wrote that he told Putin to his face at that meeting: “I don’t think you have a soul.”

Biden has threatened the Russian leader with substantial sanctions if he invades Ukraine, even saying this week that he would consider sanctioning Putin himself were Russia to make a move across the Ukrainian border.

But his approach has also involved offering a diplomatic off ramp to the Russians. The State Department this week sent a response document to the Russians that formally rejected a demand that Ukraine be blocked from joining NATO but also offered a series of areas of potential compromise if Russia chooses to de-escalate. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Biden as “intimately involved” in the drafting of the document, saying the president reviewed drafts, made his own edits and signed off on the final version sent to the Russian government. 

Biden entered office hoping to establish a more “predictable” and “stable” relationship with Russia, but Angela Stent, an expert in U.S. and European relations with Russia, said recent developments show that aim was misguided.

“His understanding of the situation in Russia and of Putin is quite good. I think the problem is his administration came in wanting to have this stable and predictable relationship with Russia,” Stent said. “It turns out that was a miscalculation.” 

Putin’s next move is unclear  and there is a dwindling possibility that diplomatic efforts and threats will convince Russia to back down. 

“Biden has a difficult hand to play, but he’s playing it the best he could,” the former Obama National Security Council official said.