Biden’s remarks on Russia should worry Ukraine

President Biden’s comments Wednesday regarding Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine are unlikely to reassure the government in Kyiv that the United States “has its back.” In a White House news conference, the president was unambiguous regarding a likely American and NATO response to a full-blown Russian invasion, but he indicated that the level of Russia’s aggression might determine the response. 

Russia no longer could do any business in dollars if it invades its neighbor, Biden said; it would be excluded from the SWIFT system for international funds transfer. He would subject Moscow to severe sanctions, including — if he can convince the Germans — termination of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Biden said he would work with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to move more forces to Poland, the Baltic States and Romania, and would ensure that the Black and Baltic seas remain as open international waterways. 

The U.S. will continue to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine, above the $600 million worth of systems already promised or transferred. Indeed, Biden reportedly will authorize the transfer of Stinger man-portable anti-aircraft missiles to Ukrainian forces, possibly via a third party.

It appears, however, that should Russia mount something less than a full invasion, the Western response would be far more limited. Biden said as much and, when pressed on the matter, would say only that if Russia launches a cyber attack, the United States will respond in kind. He indicated that it would be far more difficult to maintain NATO cohesion if Moscow launches a limited attack. Such an attack could, for example, target Ukraine’s Port of Mariupol, which is only 20 kilometers from the Russian-backed breakaway province of Donetsk and the scene of a major battle in 2014 between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces. Indeed, NATO might not even offer a unified response to an attack on the Odessa Commercial Sea Port in Ukraine, which would enable Russia to control the northern Black Sea.

If that were not enough to worry Ukraine’s leadership, Biden also seemed to be negotiating with himself. He opined that the United States might be willing to accede to one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands and guarantee that no nuclear weapons would be deployed in Ukraine. Putin, on the other hand, has not made any offers whatsoever. Kyiv must wonder what other concessions the United States might be willing to make before Putin is even prepared to negotiate.

Putin is following the old Soviet playbook of continuing to say “nyet” while the United States puts more and more offers on the table. It should not be forgotten that the Soviet Union never acknowledged the number of its warheads during more than two years of discussions leading to the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreements. Instead, it was Washington that postulated what the Soviet levels might be and used its own estimates as the basis for negotiations.

The Biden administration should not fall into the same Soviet trap. It should clarify that it is not prepared to distinguish between a “major” or a “lesser” Russian invasion. Nor should the president publicly acknowledge that NATO might not stand together in the face of anything other than an all-out invasion. If the NATO allies refuse to act on another Russian salami slice of Ukrainian territory, Washington should proceed with sanctions that are within its power to unleash unilaterally. It also could advise recalcitrant allies that it is prepared to penalize any country that violates Washington’s sanctions policy; perhaps that would convince them that it is better to join Washington than to break with it.

In addition, Biden and his advisers would do well to refrain from making specific public concessions to Putin. It is one thing to indicate in a closed negotiation that the United States would consider taking certain steps or refrain from taking others; it is quite another thing to do so publicly. Indeed, making public offers might convince Putin that he could wring even more concessions before he has to show his hand at all.

Putin has precipitated the most serious NATO crisis since the 1970s, if not the early 1960s. NATO must stand together to stop him in his tracks. He cannot be allowed to bite off another part of Ukraine, however small that might be. The United States and NATO must make it absolutely clear to Moscow that any part of Ukraine is off limits to Russia, and that they will not repeat Neville Chamberlain’s great error at Munich and tolerate the seizure of even a small portion of Ukraine — only to find, as Chamberlain did, that a hungry aggressor will not be satisfied until it devours an entire country.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Joe Biden NATO Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian sanctions Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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