If Biden’s timidity led Putin to invade Ukraine, what about his next threat?

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President Biden’s escalating sanctions and increased military aid for Ukraine, in response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion, have crippled Russia’s economy, strengthened Ukraine’s resistance, unified NATO allies and prompted Europeans to rethink their security policies and increase defense spending.

But the horrendous price Ukrainians are paying has prompted questions about whether the U.S. and other democracies could have done more before the invasion to deter Putin, and whether Washington is doing enough even now to help Ukraine.

Has Biden fundamentally misjudged Putin? And, as Putin escalates his threats to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, is Biden still doing so?

The unwillingness to challenge Russia’s president more assertively is grounded in the view that Putin fears NATO encirclement and feels threatened by the U.S.-led alliance of 30 nations. Because the Biden administration sees Putin’s motivation as defensive, it has tried to assure him that in aiding Ukraine, Washington is not seeking to weaken Russia.

Even late last year, as the White House shared sensitive intelligence with NATO members, warning that Putin planned to invade, senior U.S. officials avoided actions that Putin might see as “provocative.” In December, for instance, as ever more Russian troops surrounded Ukraine, Biden delayed providing the Stinger missiles for which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was pleading. Plus, Biden and top aides repeatedly assured Putin that the U.S. would not send troops into Ukraine unless a NATO member was attacked. 

Even after Putin invaded and then announced he was putting his nuclear forces on high alert, the administration chose not to inflame him. Instead of responding in kind, White House press secretary Jen Psaki chided Putin for unprovoked escalation and his pattern of “manufactured threats.”

In retrospect, the administration’s response to Putin’s threatened and actual aggression may have been a profound miscalculation. While officials and analysts disagree about whether Putin could have been deterred, there is little indication that he feared the U.S. or NATO. Quite the contrary. Putin seemed to have contempt for what he saw as a series of weak American presidents leading a nation eager to withdraw from seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and from a NATO alliance in disarray.

Arguing that Putin probably could not have been deterred, Amb. Frank Wisner, a former senior official in Republican and Democratic administrations, cites several reasons for Putin’s miscalculation. “Given our shambolic performance in Afghanistan, our partisan divides and political deadlock at home, his belief that the Ukrainians would not fight and that his military could easily defeat them if they did, and his Feb. 4 deal with China which led him to conclude that he had a major power behind him, Putin probably saw this as the best moment to attack,” Wisner says.

The notion that Putin’s invasion was aimed at stopping Ukraine from joining NATO, however, is doubtful. Although Secretary of State Antony Blinken may have given Putin ostensible justification for his aggression by telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last June that Washington supported NATO membership for Ukraine and that Ukraine had “all the tools that it needs to move forward in that direction,” Putin surely knew that key NATO members had long opposed admitting Kyiv. He also knew that Ukraine had not undertaken the anti-corruption reforms needed for admission to the European Community, much less NATO. Nor is there much evidence that Putin felt threatened by the 30-member NATO alliance itself. Only 6 percent of Russian territory shares a border with NATO members. Looking back, as the CIA has now recently done again, what Putin sought was not a defensive separation between Russia and NATO, but the seizure and/or submission of all of Ukraine to Russian hegemony.

Having fundamentally misjudged Putin’s motivations, the Biden administration’s statements aimed at assuaging his alleged fears in fact may have reinforced his calculation that the West would do little to respond to yet another blatant attack on a neighbor. Had Biden better understood his adversary, for example, he might not have lifted sanctions on the German company building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline designed to double the flow of Russian gas directly to Germany. Nor would he have repeatedly reassured Putin — a policy that continues to this day — that no American or NATO forces would fight to defend Ukraine.

“If there were a do-over,” says Alexander Vershbow, a former deputy secretary general of NATO, “we would not have repeatedly said that U.S. troops would never set foot on Ukrainian soil.” While such declarations might have been politically useful, given the widespread domestic opposition to being dragged into another bloody conflict, Vershbow said, it signaled to Putin that short of his crossing the U.S. “red line” — attacking a NATO member — he had little to fear by invading Ukraine again. President Obama levied only limited sanctions against Russia when Putin invaded Crimea in 2014; Biden was vice president then, as he was during the failure to attack Syria after its Russian-assisted president used chemical weapons — and he was president during the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Some analysts argue that Biden could not have taken tougher measures prior to Putin’s invasion, given the opposition of NATO members. But John Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine now at the Atlantic Council, who praised Biden’s emphasis on diplomacy and repairing the badly frayed ties with NATO allies, criticizes the administration’s “timid” stance. “They haven’t understood, ’til this day,” he said, “that the second part of leadership is persuading the alliance of where it needs to go.”

Moreover, Herbst added, while some in the administration understood the geopolitical challenge Russia posed, Team Biden continued attempting to implement what he called a “stealth reset” of relations with Moscow, just as his predecessors had tried and failed to do. While the administration was warning of stiff sanctions and grave economic consequences if Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden “still had the goal of establishing what he called ‘stable and predictable’ relations with Russia,” a contradictory objective.

Before the invasion, had Washington sent more of the most modern Stinger and Javelin missiles to Kyiv, had they leaned on Slovakia to give the Ukrainians more S-300 missiles (which, unlike Stingers, can shoot down Russian warplanes flying several miles above ground), had they pressed Poland to provide MiG-29 fighter jets — all of which Zelensky has pleaded for — such actions “might have deterred Putin,” Herbst said, “or made it harder for him to succeed if he still chose to invade.”

Vershbow says that, although even tougher action by NATO might not have deterred Putin, the alliance should have responded more assertively, perhaps by staging a training exercise on Ukrainian territory or rotating more NATO battalions through Poland and Ukraine’s other neighbors. “There were options,” he said.

But he and other analysts assert that the administration was right not to match Putin’s nuclear escalation. “Seeing them and raising them could have been genuinely risky,” Vershbow said, especially since Putin didn’t raise his nuclear alert levels. “It was bluster,” he said.

Others disagree, however. Speaking recently at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Fla., former Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis said that the U.S. response could have been tougher. The White House could have reminded Putin that NATO is a “nuclear-armed alliance” and that “we could respond in kind.”

Wisner said that Biden “shouldn’t have rolled over” to nuclear blackmail: “Biden could have said, ‘We have more nuclear missiles than you and they are better aimed.’” Reminding Putin that Gen. Mattis had deployed more of America’s nuclear force on submarines in response to Putin’s earlier nuclear threats, the memory of “‘mutual assured destruction’ so deeply ingrained in the DNA of a former KGB officer would have helped ensure that the logic of deterrence would prevail,” he said.

“We should have responded publicly in some fashion,” Herbst agreed. “Some say that increasing our nuclear force alert level to DEFCON 3 would have been too provocative, too escalatory,” he said. But the administration could have announced that NATO would conduct a nuclear exercise in Europe, which the alliance has done previously, or taken other steps to warn Putin that playing nuclear poker and risking World War III could be disastrous for Russia, and for him.

The failure to respond to his nuclear threat assured Putin that he could continue destroying Ukraine with conventional weapons because the U.S. was paralyzed by the prospect of a nuclear war. “What will happen when he threatens a nuclear holocaust over Estonia?” Herbst asked, referring to Russia’s Baltic neighbor, which is also a NATO member.

Judith Miller is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, a former reporter with the New York Times, and the author of “The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.” Follow her on Twitter @JMfreespeech.

Tags Antony Blinken Baltic states Barack Obama Biden James Mattis Jen Psaki Joe Biden NATO nuclear threat Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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