A Ukrainian serviceman shakes snow off a bullet riddled effigy of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Luhansk region of Eastern Ukraine
Associated Press/Vadim Ghirda

President Biden’s warnings of imminent Russian aggression are clashing with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts to project strength, urge calm and inspire confidence in Kyiv’s ability to defend itself.

Russia has homed in on that gap in messaging to paint the West as stoking hysteria and inciting conflict in the region, part of a larger campaign that the Biden administration and foreign policy experts warn are in fact part of Moscow’s attempts to create a pretext for invasion as a defensive action. 

Zelensky on Tuesday appeared to sharpen his rhetoric in warning Russia against instigating a war, underscoring European solidarity with Ukraine following the announcement of a key security arrangement with the United Kingdom and Poland. 

“It’s an important statement — that Russians should hear us, they should listen and understand that war is something no one really needs,” Zelensky said in Kyiv. 

“I’m being very open. This is not going to be a war [between] Ukraine and Russia. This is going to be a European war, a full-fledged war,” he warned.

The Ukrainian president’s statements appeared to signal a shift from his message last week in which he accused Washington and the media of instigating panic. Zelensky reportedly said he told Biden in a phone call last week it was a “mistake” to raise the alarm of a large-scale war. 

Jim Townsend, adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, said Zelensky’s rhetoric reflects a frustration that Kyiv is being caught in the middle of a larger conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

“He doesn’t want to come across to Moscow or anybody as looking weak, like he’s panicky. … He wants to look in control,” Townsend said.

“From Kyiv, it looks like you’ve got the U.S. and Russia pounding on each other rhetorically, at least, and he’s kind of caught in the middle, and I don’t think he likes that feeling of being caught in the middle.”

Andrij Dobriansky, spokesman for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA), a nonprofit advocacy organization, said the differences in messaging distract from the reality of close coordination between Kyiv and Washington.

“From what we understand, in terms of the MFA [Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and State Department, as well as the [Department of Defense] and Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, they’re all on the same page,” Dobriansky said.

Still, Russia sought to exploit those differences during a tense meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday, when the envoy from Moscow accused the U.S. of stirring up agitation, citing Zelensky’s comments urging calm. 

“You are almost calling for this, you want it to happen, you’re waiting for it to happen, as if you want to make your words become a reality,” Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia told the U.S., quoting the Ukrainian president as saying, “ ‘We do not need this panic.’ ”

State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday said the messaging coming from Washington is not an “effort to sow panic. … To the contrary, all of this is an effort to deter an invasion.”

But some Russia experts say the U.S. strategy for raising alarm goes beyond preparation and instead could incite Russian President Vladimir Putin to take action to prove his strength on the global stage.

“Perhaps Putin will feel that, to prove his manhood and deprive Biden of bragging rights at having somehow made him change his mind, he will need to use force (at least in limited amounts) to maintain his perceived machismo,” Michael O’Hanlon and Omer Taspinar, fellows with the Brookings Institution, wrote in an op-ed for The Hill.

“If we credit ourselves with dissuading him from an action he was nearly certain to take, he may conclude that we are either taunting him or reaching incorrect conclusions about our own power. Better to acknowledge our uncertainty.” 

Critics of the Biden administration’s foreign policy say the president’s decision to waive sanctions on a pipeline expected to bring gas from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream 2, contributed to an environment of weakness that has allowed for Putin to pose a threat to Ukraine. 

Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who traveled last week with a bipartisan delegation to Ukraine, said he heard the notion “time and time again” that Putin’s massing of an estimated 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border was because he “senses an environment of weakness.” 

“Our CODEL [congressional delegation], we were unified in our resolve and support for the Ukrainian people, for defending their homeland, but it’s easy to be unified when it’s imminent,” he said. “Deterrence is not something that happens at the last minute, deterrence happens day in and day out.”

Nevertheless, the Biden administration is betting that a package of harsh economic sanctions, being readied in the U.S. and in coordination with allies and partners in Europe, will serve to deter Putin from launching any type of incursion into Ukraine. 

This includes sanctions on individual Russians who are “in or near the inner circles of the Kremlin and play a role in government decision making or are at a minimum complicit in the Kremlin’s destabilizing behavior,” a senior Biden administration official told The Hill.

Other measures are likely to include blocks on U.S. exports of key technologies to Russia that are critical in areas of artificial intelligence, defense and aviation. The administration is also weighing sanctions on Russian financial institutions that are likely to prove so severe that U.S. and European economies would also feel the negative impact. 

Congress is also looking to quickly push through legislation that would spell out more clearly, and authorize, sanctions that Biden can impose. 

“We are in the midst of finalizing two pockets of things — one is Nord Stream 2–related sanctions and pre-invasion sanctions, and we keep working to fine-tune that to get to common ground. I think we can and will,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow, who met with Ukrainian officials earlier this week as part of a high-level American delegation, said the combined actions of the Biden administration — from providing defensive assistance and coordinating economic sanctions — is likely weighing on Putin’s decisionmaking of whether to invade. 

“Deterrence is still working,” Vershbow said, according to the Atlantic Council, which helped carry out the delegation’s visit.

“I think Putin is constrained by the direct costs of the invasion itself, whether it’s a large-scale invasion or a smaller one. He has to reckon with the possibility of material losses, human losses and economic costs,” he said, adding that Russia’s ongoing participation in diplomacy signals a pathway towards de-escalation.

Dobriansky, of the UCCA, called for the Biden administration to implement sanctions on Russia now, in particular to keep raising the stakes for Moscow’s ongoing occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014. 

“The fact that so many violations of international law have already occurred … the stakes need to keep being raised from the international community’s side,” he said.

Tags Bob Menendez Joe Biden Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russia-Ukraine relations Ukraine Ukraine-Russia border Ukraine-Russia conflict Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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