Ukraine crisis challenges Biden’s vow to confront autocrats like Putin

For much of his first year in office, Joe Biden’s foreign policy has focused on the US’s increasingly rancorous competition with Beijing — so much so that critics have accused the president of allowing China to blind his team from other simmering international crises, such as Afghanistan and Iran.

Vladimir Putin, however, has made sure he will not be among the ignored. By amassing tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, the Russian president has forced the White House into what experts in the region believe is a scramble to formulate a policy on the fly.

“This is becoming the worst crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War,” said Andrew Lohsen, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank.

For Biden, the showdown with Putin presents a particularly thorny challenge, one that pits his long-stated goal of aggressively confronting foreign autocrats — a sharp reversal, his team argues, of his predecessor’s tendency to coddle them — with the more practical aim of avoiding a war.

It is not the first time Biden’s foreign policy instincts to zealously defend young democracies in the former Soviet sphere have run up against Putin’s apparent willingness to use military force to reassert Kremlin dominance in the region, forcing him to compromise his pro-democratic principles.

More than a decade ago, as chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, Biden flew to Tbilisi as Russian troops were invading Georgia, vowing to never “abandon this young democracy”.

A year later, as vice-president, Biden was sent back to Tbilisi by Barack Obama to inform the Georgian government that Washington would not, in fact, provide it with defensive weaponry — a change in stance that incensed then-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.

Critics argue that Biden has now made a similar calculation since becoming president, scrapping his pro-democracy policies to engage with bad actors in the Kremlin.

Rather than directly confronting Putin early in his presidency, for example, Biden held a high-profile summit with him in Geneva — months before Volodymyr Zelensky, the pro-western president of Ukraine, was granted an Oval Office visit.

As the situation in Ukraine has deteriorated, the White House has expressed a willingness to discuss Russian grievances, even though some of them, such as Nato’s eastern expansion, are regarded in Washington as settled history that can never be unwound.

Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia who worked alongside Biden in the Obama White House, said the current administration was “choosing between bad and worse outcomes” when it came to engaging with Russia.

“You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t,” McFaul said. “If you don’t talk then, you know, Putin’s looking for a pretext for war and you don’t want to be the one that gave him that, so I think it’s appropriate to engage.”

For its part, the White House insists there will be severe consequences for Putin if he follows through with his sabre-rattling by invading Ukraine.

On Thursday, a senior US official reiterated that the Biden administration would issue “massive sanctions” on Russia if it invaded, as well as increasing defensive aid both to Kyiv and Nato allies in central and eastern Europe.

“We and our allies are prepared to impose severe damage to Russia’s economy, and bring about exactly what it says it does not want: more Nato capabilities, not less, and closer [geographically] to Russia, not further away,” the US official said.

Still, the prospect of US engagement with Russia has raised alarm in Europe. Biden was forced to reassure Zelensky earlier this month of Washington’s “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state, has said many of Russia’s demands are “very obvious non-starters”.

US officials were also prompted to publicly declare that they intend to include European allies in any talks on European security.

Among Russia’s demands are that Nato pledge to stop admitting allies from the former Soviet Union — Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership during a 2008 Nato summit — and that the alliance seek consent from Moscow to deploy troops in former Warsaw Pact members, most of which are now in Nato.

It is also demanding that the US pledge not to set up bases in any former Soviet republics or partner with their militaries, and that both Moscow and Washington keep their bombers, naval vessels and missiles out of striking distance of each other.

The US has said it will engage in diplomacy with Moscow as soon as early January, but that the agenda would be broader than the proposals published by Russia.

Daniel Fried, who helped lead the US response to Russia-Ukraine issues at the state department under Obama, said Moscow’s proposals were “not serious negotiating documents”, but said it was still worth engaging with the Kremlin.

Fried added: “The question is: ‘are they an ultimatum and a prelude to war, or are they designed to intimidate us into giving what Russia would otherwise have to fight a war to win?’ I don’t know the answer. But the fact that I’m asking this question is nasty.”

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