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Putin was playing Biden all along


For more than two decades, Joe Biden has disliked and distrusted Vladimir Putin, even claiming the Russian didn’t have a soul.

And yet, for the past year, Biden tried repeatedly to reason with the steely-eyed strongman.

When the two met last June in Geneva, Biden urged Putin to end his yearslong aggression against Ukraine and stop hacking the United States, telling Putin that he was hurting his “credibility worldwide.” In a call in December, as Putin was assembling tens of thousands of troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine, which he first invaded in 2014, Biden pushed him to deescalate and “return to diplomacy.” Earlier this month, Biden warned Putin that reinvading Ukraine “would produce widespread human suffering and diminish Russia’s standing.”

None of these efforts mattered. In launching a massive assault on Ukraine this week, Putin proved that he sees the world, and his interests, very differently than Biden hoped. He also proved resistant to many traditional tools of diplomacy and deterrence.

Biden’s appeals to Putin’s geopolitical ego didn’t work. Neither did threats of sanctions, words of condemnation, emotional appeals on human rights grounds, deployments of U.S. troops to NATO countries and weapons to Ukraine, or the relatively united front put forth by the United States and its allies. Even an unusual tactic employed by the Biden administration — publicizing significant amounts of intelligence about Putin’s plans — didn’t stop the dictator.

And actions that might have — maybe — changed Putin’s calculus, such as deploying U.S. troops to Ukraine itself, were not ones Biden would consider.

For Biden and his team, it is a deeply frustrating moment. Their strategy toward Russia has largely failed, despite their effort to adjust it over time to account for Putin’s stubborn moves. The Ukraine attack and the risk of a larger war in Europe also bodes ill for the administration’s ability to focus on other priorities going forward, in particular the challenge of a rising China.


On Thursday, Biden doubled down on the existing strategy, unveiling more sanctions, deploying more U.S. troops to Europe and promising more diplomacy to keep America and its allies unified. He warned that “Putin’s aggression against Ukraine will end up costing Russia dearly economically and strategically. We will make sure of that. Putin will be a pariah on the international stage.”

At the same time, Biden dismissed questions about whether he’d fully appreciated Putin’s thinking. “I didn’t underestimate him,” he insisted.

But even some supporters of the Biden administration beg to differ.

Not so ‘stable and predictable’

Soon after taking office, Biden and his aides declared they wanted a “stable and predictable” relationship with Moscow. That meant working with Russia when there were common interests, such as stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and fighting climate change. It also meant standing up to Russia when interests diverged, such as in Ukraine.

As part of its initial Russia strategy, the administration unveiled a sanctions package that punished Russia for its past interference in U.S. elections, cyberattacks and other actions. Biden also said he’d hold a summit with Putin, an olive branch of sorts. But the administration further made clear, through strategy documents and other public pronouncements, that dealing with China was the bigger priority.

In addition, Biden decided to limit the number of sanctions he was imposing on Germany and Russia over their controversial Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline, a decision some Russia hawks saw as a signal of weakness to Moscow.

Plenty of Russia hands feared Biden and his aides were being naïve. Many of the people around Biden had served in the Barack Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, and back then the United States was often startled by Moscow’s moves. It was under Obama, after all, that Putin first used surreptitious means to invade and annex parts of Ukraine in 2014. But Obama and some of his aides were nervous about how much to escalate a standoff with Russia, resisting, for instance, sending certain lethal weapons to Ukraine.

The Russia watchers, some of whom had also served under Obama, warned the Biden team not to think they could put Putin aside or simply “manage” him tit-for-tat, especially not through diplomacy alone. Michael McFaul, who served as a U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, noted, for instance, that the sanctions package seemed designed to punish past Russian misbehavior in the hopes there would be no more of it.

“I am skeptical that Putin is going to go along with their strategy,” he told POLITICO last April. “Whether they like it or not, Putin’s going to be part of Biden’s foreign policy for the next four years.”

And in fact, Russia never got far from the headlines.

Last spring, as McFaul made his comments, Putin sent thousands of troops to the border with Ukraine, a build-up that worried but did not overly alarm the Biden administration. Cyberattacks also kept emerging from Russian soil, including one in May that temporarily crippled a major U.S. energy pipeline and one just weeks after the Biden-Putin summit that affected hundreds of companies using a special software.

The Biden team didn’t ignore these cases. It engaged in diplomatic outreach, issued warnings to Putin and unveiled indictments against some of the alleged cybercriminals. Some of these tactics seemed to work: Russia pulled back many of the troops and one group involved in the cyberattacks, REvil, temporarily went offline.

Last fall, however, Putin began building up Russia’s military presence along the Ukrainian border once more — this time in significantly larger, more worrisome, numbers. The administration, at first quietly, urged Putin to back off. Then, it began a more public phase of pressuring Putin, one that involved intensive diplomacy with other countries in Europe and beyond to show the Russian a united front.

This was not an easy task — many countries in Europe were wary of crossing Moscow because of economic ties and energy dependence. One reason the administration made public significant amounts of intelligence it had gathered about Russia’s plans was to get these other countries to fully understand the threat.

Biden also deployed thousands more troops to NATO countries near Russia in a bid to deter any spillover from a potential conflict in Ukraine. Over time, the United States and its European allies also came up with sanctions packages they threatened to impose on Moscow if Putin once again attacked Ukraine. Even Asian countries like Japan joined in the diplomatic and sanctions effort.

Putin’s diplomatic emissaries, meanwhile, kept indicating that the Kremlin was open to a negotiated way out of the dispute. In some cases, the diplomats seemed to mislead, if not flat out lie, about Russia’s plans.

If deterrence was the goal, it all came to naught.

Earlier this week, Putin sent new troops into parts of Ukraine where Russia had long backed separatist elements. And on Thursday, the Russian leader dramatically escalated what is already an eight-year-long war, bombing major Ukrainian cities in an effort to take as much of the country as possible.

Trump and the weak tools

Many current and former U.S. officials have essentially thrown up their hands in recent days as Putin made his intentions toward Ukraine increasingly clear, suggesting there was nothing — at least nothing realistic — that Biden or his aides could have done to stop him.

Putin, after all, has his own rationales for moving against his neighbor.

The Russian leader has long believed that Ukraine is really a part of Russia — or that it at least should fall under Moscow’s sphere of influence — and he cites dubious historical references to make that case. Putin also has long proclaimed that Russian security is threatened by the expansion of the NATO military alliance. Ukraine’s desire to join NATO, as well as its citizens’ preference for democracy, only added to Putin’s fears that the country could be a long-term threat to his own.

Putin, who has ruled Russia since the turn of the century with an increasingly iron first, also seems more isolated, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s getting good advice about what an invasion of Ukraine could mean in the long run for Russia, analysts say. He may simply not believe Biden’s warnings that it could prove a quagmire.

At the same time, Putin has watched — and sometimes aided — regimes in places like Syria, Venezuela, and Iran, which have survived despite Western diplomatic threats and economic sanctions. Those tools have always had a mixed record at best, and there was never a guarantee they would work on Russia. Putin is a believer in the ability of hard power to change the global order, and he may simply be less susceptible to what Biden may see as logical appeals to think about his global reputation.

“It’s really hard to counter a revanchist, imperialist mindset,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official who has long urged the Biden team to be tougher on Russia, but thought it performed well in the past few months. “Putin only listens to forcefulness, and at this point really only military force.”

Heather Conley, a former top State Department official during the George W. Bush administration, also praised the Biden team’s efforts while bemoaning Putin’s actions.

“The administration was playing by diplomatic and deescalation rules,” said Conley, now president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Putin was never interested in following those rules — unless he could gain Western accommodation of his demands. But I am not even certain that Western accommodation would have prevented what we are seeing today.”

Some analysts have pointed to possible moves that might have made Putin think twice about his onslaught, such as sending U.S. troops to Ukraine or creating a no-fly zone over the country. Those, however, are steps Biden is highly unlikely to have taken for personal and political reasons. He’s skeptical of the value of U.S. military intervention abroad, and there’s little U.S. public support for getting involved in a new European war.

Biden and his aides also took office at a time of disarray in U.S. foreign policy, making their job harder, some current and former officials are fond of pointing out.

Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, had a contradictory approach to Russia: Trump constantly tried to gain favor with the Russian leader while his administration, spurred in part by Congress, imposed sanctions on Russia. Trump and his aides also often dismissed or mistreated America’s allies in Europe, and Biden administration officials spent much of their first few months trying to repair ties with countries like Germany and France.

Biden’s efforts to stand up to Russia, including his levying of tough economic sanctions on the country, could nonetheless hurt him politically. Russia is a major oil and gas producer, and squeezing its economy through sanctions is likely to raise gas prices, a measure that hits American voters in their pocketbooks.

“It’s a huge risk to prioritize [Ukraine] over domestic politics, and I really have to respect them for that,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis. “He’s making the right choice, but it’s probably going to cost him.”

Putin, meanwhile, believes time is on his side. He’s planning to stay in power long after Biden departs, and he likely expects that the current united front that America and its allies are putting up against him will crack over time, especially if Europe feels ongoing pain from the blowback on Russian sanctions.

To date, the world has yet to see how much pain Russia can cause the United States and its allies if it decides to retaliate over the sanctions — whether through energy cutoffs, cyberattacks or other means.

The other world power

Putin’s war on Ukraine could also make it harder for the United States to focus on what the Biden administration still believes is the greater, long-term geopolitical threat: China.

U.S. officials are fond of claiming they can handle Moscow and Beijing at the same time. If the fight in Ukraine escalates and draws in other parts of Europe, however, it will take even more resources and time to tackle, neither of which is in infinite supply.

That’s especially the case if the war spills into fellow NATO member countries, which the United States is treaty-bound to help defend. Already, the administration faces calls to do even more to assist those NATO allies, as well as arm Ukrainians who resist Russian rule.

The administration is unlikely to abandon the belief that China — with its economic might, technological advances and communist-controlled ambitions — is the bigger threat to American power over time. That will likely remain the key message in his administration’s still-unreleased National Security Strategy.

Russia’s actions, however, are likely to shape China’s thinking and future moves as well. China has been wary of Russia’s designs on Ukraine, in part because of its effect on the global economy. Still, Moscow and Beijing had been beefing up their relationship to the point where some Biden aides viewed it as practically an alliance.

In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, U.S. and European efforts to isolate Russia through sanctions will likely lead Moscow to lean on Beijing for trade and other economic relations. A solidified China-Russia bloc could then exert significant pressure on other countries to align with it or to at least stay neutral.

At the same time, if Putin’s gambit in Ukraine succeeds, China might apply some of its lessons to its long-standing desire to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control. China views the democratically run island as a breakaway province and it has been increasingly aggressive toward it in recent years.

The United States is a major supplier of weapons to Taiwan, but it has a policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to the question of whether it will militarily intervene to defend the island if China attacks. How the United States responds to Ukraine is sure to weigh on Chinese leaders’ minds as they consider how to deal with Taiwan.

On Thursday, Biden declined to comment on whether he was urging China to isolate Russia, even as China has criticized the U.S. sanctions on Moscow.

Biden also acknowledged that it could be some time before the new sanctions he’s imposing on Russia have any serious effect, despite their historically tough nature.

“Let’s have a conversation to see if they’re working in a month,” he said.

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