War Stories

What in the World Are Biden and Putin Up To?

Breaking down the latest moves and countermoves in an increasingly tense situation.

A close-up of President Vladimir Putin's face.
What is this guy thinking? Alexey Nikolsky/Getty Images

There are times when history seems to be unfolding before our eyes, in slow motion. The events surrounding Ukraine sure feel like one of those times.

It’s not hard to imagine, years from now, reading a chronicle that briskly summarizes the moves and countermoves made at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022 that led to … well, that’s what makes “interesting times,” as the Chinese define them, so perilously nail-biting: Those of us watching now don’t know how the story ends. As is often the case with crises whose causes and outcomes seem so clear and simple in history books, we don’t even know what the intentions and interests of the main actors are. By some accounts, the main actors themselves don’t quite know either. Does Russian President Vladimir Putin really want to invade Ukraine, or is he using the threat of invasion as a way of exerting political pressure? What will he do if he doesn’t get his way? How far will the U.S. and NATO go to stop him if he follows through on his threat?

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The standoff, which has gone on for two months (or, depending on how you measure, much longer than that), has intensified in the past week, as the pace of moves and countermoves—both diplomatic and military—has accelerated. It’s worth analyzing what these moves mean, or could mean, to help gain an understanding of how close we are to war or to peace, or at least to gauge which way the signs are pointing.

The U.S. has put 8,500 troops on “high alert” to be sent to Eastern Europe as part of a NATO response force.

One thing is clear: This does not mean that those 8,500 troops are being sent to fight Russian troops in case of an invasion; nor are any of those troops being sent to Ukraine. President Joe Biden and other leaders of NATO nations have talked about imposing severe political and economic measures if Russia invades Ukraine. They are sending Ukraine more anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and have hinted at helping Ukraine’s army and civilian resistance fighters fend off the Russians. But they have made very clear that they will not send U.S. or NATO troops to fight in a Russia-Ukraine war.

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Those 8,500 U.S. troops are meant to shore up NATO’s eastern flank, especially in Poland and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—small countries, whose people get very nervous about their proximity to Russia, especially when the ruler in the Kremlin behaves aggressively. Other core NATO members are taking similar actions of reassurance: France is sending troops to Romania; Denmark and the Netherlands are sending jet fighters to Lithuania and Bulgaria; Spain is sending a frigate to the Black Sea.

These steps are also meant to send a message to Putin. One of his strategic goals in the past five years has been to drive wedges between the United States and its European allies. One of his demands, in the ongoing Ukraine crisis, is that the U.S. reduce its military presence in Eastern European countries that were under Moscow’s control during the Cold War. By sending more troops, jets, and warships to their more vulnerable allies, the U.S. and these other countries are telling Putin that NATO is unified, and that his moves on Ukraine have only strengthened the alliance. In that sense, these troops might help deter Putin from acting on his threats, as doing so would likely tighten the bonds even further—the exact opposite of what he hopes to see happen.

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However, if Putin really does view the U.S. presence in Eastern Europe and its budding “military infrastructure” in Ukraine as a threat, he may see this buildup as a pretense for intensifying the danger. If he ultimately intends to invade Ukraine, he may accelerate his timetable before these extra troops arrive. What’s important here is whether Putin genuinely views these activities as a threat—not whether he’s right or wrong in doing so.

The U.S. is evacuating the families of its diplomats in Ukraine. Britain, Germany, and Australia are ordering reductions in their embassy staffs in Kyiv. Russian and Ukrainian officials are protesting this move as premature and unnecessary.

Pulling citizens out of embassies is the sort of thing that political leaders do when they think a war is about to break out in a foreign country. The risk is that it could amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy: heightened preparations for war might trigger a spiral of escalation on all sides. Russian officials have derided the U.S. move, insisting that they have no intention to invade.

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Oddly, Ukrainian officials have also protested the move. Perhaps they fear that if Biden thinks war is imminent, he might be more prone to make an excessively compromising peace deal with Putin. Or perhaps they fear that the departure of diplomats or their families would signal a slackening American commitment. A source supposedly close to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told BuzzFeed on Monday that Zelensky “does not think there’s any remotely imminent threat to Kyiv,” adding, “Quite frankly these Americans are safer in Kyiv than they are in Los Angeles … or any other crime-ridden city in the U.S.”

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The statement is both confusing and annoying. It’s confusing because, since November, it has been top Ukrainian officials who have sounded the alarms about an imminent Russian invasion. Now Zelensky is urging calm (i.e., urging all Americans to stay put)? It’s annoying for … well, the obvious reasons. The U.S. is doubling arms exports to Ukraine, urging the allies to step up their efforts, devoting nearly all of its diplomatic assets to barring the Russian bear from Kyiv’s door—and Zelensky, whose country doesn’t meet NATO’s minimum standards for building democracy or combating corruption, chooses this moment to diss American cities whose taxpayers are keeping him afloat? Zelensky is on the side of right in this fight. But it’s not a good look for a guy who wants us, and the rest of the Western world, to bail him out still more.

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Germany refused to let Estonia export its Germany-made weapons to Ukraine—and also refused to let British planes, which were carrying arms for Ukraine, fly through German airspace.

Biden hails the unanimous stand that all 30 NATO nations have taken to condemn and counter Russian aggression against Ukraine, but some kinks are emerging as the crisis gets hairier. Germany is NATO’s largest European ally but also its most skittish about getting snared into wars, for understandable reasons: historical (its own militaristic past) and economic (its dependence on Russian energy supplies).

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Germany is not the only country that Biden’s diplomats are keeping an eye on. France is committed to Ukraine’s independence, but it spent 40 years as a member of NATO that stayed outside of its military structure. Lately, French President Emmanuel Macron—with impeccable timing for attracting attention—has been renewing his push, which he began during the Trump years, for a European security pact outside NATO altogether.

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However, these dissensions should not be overstated. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has taken several steps to assert his country’s post-Brexit status as a great power and stalwart U.S. ally (and who has the further motive of trying to distract attention from a grave political crisis), has been sending more defensive arms to Ukraine. NATO’s Eastern European members, who have memories of living under Russian dominance, are committed to the cause, as are the alliance’s other smaller countries. As a bonus, Sweden and Finland, Russian neighbors that are Western but whose leaders have stayed militarily neutral, are now expressing interest in joining NATO—for their own security—if Putin invades Ukraine.

It is true that allies can buckle as a crisis turns to war and the call comes to translate general principles into specific actions. Biden hinted at this when he said at his recent news conference that, while Russia will suffer “severe costs” if Putin launches a major invasion of Ukraine, “there are differences within NATO about what countries are willing to do” if he mounted “a minor incursion.” Biden committed a serious blunder in saying this out loud in public (he and his diplomats had to backpedal and say that any further crossing of Ukraine’s border would be major), but he also spoke a truth.

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All these mixed messages and the natural tendency for alliances to splinter make Biden and his diplomats all the more eager to reach some kind of peaceful deal with Moscow soon. It’s also why Zelensky fears the compromises that might be made in a deal struck too soon. For the moment, though, NATO’s members are speaking and acting in greater unity than Putin probably expected. He must have hoped—probably calculated—that his troop buildup would split the alliance from the get-go, allowing him to dictate terms to Kyiv with little resistance. That hasn’t happened.

Some are calling for sanctions now.

Zelensky has called for sanctions now, as have a number of Republican legislators. It is a really stupid idea. Biden and the other NATO leaders are threatening to hit Putin with severe sanctions as a way of deterring him from invading. If Putin is inclined to invade, and if he were hit with sanctions now, he would have no reason to restrain himself. He could absorb the pain—which would fall far short of preventing him from taking military action—and proceed to invade.

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Meanwhile, it’s still unclear what Putin ultimately wants.

This is the big question. And nobody knows the answer. (Some Russian analysts think that even Putin doesn’t know.) Therefore Biden doesn’t know how to deal with the problem.

If Putin really wants a legal document barring NATO’s expansion further eastward forever, that won’t happen. If he could be mollified by a statement that Ukraine won’t join NATO for, say, at least another 10 years (not because Putin demands it but because Ukraine isn’t qualified to join), something could be worked out. If agreements could be struck to reduce military deployments in Eastern Europe and on the Russian-Ukraine border, to ban nuclear missiles in certain areas, to make military exercises more transparent—in short, to relax tensions, reduce the chance of sudden war, and reassure the most paranoid perceptions of threats—something could be worked out.

Meanwhile, we’re all stuck in a long reel that could someday be fodder for the History Channel. It’s not a comforting feeling.

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