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Biden's Russia dealings may be the death knell of American credibility

This Russia-Ukraine brinkmanship has once again rendered Putin the center of global attention and mired the West in diplomatic confusion.
Photo illustration: Images of Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden looking in different directions against an image of soldiers walking past destroyed buildings in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, something resembling the worst-case scenario is no longer unthinkable.MSNBC / Getty Images

President Joe Biden fancies himself a dealmaker. He has taken the sensibilities he cultivated in the Senate and applied them to the presidency, where he seems to operate under the assumption that statesmanship and diplomatic procedure can resolve even the thorniest of crises. Now, Russia is putting that assumption to the test. His willingness to bend and flex in the face of unreasonable demands from an irresponsible nation are potentially quite dangerous.

This is a prospect that should keep Western lawmakers up at night.

In Ukraine, something resembling the worst-case scenario is no longer unthinkable; it’s now imaginable and may in the near future become inevitable.

On Dec. 8, Biden revealed his intention to provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with glitzy summitry, this time to include America’s chief European allies. The goal, the president said, was to host a meeting with "at least four of our major NATO allies and Russia to discuss the future of Russia's concerns relative to NATO writ large” with the aim of “bringing down the temperature along the eastern front.” That alone is gift enough to Moscow; the prospect of a 21st century Malta Conference in which the West gives its imprimatur to Russian territorial ambitions would only exacerbate tensions in Eastern Europe. Make no mistake: There will be territorial demands, which Biden is already reportedly taking quite seriously.

On Thursday, The Associated Press reported that the White House may try to mollify Moscow by making Kyiv all but concede to the loss of its sovereign territory. “Administration officials have suggested that the U.S. will press Ukraine to formally cede a measure of autonomy within its eastern Donbas region,” the AP report read. Ukraine would be forced to accept a “special status” for Donbas, which would provide the Russian-backed separatists in the region with “local” control of territorial administration; “local” control dictated from Moscow.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki denied this report, and the AP watered its own dispatch down to assuage the White House. “The administration officials made no mention of ceding any territory,” the AP insisted. Call this whatever you want, but demanding Ukraine accept the legitimacy of an occupying force in control of its provinces is, in fact, ceding territory — and to a land-hungry menace, no less.

This consideration alone would constitute a Russian victory, which may be Putin’s true aim. Moscow’s gambit on Ukraine’s border has already provided the Kremlin with some tangible benefits, according to a compelling analysis via the Institute for the Study of War. This brinkmanship has once again rendered Putin the center of global attention and mired the West in a diplomatic process around the status of the Ukrainian territories Russia doesn’t already illegally occupy. Crimea and the Donbas are a second thought now. Moreover, Biden’s declaration that the West would not reinforce Ukrainian sovereignty with a troop presence inside the country’s borders, regardless of the truthfulness of this assertion, tacitly cedes Ukraine to Russia’s imagined sphere of influence.

Amid these tangible advantages, Russia may very well press its luck. Its military buildup on its borders with Ukraine, and inside the Ukrainian territories it has occupied since 2014, is profoundly menacing. U.S. intelligence estimated that the number of soldiers amassing along the border could reach 175,000 by early January. Command-and-control elements are being inserted into the quasi-occupied Donbas region. The Kremlin has mobilized mechanized units, tanks and mobile artillery to support an invasion. Open-source intelligence suggests the Kremlin is establishing supply lines and shuttling medical units to what could soon become the front in what CNN described as a “drawn-out conflict” over Ukrainian territory.

Ukrainian forces are more well armed and better trained than they were in 2014.

“Russia's capabilities would be equivalent to a modern-day blitzkrieg,” Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, warned CNN earlier this month. If Moscow does greenlight a second invasion of Ukraine, every indication is that it would be far messier than the first with far more potential for disaster.

Experts on the region and senior officials within the Ukrainian military who spoke with The New York Times outlined the nightmare scenario: Within the first hour of open conflict, Russian ground and air forces devastate the young nation’s defensive capabilities. One analysis via the Russian International Affairs Council (which dovetails with a report in German media) suggested Moscow intends to drive to the Dnieper River, encircle the Ukrainian capital, decapitate the Western-oriented government and all but end Ukraine’s 30-year experiment with independence.

But Ukrainian forces are more well armed and better trained than they were in 2014. Routed, Ukrainian forces can pull back to the hills to mount a protracted campaign of resistance — a campaign supported by the local population. “One senior Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that if all else failed, the military would simply open its weapons depots and allow the Ukrainian people to take whatever they need to defend themselves and their families,” the Times reported.

The devastating war of attrition that would follow has dire implications for global security. A conflict of this sort would displace millions of Ukrainians, creating a humanitarian catastrophe in Europe and giving way to a refugee crisis along its Western borders with NATO-aligned states. Such a crisis would destabilize the European Union and pit members of the Atlantic alliance against one another. It would consume the attention of Western powers, to the detriment of the countries that would almost certainly find themselves in the crosshairs of irredentist powers in their neighborhoods (Taiwan, in particular). And the sacrifice of Ukraine — a vital non-NATO partner that contributed to U.S.-led conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and that benefits from Washington’s material support — so soon after the abandonment of America’s allies in Kabul, Afghanistan, would signal the death knell of American credibility.

This scenario isn’t hard to envision. Even something more limited in scope has the potential to reverberate throughout the world and destabilize the existing status quo. This is a prospect that should keep Western lawmakers up at night. Biden’s instinct has been to defuse this looming crisis by dangling a series of carrots in front of the Kremlin, reserving America’s sticks as punishment only after irreversible damage has been done to the global order. That passivity has contributed to this brewing crisis.

A precedent that provides legitimacy to the nation aggressive enough to just take what it wants would result in many more land grabs.

Back in March and April, Putin provoked a crisis similar to the one he is orchestrating today. Then as now, tens of thousands of Russian troops menaced the Ukrainian border, but the standoff was resolved when Biden rewarded the Kremlin’s brinkmanship by promising to join Putin for a bipartisan summit in June. The optics of that affair provided the Russian autocrat with a global stage, though the summit itself produced little in the way of concessions to the Russian position. In the interim, though, Afghanistan’s implosion demonstrated that the American president can be rendered pliant if the costs associated with meeting America’s obligations are sufficiently high. Thus, we’re faced with today’s crisis, and Biden is reportedly seeking to resolve it in the same way: with concessions.

Those concessions, including Western support for an “autonomous” Donbas loyal to Moscow, would set a terrible precedent. Carving up Ukraine would fail to satisfy the ambitions of the insatiably revanchist regime in the Kremlin, and it would set the stage for more demands along the same lines.

The reverberations wouldn’t end at Ukraine’s borders. Would the West be forced to press Georgia to concede the legitimacy of the pro-Moscow separatists in control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have operated illegitimate proxy governments since Moscow invaded that post-Soviet republic in 2008? What about the Moldovan territory of Transnistria, which Russia functionally occupies? And we’re not just talking about Russia at that point. Hundreds of territories are the subject of international disputes between powers with competing claims over them.

A precedent that provides legitimacy to the nation aggressive enough to just take what it wants would result in many more land grabs, with all the accompanying potential for escalating conflicts and regional instability.

The crisis along Ukraine’s borders is not some far-off dispute in which the U.S. has no investments or interests. It is not an exigency with few implications for global security and American geostrategic dominance. It is a direct assault on the stable world order Biden inherited. His current approach to resolving this crisis — gifts to the aggressor with the promise of punitive action only after that aggressor shatters the international order and exposes the United States as a paper tiger — is unacceptable.

These are serious times. They demand a serious president. That’s how Biden won the White House, by promising to restore global faith in American leadership. That faith is being tested, as is Joe Biden. The consequences of failure are too terrible to contemplate.