In early February last year, US President Joe Biden made the short trip to the state department’s headquarters to deliver the first big foreign policy address of his presidency, and a pledge to stare down threats from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“The days of the US rolling over in the face of Russian aggression. . . are over, ”Biden said. “We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people. And we will be more effective in dealing with Russia when we work in coalition and co-ordination with other like-minded partners. ”
A year later, the 79-year-old president is facing a moment of reckoning on those words, as Russian troops gather on the border with Ukraine amid the threat of a possible invasion, and Putin tries to press NATO into limiting its reach and influence in the region.
The outcome of the stand-off is going to determine not just the balance of power in Europe, but also Biden’s vision of the US as a force still capable of confronting autocratic regimes aggressively by uniting western democracies, after the divisions and isolationism of the Trump years.
If Putin either stands down, or overplays his hand with a Ukrainian assault that backfires, the promise of the so-called Biden doctrine will remain intact. If not, it risks being shattered, dealing a blow to US efforts to stand up to other adversaries including Iran, North Korea and, most importantly, China.
The crisis is unfolding just a few months after America’s chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was designed to free up capacity for bigger foreign policy priorities, but also led to skepticism about the resolve of the US to project power internationally.
“This is about Russia’s behavior in Ukraine, but it is [also] about everything, ”said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the US. “I’m not entirely sure the president or the administration knows how the story is going to end, because to confront growing authoritarian behavior. . . whether it’s in the South China Sea, or the Baltic Sea, you need probably less rhetoric and more showing of strength. ”
Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, added: “The consequences would likely be severe in Asia [if the US were to] ignore Russian aggression. It would telegraph our unwillingness to uphold the liberal order [and] encourage Chinese aggression. ”
As the stakes keep rising, Biden and his foreign policy team have notably hardened their stance and ramped up their diplomatic efforts on the crisis.
This week, the Pentagon put 8,500 troops on standby, ready for deployment in support of a possible NATO reaction force to shore up vulnerable members of the alliance’s eastern flank.
While Biden has ruled out sending ground troops to Ukraine itself, he is offering more military aid to Kyiv. The US and European allies are also intensively discussing a package of economic sanctions against Moscow that would be far more aggressive than those used after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“The gradualism of the past is out. This time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there, ”a senior Biden administration official said on Tuesday.
But some in Washington fear that Biden’s hand remains weak. William Cohen, the former US defense secretary under Bill Clinton, said there may be an “opportunity to really unite the Europeans in a way that we have not seen before”, but he would not count on it.
“I think at this point, for [Putin] to back away, just pull back without having some significant concessions, that’s not going to take place, ”he said. “So I do not know what the Biden doctrine is at this point. I think he’s not in a good position because of the divisions here and also in Europe. ”
The US and Russia are moving to buy themselves more time to find a diplomatic solution. This week, Antony Blinken, secretary of state, delivered written responses, co-ordinated with allies, to Russia’s demands over Europe. Moscow said there was “little cause for optimism” based on the document but suggested that a conversation would continue “on secondary issues”.
The US has rebuffed Putin’s requests to bar NATO from admitting Ukraine as a member, or limit troops within the alliance, but it has opened the door to a debate on transparency on military exercises, arms control and missile deployments.
With the outcome of the talks up in the air, Biden’s turn towards a more forceful strategy against Putin has been greeted with some relief in Washington. One former senior US national security official said that despite some differences with European countries, the president had managed to corral a sufficiently strong response that might give Putin some reason for pause.
“If Putin undertakes some sort of military action, he will find himself with a rupture from the west,” the former official said. “He will put himself in a position of facing off quite directly with the United States and Europe, in a way we have not seen in decades.”
Even Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the Senate, gave Biden some credit. “They are preparing to take steps before an incursion, not afterwards. . . It appears to me the administration is moving in the right direction, ”he said this week.
Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, noted that the possibility of moving troops to the eastern flank of NATO would have been “surprising” a few weeks ago but was now “a legitimate policy option”.
“What we are seeing is the ability of this administration to pivot as the geopolitical space requires,” Rizzo said.
Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic senator from New Hampshire who co-led a congressional delegation to Ukraine last week, said in a statement to the Financial Times that Biden’s strategy was working. However, there have been doubts raised that Germany, in particular, is fully on board with the toughest sanctions proposed.
“President Biden has rightly employed a ‘diplomacy first’ agenda and is utilizing every aspect of our diplomatic corps to respond to Russia’s belligerence,” Shaheen said.
The prospect of conflict has already sparked questions about whether the Ukraine crisis will distract Biden from China, which he has described as the US’s biggest foreign policy challenge.
“The US has reduced its military too much to carry out an assertive national security strategy simultaneously in two theaters,” said the American Enterprise Institute’s Schake.
But there is little doubt that what happens in Ukraine over the next few weeks will prove a pivotal moment not just for Biden but also for US foreign policy in the 21st century.
“This is it, this speaks to how America’s credibility is going to work,” said Conley of the German Marshall Fund. “My question is: are we ready? Is this administration ready to take difficult steps when tested? ”
Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor
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