Ukraine. Showdown with Russia gives Biden new lease on NATO leadership

Ukraine’s fate and Russia’s future relations with the West remain uncertain. Biden said he was confident that Russian President Vladimir Putin, with more than 150,000 troops and massive weapons amassed on Ukraine’s borders, decided to invade, despite the negotiating carrot offered by the West on a new European security architecture to address his concerns if he steps down, and the stick threatened with severe sanctions and isolation if he does not.

But regardless of the outcome, officials, diplomats and pundits have already begun to plot winners and losers.

There are differences of opinion on what Putin wants out of the crisis. For some, it focuses on restoring Russian dominance over Ukraine, preventing its incorporation into NATO and further Western encroachment on Moscow’s perceived sphere of influence.

As if to prove that two can play the game, Russia last week sent Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borissov on an official visit to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, near the American coast. This week Russian State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin also plans to visit Cuba and Nicaragua.

Others believe Putin’s larger goal is to drive a wedge in NATO, where divisions have widened wide open under the Trump administration and even now are barely healed. Still others say Putin just wants to be relevant to Russia and to himself on the world stage, with evidence, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week, that he can ” shake up” the West.

For many Western minds, Putin has backed himself into a dead end, regardless of his goals. “I started writing it, and I think there are more losses than gains for Putin,” said Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to Ukraine and director of the National Security Council for the Russia, and currently a Fellow of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. .

“Yes [Russia’s] troops leave and go home, what he can say is ‘I had these negotiations’” with NATO and the United States. “But had [Russia] really made an effort and been serious, they probably could have had this negotiation without all of this,” Pifer said.

Biden offers talks on expanding notifications and transparency on major military exercises, positioning of conventional forces and strategic bombers. The United States has offered to allow Russian officials to carry out a verification of Aegis Ashore missile defense systems in Poland and Romania, which Russia says is a cover to allow the launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles, a a charge that the United States denies.

The administration also offered to formally renounce the placement of offensive land missiles and permanent combat units in Ukraine. But since Biden has already publicly stated that he will not take these steps, they may not be seen as a significant concession from Russia.

While U.S. military officials might not like the idea of ​​intrusive measures such as Russian inspections of defense systems, said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who served as commander of U.S. Army Europe. and in Africa under the Obama and Trump administrations, “if it gives [the Russians] something they can point to, I wouldn’t really have a problem with that.

Moscow has denied the invasion plans and accused the Biden administration of hysteria and misinformation. The administration, which has released an unprecedented amount of intelligence intended to prove its warning that invasion is imminent, said it would be happy to be wrong.

“If Russia does not invade Ukraine, we will be relieved that Russia has changed course and proven our predictions wrong,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN Security Council on Thursday. “It would be a much better result than the course we are currently following. And we’ll gladly take any criticism anyone throws at us.

John Herbst, who served as US ambassador to Ukraine during the George W. Bush administration, agreed. “The Russians are going to laugh at us and their echo chamber here is going to have a blast, but who cares? … As far as the vast majority of people are concerned, everyone will be so relieved that there is no war.

If the invasion continues, a current US official specializing in Russian affairs said: “In the short term, [Putin] gains territory and he gains a military advantage over Kiev. He will have damaged Ukraine’s economy, changed the conversation and commandeered the West’s attention, and “gave himself a temporary narrative advantage,” said the official, who spoke under the guise of anonymity citing the sensitivity of the problem.

But in doing so, the official said, he “risks losing friendly relations with Germany and with other European countries. He will have put himself in a new place, much more outcast than he was before. He will have lost much of the soft power he was able to use up to now.

Putin, thanks to Russia’s prodigious oil and gas exports, has already profited from the crisis, as energy prices have soared. But in the medium to long term, said Ivo Daalder, the former US ambassador to NATO and now chairman of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “it reinforces a European transition to [energy] a supply that does not depend on Russia.

Daalder predicted that Nordstream 2, the newly built Russian gas pipeline to Germany whose opening has now been delayed by Berlin, will never go into service regardless of the outcome in Ukraine, where Russia controls two separate gas pipelines to Europe. The European Union, which has an integrated gas supply system, will now never grant the required agreement for its use, he said.

Regardless of how the crisis ends, many observers believe Putin has already lost. He pushed NATO towards greater unity, sparked Ukrainian nationalism and even greater anti-Russian sentiment, and ended up with more NATO forces near and on Russia’s borders than at the beginning of the reinforcement of the troops.

But the administration’s foreign policy apparatus quickly sprang into action to undo the damage. Since then, senior officials have worked to ensure that European countries are frequently informed and consulted.

The team was pleased, with Blinken telling MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that during the Ukraine crisis “there were over 200 engagements, meetings, phone calls, video conferences with NATO, with the European Union, with the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe]with allies and partners across Europe and beyond.

To a large extent, the administration would have struggled to provide a major response to the Russian threat without the full cooperation of the allies. But the new spirit of consultation was noticed.

In Washington, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his deputy, Jon Finer, held conference calls to brief European ambassadors on the latest intelligence assessments and answer their questions. Although the information did not go far beyond what Sullivan and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said publicly from the White House podium, an ambassador said the message was still important. .

“I told my colleagues,” said the ambassador, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive discussions, “those are the main guys, and they are consulting with us.”

Daalder said the allies still feared what might happen in the next US presidential election. “But in the last three or four months, I haven’t heard a single person criticize what they’ve done” in terms of building alliances. “It’s been a class in diplomacy 101,” he said of the administration. “They have been there constantly. They share information. Biden speaks to everyone.

“It begs the question of what they were thinking before,” with Afghanistan and the submarine deal, he said of the highly experienced foreign policy team Biden has put in place. in place. “It’s surprising that they don’t know how to do it, because now they are demonstrating that they know.”

So far, the president has achieved no discernible increase in approval at home, where disapproval of his foreign policy remains roughly the same as his overall level of approval, with percentages in the 30s or 40.

The White House this month successfully pushed back a bill pushed by Republicans that would have immediately imposed sanctions on Putin and Russia, removing leverage on Russia to prevent an invasion. Prominent Republicans said Putin had already done enough to deserve sanctions and it was “ridiculous” that Biden hadn’t used them yet.

Some are actively trying to undermine the alliance’s “carrot” of negotiations with Russia over troop deployments on NATO’s eastern flank. On Friday, Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee; and Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), a ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, released a personal letter they sent to Romanian President Klaus Iohannis suggesting that US forces temporarily sent to his country in response to the Ukraine crisis be deployed there permanently.

There is no doubt that the Ukraine crisis has given NATO a renewed unity and purpose, diverting its attention from the past two decades dominated by Afghanistan and terrorism, where many were uneasy, towards its goal. original and its much more familiar goal of pushing back against Russia. In the long run, however, if the administration continues to stress that the greatest threat to the post-WWII order comes from China and East Asia, it may not be so easy. to advance the alliance.

“My sense is that a much more traditional NATO, focused on the threat ‘on its eastern flank,’ on multi-dimensional hybrid warfare, cyber and space…is where the future lies in the next five to ten years,” Daalder said. While economic cooperation with the EU on China could blossom, NATO is likely to look in the other direction.

“The thought that Trump had, and Biden had, that this would become a more comprehensive China-focused alliance,” he said, “I just don’t see it having legs the same way.”

Michael Birnbaum and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.