The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With or without war, Ukraine gives Biden a new lease on leadership

For Putin, it’s hard to see a winning outcome

President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin greet one another in Geneva in June. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Six months ago, the transatlantic alliance was on shaky ground, with President Biden’s promise of a reinvigorated NATO under U.S. leadership severely undermined by the Afghanistan debacle and a foreign policy that seemed unready for prime time.

Today, Biden and his team have redeemed themselves in the eyes of many NATO allies, with a tough stance on Ukraine and the successful wrangling of the often-fractious alliance to support it.

Ukraine’s fate, and Russia’s future relationship with the West, remain uncertain. Biden has said he is convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin, with more than 150,000 troops and massive weaponry amassed on Ukraine’s borders, has decided to invade, despite the West’s offered carrot of negotiations over a new European security architecture to address his concerns if he withdraws, and the threatened stick of harsh sanctions and isolation if he does not.

But regardless of the outcome, officials, diplomats and experts have already begun charting the winners and losers.

On Feb. 18, President Biden said that Russia has plans to attack Ukraine “in the coming days,” targeting Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

There are differences of opinion on what Putin wants out of the crisis. To some, he is laser focused on reestablishing Russian dominion over Ukraine, preventing its incorporation into NATO and the further encroachment by the West into Moscow’s perceived sphere of influence.

As if to prove that two can play the game, Russia last week sent Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov on an official visit to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, near U.S. shores. This week, Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin also plans to travel to Cuba and Nicaragua.

Others believe Putin’s broader goal is to drive a wedge into NATO, where divisions opened wide during the Trump administration and even now are just barely healed. Still others say Putin simply wants relevance for Russia and himself on the world stage, with proof, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week, that he can “shake up” the West.

To many Western minds, Putin has backed himself into a no-win corner regardless of his goals. “I started writing it down, and I think there are more losses for Putin than gains,” said Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and National Security Council director for Russia, and currently a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

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

On offer from Biden are talks on the expanding notifications and transparency on major military exercises, the positioning of conventional forces, and strategic bombers. The United States has proposed allowing Russian officials to conduct verification of Aegis Ashore missile defense systems in Poland and Romania, which Russia has said is a cover for enabling the launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles, a charge the United States denies.

The administration has also proposed formally forswearing the placement of offensive ground-based missiles and permanent combat units in Ukraine. But because Biden has already publicly said he would not take those steps, they may not be perceived as a significant concession by Russia.

While American 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 the U.S. Army Europe and Africa during the Obama and Trump administrations, “if it gives [the Russians] something they can point to, I would not have a real problem with that.”

Moscow has denied invasion plans, and charged the Biden administration with hysteria and disinformation. The administration, which has made public an unprecedented amount of intelligence intended to prove its warning that invasion is imminent, has said it would be glad to be mistaken.

“If Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, then we will be relieved that Russia changed course and proved our predictions wrong,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday. “That would be a far better outcome than the course we’re currently on. And we will gladly accept any criticism that anyone directs at us.”

John Herbst, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during the George W. Bush administration, agreed: “The Russians will make fun of us and their echo chamber here will have a field day with it, but who cares? … In terms of the vast majority of people, everyone will be so relieved there’s no war.”

If the invasion goes forward, a current U.S. official who specializes in Russian affairs said, “in the short term, [Putin] gains territory and he gains military advantage over Kyiv.” He will have damaged Ukraine’s economy, changed the conversation and commandeered the West’s attention, and “given himself temporary advantage in terms of the narrative,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the issue’s sensitivity.

But in doing so, the official said, he “stands to lose friendly relations with Germany and with other European countries. He will have put himself in a new place, much more of a pariah than he was before. He will have lost much of the soft power he’s been able to use until now.”

Putin, through Russia’s prodigious oil and gas exports, has already profited from the crisis, as energy prices have surged. But over the medium and long-term, said Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “it reinforces a European transition to [energy] supply that doesn’t rely on Russia.”

Daalder predicted that Nordstream 2, the just-constructed Russian gas pipeline to Germany whose opening has now been delayed by Berlin, will never come online, no matter what the outcome in Ukraine, where Russia controls two separate pipelines to Europe. The European Union, which has an integrated system of gas supplies, will now never grant required agreement to its use, he said.

However the crisis ends, many observers believe Putin has already lost. He has pushed NATO toward greater unity, sparked Ukrainian nationalism and even greater anti-Russian feeling, and ended up with more NATO forces near and on Russia’s borders than when the troop buildup started.

As to the U.S. balance sheet, a number of European leaders were infuriated by what they saw as a lack of consultation before the sudden Afghanistan pullout in August — quickly followed by a plan to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia that canceled a French sale — and an off-the-cuff gaffe by Biden in early December that he would consult with “at least four of our major NATO allies” about Ukraine.

But the administration’s foreign policy apparatus quickly swung into motion to fix the damage. Since then, top officials have gone out of their way to make sure that European countries are frequently briefed and consulted.

The team has patted itself on the back, with Blinken telling MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that during the Ukraine crisis “there have been more than 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 throughout Europe, even beyond.”

To a great extent, the administration would have had difficulty pulling off a major response to the Russian threat without full cooperation from the allies. But the new spirit of consultation has been noticed.

In Washington, both national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy, Jon Finer, have held conference calls to let European ambassadors know the latest intelligence assessments and answer their questions. Although the information has not gone far beyond what Sullivan and White House press secretary Jen Psaki have said publicly at the White House podium, one ambassador said the message was still important.

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

Daalder said that allies still remain fearful of what may happen in the next U.S. presidential election. “But in the last three or four months, I haven’t heard a single person criticizing what they have done” in terms of alliance building. “It’s been a class in Diplomacy 101,” he said of the administration. “They’ve constantly been out there. They share information. Biden is talking to everybody.”

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

So far, the president has gotten no perceivable bump in approval at home, where disapproval of his foreign policy remains about the same as his overall approval level, with percentages in the high 30s or low 40s.

The White House succeeded this month in fending off a Republican-pushed bill that would have immediately imposed sanctions on Putin and Russia, removing leverage over Russia to prevent an invasion. Prominent Republicans said that Putin had already done enough to merit sanctions and that it was “ridiculous” that Biden hadn’t yet used them.

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

There is little doubt that the Ukraine crisis has given NATO renewed unity and purpose, turning its attention from the last two decades dominated by Afghanistan and terrorism, where many were uncomfortable, to its original purpose and much more familiar focus of fending off Russia. Over the long term, however, if the administration continues to stress that the greatest threat to the post World War II order comes from China and East Asia, it may not be so easy to bring the alliance along.

“My sense is that a much more traditional NATO, focused on the threat” on its eastern flank, “on multidimensional hybrid warfare, cyber and space … is where the future lies in the next five to ten years,” Daalder said. While economic cooperation with the E.U. over China may blossom, NATO is likely to be looking in the other direction.

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

Michael Birnbaum and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

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