In a noteworthy move, Sullivan said that in addition to crippling sanctions, many of our partners in Eastern Europe would seek “additional capabilities and potentially additional deployments.” Sullivan added, “We’ll be looking to respond positively to those things in the event that there is a further incursion into Ukraine.”
Sullivan also made an unsubtle threat on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (which has not yet begun operation): “If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.” As a further signal of our support for the Baltic states, Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently traveled to Latvia, as well as Sweden.
“What matters most is what happens next — whether this will be more like [President Barack Obama’s] red-line moment on Syria in 2013 or [President George H.W. Bush’s] red-line moment with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 1991 is key,” Brian Katulis, vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute, tells me. “But the ball’s now in Putin’s court, and his actions in reaction to this diplomatic engagement will elucidate and point to what’s next.”
In contrast to Biden’s predecessor, Katulis observes, “I’m reassured America has a national security team that appears to weigh carefully all of the options and deliberates, unlike the 2017-2020 period.” He warns, however, “I do think there’s some cause for concern that we’ve found ourselves in this position, and some worry that we might be back in the ‘paralysis of analysis’ that hampered America’s overall strategy in the world on several fronts from 2012 to 2016.” Biden’s ability to organize European support for debilitating sanctions belies the notion that his withdrawal of U.S forces from Afghanistan diminished our standing and influence with allies.
Use of U.S. military force against Russia is almost certainly not in the cards, but former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul urged the administration to explain “more clearly ... what they are prepared to do to help Ukrainians defend themselves.” Hopefully, Biden did that privately in his call.
In this foreign policy challenge, Biden should benefit from congressional support. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remarked at a hearing on Tuesday, “I want to be crystal clear to those listening to this hearing in Moscow, Kyiv and other capitals around the world: A Russian invasion will trigger devastating economic sanctions, the likes of which we have never seen before.” He added: “Putin doesn’t get to redraw the map of Europe. Europeans should be thinking about that. He doesn’t get to bully the people of an independent nation into submission.”
The administration might consider obtaining a resolution from Congress in support of sanctions to back up Biden’s warning. If Republicans are serious about getting tough on Russia after four years of a sycophantic president, they should support such a measure.
Biden cannot prevent Putin from invading, but he can make clear what the consequences will be if Putin does so — and then act to implement those consequences. It is noteworthy that both Sullivan and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, in testimony before the Senate committee shortly after the president’s call, stressed that the response by the United States to further Russian aggression will be different from what it was in 2014. President Obama and then-Vice President Biden were in office, so this marks a move away from the reticence of the last Democratic president and the groveling of Donald Trump.
Biden will now be tested to make good on his message to Putin. Effectively, that is “you might have run roughshod over the last two guys, but you won’t with me.” Putin will need to weigh carefully whether extending his invasion is worth the risk of becoming a pariah state.