The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s misstep on Ukraine was telling the truth

President Biden holds a news conference at the White House on Jan. 19. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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In life, some truths are better left unsaid. That goes double for high-stakes diplomacy, in which a well-chosen word — or a poorly chosen one — can make the difference between peace and war. And so there was understandable consternation, in Washington and in European capitals, after President Biden’s Wednesday news conference, in which he did some thinking out loud about how much, if at all, the United States and its allies would punish a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine. Worse, he portrayed this as a situation in which the allies would “fight about what to do and not do.” Mr. Biden tried to clarify his statement on Thursday, saying that “Russia will pay a heavy price” for "any” cross-border troop movement, but the damage was done.

And yet, unwise as it was, Mr. Biden’s original remark was reality-based: Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin masses troops on Ukraine’s borders and threatens to invade, European governments remain divided over how to respond if he does. Crucially, there is no consensus on how much aggression by Russia would, or should, trigger the massive sanctions the West has threatened — as Mr. Biden essentially admitted. The allies are not even on the same page as to deterrence itself. At the tough-minded end of the spectrum, Britain is supplying antitank weapons, accompanied by military advisers, to Kyiv. Washington and Ukraine’s neighbors in Eastern Europe are in sync. By contrast, Germany, deeply conflicted because of its links to Russia through a major natural gas pipeline, has balked at arms supply. President Emmanuel Macron of France muddied diplomatic waters further by telling the European Parliament on Wednesday that Europeans should "coordinate“ with the Biden administration on policy toward Russia, but also "conduct their own dialogue.”

The upshot is that Mr. Putin has managed to evoke division among the NATO members without firing a shot. This can only tempt him to see how much more he could sow by an actual attack. In a speech Thursday, Antony Blinken, Mr. Biden’s secretary of state, refocused attention on the real cause of this crisis — Russia’s blatant violation of international norms. One by one, Mr. Blinken ticked off agreements dating back to 1975 that Russia had signed, and with which its current threats toward Ukraine are completely inconsistent. He warned of the destabilization that could radiate globally if Mr. Putin continues to redraw international borders by force. Looking ahead to his meeting with Russia’s foreign minister on Friday, Mr. Blinken said diplomacy still has a chance — but there was warranted pessimism in his voice.

As important as what Mr. Blinken said was where he said it: Berlin, capital of Europe’s most populous, richest and most influential democracy, and the one that has attempted simultaneously to get its energy from Russia and its security from the United States and NATO. Events are rapidly making Germany’s position less and less tenable. However belatedly — and however clumsily — the Biden administration has tried to rally the West. In the end, though, Germany and other European countries cannot outsource all the political will to the United States. They must supply some themselves.

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