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Opinion Biden has Putin trapped in a corner. Now comes the hard part.

On Feb. 15, President Biden addressed the nation regarding Russia's position on the border of Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Biden, in his first remarks fully dedicated to the Ukraine crisis, made clear on Tuesday that he is seeking to de-escalate the standoff with Russia. This followed a statement from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who earlier in the day publicly said he wanted to continue negotiations.

“The United States continues to believe diplomacy and de-escalation are the best path forward, but is prepared for every scenario,” Biden said. The White House reaffirmed that “the United States remains open to high-level diplomacy in close coordination with our allies, building on the multiple diplomatic off-ramps we and our allies and partners have offered Russia in recent months.”

It is not clear why Biden chose this exact moment to speak, but we can surmise he wanted to maintain an equivalence with Putin’s negotiation-friendly stance. The president and the rest of his administration now have a tricky balance to maintain: They must sound open to negotiations, but remain resolute. And they must do so without setting off Putin, who just might try to escape the corner into which he has painted himself.

Biden reiterated that while U.S. troops will not go to Ukraine, the United States will respond to any further Russian invasion of Ukraine with crippling sanctions. He also made clear the United States will defend all NATO allies pursuant to Article 5 of the transatlantic alliance’s treaty.

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“If Russia proceeds, we will rally the world who opposes aggression," Biden vowed. “The United States and our allies and partners around the world are ready to impose powerful sanctions on export controls including actions that we did not pursue when Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014.” Biden also spoke directly to the Russian people, assuring them that the United States is not their enemy.

“In an age of information warfare, the public statements are key,” the Middle East Institute’s Brian Katulis told me. He gave the president high marks for his performance on the issue so far, noting that Biden’s remarks came just “hours away from when they thought an invasion might occur.”

Biden made the case that this is about more than Ukraine. “It’s about standing for what we believe in,” he said. He was emphatic that Russia’s neighbors must maintain their territorial integrity (even as Russia continues to occupy part of Ukraine) and that every country should be able to choose to “associate” with international organizations how they see fit, including whether to join NATO. Enforcing those principles, Biden acknowledged, may come at a cost to Americans — for example, in the form of higher energy costs.

Biden may have wanted to restate these bright lines given German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s less-than-precise remarks after his meeting with Putin on Tuesday. Scholz sounded as though he wanted to formalize Ukraine’s non-membership, although he was not clear.

Max Bergmann, a former State Department official and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, tells me Biden had three reasons to give the speech. First, Biden wanted “to prepare the American public that we may have to absorb some economic costs to uphold our principles.” Second, Biden wanted to make clear to the world that Russia is at fault and that “the U.S. wants diplomacy and tangible talks and that this would be a war of Putin’s choosing.” Finally, Biden sought “to warn Putin not to think about messing with NATO and to issue strong warnings about cyberattacks against the United States.”

Biden’s remarks were welcomed by many foreign policy experts. Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, praised Biden’s comments as a “clear, strong statement about what the Russia-Ukraine crisis means for the United States.” In the coming days, we will see whether Putin actually de-escalates and takes one of the multiple off-ramps open to him. If he instead opts to launch a bloody war, it will not be because of a lack of clarity or diplomatic effort on Biden’s part.

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