This week’s report that a Russian-made missile had fallen in Poland, a NATO ally, could have increased tensions with Russia and even led to direct conflict between the belligerent nation and the Western alliance. The fact that it didn’t casts a light on one of the year’s underreported stories: how masterfully the Biden administration has handled the Ukraine crisis.
Some of my fellow conservatives will strenuously disagree with this assessment. In their telling, the United States has no essential national security interest in a free and democratic Ukraine. President Biden’s decision to send massive amounts of military aid to the nation unnecessarily risked war with nuclear-armed Russia. And his decision to join our European allies in imposing severe economic sanctions on Russia is harming our economy, too.
But that ignores the key fact: America’s primary national security interest is to keep our potential enemies far away from our shores, and the least costly and most effective way of doing that is to assemble a network of allies across the globe. We take interest in their security objectives; they, in turn, assist us in obtaining ours.
Biden understood from the start of the conflict in Ukraine that our European allies in NATO viewed Russian designs very differently. Our allies in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, feared they would be next if NATO allowed Ukraine to be conquered. Our allies in Western Europe, such as Germany and France, also feared an aggressive Russia but thought that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be bought off with his country’s extensive economic ties with their countries. Balancing those views was the most important principle animating U.S. policy in the run-up to the invasion.
Thus came Biden’s elegant two-step: First, he warned the world that the invasion was coming and that there would be serious consequences if Russia went through with it. Second, he let Germany and France take the diplomatic lead, giving them the opportunity to prove that their assessments of Putin were correct. Biden also chose not to rush massive amounts of arms to Ukraine, an act that would have given Putin a pretext for the invasion he had already decided to launch. Being too quick to provide weapons also would have harmed Biden’s ability to rally recalcitrant allies in an anti-Russian cordon.
This dance worked perfectly. The Eastern allies knew we shared their fears, and the Western allies were shocked into action after their views about Putin proved dangerously naive. This gave Biden massive credibility to shape the alliance’s actions regarding Russia.
As a result, the economic sanctions the U.S.-led grouping levied were far more severe than almost any observer would have thought possible beforehand. And the military aid the alliance provided has been much more lethal than any that had been contemplated just a year ago. Ukraine now has the upper hand in a war against a foe three times as large. That’s all due to Biden’s superb diplomacy.
This maneuvering has also created collateral behaviors that redound to U.S. security. European powers had been leery of confronting China before Russia’s invasion, weakening the United States’ ability to contain its primary security threat. Now, with Chinese President Xi Jinping tacitly supporting Russia, Europe no longer sees China as a benign power. Even though many European elites resent America for its sometimes overbearing diplomatic manner and military swagger, they also know they share more values with the United States than they ever could with an autocratic Russo-Chinese axis. They are now likelier to back our initiatives to reduce China’s economic and diplomatic influence.
None of this was preordained. A U.S. president whose primary goal was to prevent confrontation with Russia might have been inclined to cut a deal with Putin that effectively gave him what he wanted, pushing Europe further into a strategy of appeasement. A president who intended to confront Russia might have involved the United States too deeply in Ukraine, alienating our allies and setting up the potential for a direct military clash between superpowers. Biden’s middle course avoided these missteps and set the United States up to reap massive benefits.
Biden will have to keep this balanced approach as the war continues. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would like to see the United States and NATO involve themselves more directly in his war, which is why he was quick to argue that his country was not responsible for the missile that fell in Poland. But the more territory Ukraine retakes, the closer it gets to the territory Russia seized in 2014. We now know Putin will not risk war with the West over Kherson or Zaporizhzhia. He might feel differently if a U.S.-armed Ukraine threatens to retake Crimea.
But those concerns are in the future. For now, it appears that Biden has reinvigorated NATO and brought the Europeans closer to our views on China. That’s cause for celebration across the partisan divide.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.
Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.