The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the moment he’s prepared for his whole career, Biden faces the limits of his power

A leader who’s known European leaders for decades, Biden seems highly prepared for this crisis. But the world has changed, and his power has limits.

President Biden points to a reporter after he delivers remarks in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in an East Room address at the White House. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

He has been on a first-name basis with European leaders for decades. He knows Vladimir Putin well, and says he’s read just about everything the Russian president ever wrote. He was President Barack Obama’s point man on Ukraine. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

This is the moment President Biden has always said he’d be ready to face.

But as he confronts what could become Europe’s biggest conflict since 1945, Biden is also staring at the limits of the American presidency, as all his diplomatic efforts and economic threats were unable to prevent a determined authoritarian from invading a weaker country.

“He’s got a lot of experience in the world. He has engaged on this specific issue diplomatically when he was vice president and knows a lot of the characters,” said Brian Katulis, the vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute. “But that knowledge and expertise I’m not certain helps him, in part because of how this has developed and how brutal Putin is prepared to be.”

As the land invasion unfolds, Biden must simultaneously manage the crisis on the global stage and persuade wary Americans that the United States is playing the right role. He has to convince Americans not only that they should care about a country most couldn’t pinpoint on a map, but that its fortunes are worth their personal sacrifice at the gas pump.

On Thursday, Biden sought to tie those concerns together, arguing that Ukraine’s freedom is worth high prices that might result from sanctions against Russia.

“I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump. This is critical to me,” Biden said. “But this aggression cannot go unanswered. If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.”

For all of Biden’s experience, the world has changed in many ways since his previous time on the global stage. Globally, authoritarians are on the rise in a way they weren’t before, with Russia and China pushing the limits of the international order, and countries from Turkey to Hungary moving in undemocratic directions.

Domestically, the U.S. is now divided in ways that are causing some Republicans to lavish praise on a Russian leader and heap scorn on an American one.

“What hampers him is not his lack of expertise,” Katulis said. “He’s leading a country that for years in essence has tried to wish away the brutality of Vladimir Putin.”

On Thursday, Biden seemed to recognize the limits of his power, saying he had known all along his repeated threat of hard-hitting sanctions would not stop Putin’s attack — even though the White House said for weeks that deterrence was a central goal of the threat.

“No one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening,” Biden said. Putin, he added, “is not going to say, ‘Oh my God, these sanctions are coming, I’m going to stand down.’ ” Rather, he said, the sanctions were designed to punish and weaken Russia afterward, and only then might Putin change his calculus.

From the start, Biden presented his presidency as a way to showcase the benefits of democracy and make a forceful argument against the world’s rising autocratic regimes. As a man whose foreign policy outlook was forged during the Cold War, he has seen Ukraine in particular as a bright light for democracy as it attempts to emerge from the influence of Russia.

But now that his efforts have failed to deter Russia from a massive invasion of its neighbor, Biden faces the urgent question of what to do next. The president has said he will not put U.S. troops in Ukraine, but he faces pressure to make the case that democracy will prevail even as Russia exerts its control through tanks and jets.

For now, that is largely through a buffet of tough sanctions — and a contention that Ukrainians will resist and rise up against the fighting coming to their doorstep.

“Liberty, democracy, human dignity — these are the forces far more powerful than fear and oppression,” Biden said Thursday. “They cannot be extinguished by tyrants like Putin and his armies. They cannot be erased by people — from people’s hearts and hopes by any amount of violence and intimidation.”

Katulis called Biden “a traditional internationalist” whose instinct is to rally the world around democratic ideals. “Unlike Afghanistan, which was botched, I think in the run-up to this they were playing a pretty strong hand of deterrence. That failed,” he said. “Now we’re in a ‘Then what?’ moment.”

The coming weeks may determine how far Biden may be willing or able to go on some of the ideals he espouses. His administration a few months ago hosted a virtual summit on democracy, inviting dozens of national leaders in a high-profile effort to rally them against the rise of authoritarianism around the world.

But on Thursday, Biden conceded that the sanctions he and U.S. allies were imposing could take time to prompt Putin to change course. “He’s going to test the resolve of the West to see if we stay together,” Biden said. “And we will. We will, and it will impose significant costs on him.”

Pressed by reporters on why he did not impose even more sanctions — including against Putin himself — Biden bristled and said the current measures are powerful and punitive. Let’s have a conversation in another month or so to see if they’re working,” Biden said.

The Russian aggression has begun to consume Biden’s days. It was only weeks ago that his advisers said he wanted to get out of Washington, to sell his infrastructure legislation to the public and build momentum for other spending plans. He has promised to announce within days the first Black woman to be nominated to the Supreme Court, delivering on a major campaign promise that he hopes will also energize a skittish Democratic base.

Much of that is now delayed or potentially overshadowed by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, making the task of pivoting to a new agenda and message in next week’s State of the Union address all the more difficult. The challenge of calming inflation, too, could become trickier amid the uncertainty about the world’s energy supply and other disruptions resulting from violence and sanctions.

Ukraine has long been a centerpiece of Biden’s foreign policy outlook. It was one of the first places he traveled as vice president, and one of the last. He delivered a speech to the Ukrainian parliament, and acted as an intermediary between Kyiv and the international community.

Along the way, Biden held more than 80 phone calls with Ukrainian leaders, growing so close that the then-Ukrainian president was among the first to call Biden with condolences in 2015 after his son Beau died of brain cancer.

In 2014, when Obama assigned Biden the task of coordinating U.S. policy toward Ukraine, Biden knew it was an unenviable mission. He would be charged with engaging a country that had numerous competing political factions, and would come to view himself as a marriage counselor between different camps. His son Hunter’s decision to join the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company owned by a former government minister later accused of corruption, would become a focus for years of Biden’s political opponents at home.

Biden dove into efforts to untangle the country’s divisions and encourage its leaders to crack down on corruption. He came to see it as a beacon of democracy, hoping to make an example out of a country that had been teetering between Russian influence and a desire to be integrated with the European Union.

“There were academics in the news saying Ukraine was bound to be a defeat for the West, and it would be an unwelcome albatross on my neck if I ran for president in 2016,” Biden later wrote in his memoir. “I didn’t much care.”

While lessons from the messy Iraq War made him wary of overly aggressive U.S. intervention overseas, in Ukraine’s case he saw a broader rationale to buttress a democracy, create a potential future NATO ally and help curb Russian influence. He viewed his role at the time as somewhat historic, and began urging Ukrainians to view the moment like America’s Founding Fathers did two centuries earlier, setting aside differences to unite for something bigger.

“There was an important principle at stake: big countries ought not to beat up smaller ones, especially after they had given their word not to,” Biden wrote.

As Ukraine’s pro-Western activist poured into the streets to demand a closer association with the European Union, Obama and top European leaders were concerned it might blow up to a bigger conflict with Russia. But Biden often came to the country’s defense, saying he saw broader lessons at play.

“I thought the outcome of the Ukraine crisis would set the tone for central and Eastern Europe for decades, for good or for ill,” he wrote.

The policies at the time focused on threats of economic sanctions on Russia and encouraging European allies to provide weapons to Ukraine. Those are largely the same policies that Biden has pursued as president.

On Thursday, Biden reiterated the theme he’s stressed since he launched his presidential campaign, that both the U.S. and the world are engaged in a sweeping battle between democracy and authoritarianism. In both cases, the battle appears far from resolved, and Biden’s power to affect the outcome is being tested.

“In the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation,” he said, “freedom will prevail.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

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.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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