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How Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 is shaping Biden’s actions today

Biden, as Obama’s point man on Ukraine, wanted to ship more lethal weapons to the country but was overruled by his boss

On March 16, President Biden announced an additional $800 million in aid for Ukraine following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Congress. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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The former diplomats and defense officials who visited the U.S. Naval Observatory in early 2015 were seeking a receptive audience — and they found one in Vice President Joe Biden. Russia had taken over the Ukrainian territory of Crimea the previous year and fueled a bloody separatist uprising in the country’s east, and the officials urgently wanted President Barack Obama to send Ukraine advanced antitank missiles, called Javelins.

Not only would that help repel the Russian-armed separatists, they insisted, but it would serve as a powerful symbol of America’s determination to stand by a former Soviet republic that was moving steadily toward the West.

“He said, ‘Okay, I’ll go down the hall’ — meaning to the Oval Office — ‘and make the case,’ ” recalled Jan Lodal, a former senior Pentagon official who helped organize the meeting. But Lodal said Biden added with a smile: “You’ve got to remember my first name: It’s ‘Vice.’ Spelled V-I-C-E. I’m the highest paid staff officer in the government.”

Sure enough, Obama rejected the request, fearing that providing lethal aid to Ukraine would escalate tensions with Russia.

Now Biden, as president, is finally doing what he could not do then. He has provided Ukraine with more than $2 billion in security assistance since the start of his administration, including small arms, body armor and other munitions — including, of course, Javelins.

Inside the transfer of military equipment to Ukrainian soldiers

Biden’s role as chief Ukraine envoy during Russia’s brazen seizure of Crimea and fomenting of conflict in eastern Ukraine — for which it faced few significant consequences — deeply informs his handling of the current crisis in Ukraine, according to current Biden and former Obama officials. After Obama handed him the Ukraine portfolio, Biden visited the Eastern European nation six times, including three in 2014 alone.

Biden was one of several Obama officials who unsuccessfully argued in favor of sending Javelins to Ukraine. Now, they are among President Biden’s top advisers and include Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs.

As a result of his experience as vice president, Biden sees in Ukraine a “fragile, plucky, still somewhat challenged democracy standing up against the massive, thuggish autocracy,” Nuland said in an interview.

Last week, following an emotional appeal to Congress by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Biden announced $800 million in additional aid to Ukraine that he said would include “cutting-edge systems” like drones — as well as 2,000 Javelins, in addition to the approximately 2,600 the United States had already provided.

In some ways, Biden’s decision-making on Ukraine is reminiscent of his handling of the Afghanistan conflict earlier in his presidency. As vice president, Biden passionately advocated withdrawing U.S. troops from the so-called forever war, but he was overruled by Obama and his team. Biden then campaigned for president on a promise to bring those troops home, and he did so during his first year in office.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was chaotic and controversial, and it probably hurt Biden politically. But advisers said it was something Biden had wanted to do for about a decade, and there was no dissuading him.

Nuland said that as vice president, Biden was effective in dealing with Ukrainian leaders because he understood that “these politicians have to make very, very tough internal decisions, that they have to stand up to entrenched interests — that they need support, constant phone calls and visits. And he was willing to do all of that, and he did it with relish.”

Biden was especially close with former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, whose inauguration he attended in June 2014 and with whom he had at least 50 calls and meetings. One senior administration official, who also served under Obama and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid, described Biden as “the Ukrainian government whisperer.”

That period also led to missteps — if not by the vice president himself, then by his son.

Hunter Biden joined the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma Holdings while his father was Obama’s point person on Ukraine, which prompted conflict-of-interest allegations and numerous Republican attacks.

But Biden’s policy views were clear. When Russia abruptly seized Crimea in 2014 and instigated a brutal conflict in the country’s east, Biden, a foreign policy veteran, urged a hard-hitting response, which went against Obama’s more cautious instincts.

“Biden believed that if one doesn’t respond forcefully and allows the flames of Russian imperialism to be fanned, then it’s very difficult to put them out and these imperial views will reappear again in the future,” said Michael Carpenter, who served as director for Russia at the National Security Council at the time. “So Vice President Biden was very much an advocate of standing with Ukraine, providing it with all the assistance that we could.”

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, similarly said Biden “was on the more robust end of options in terms of providing weapons.”

Biden also pushed for the United States to help train the Ukrainian national guard, an effort that was later expanded as U.S. trainers were dispatched to western Ukraine to help strengthen the capabilities of the Ukrainian military.

“They had horrible equipment — or lack of equipment — and their training was based on Soviet methods from decades prior,” said Carpenter, now the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “And that mission was crucial to helping strengthen their capabilities.”

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That training is arguably paying dividends now, as the Ukrainians have resisted the much larger and better-equipped Russian military, frustrating their advances on major cities, tying up convoys and preventing the Russians from gaining air superiority.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin saw Crimea as a trial run, the West saw it as an early warning and bolstered Ukraine to a degree that Putin seems to have underestimated, experts say. Ukraine’s military has adjusted far more since 2014 than Russia’s has, they add.

“If you compare and contrast the battlefield proficiency of the Ukrainian forces and the Russian forces, you see Russian forces that are not adapting to a dynamic environment,” said a senior defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. “You see forces where the lowest levels are not empowered to think for themselves and make decisions. And if you look at the Ukrainians, you see this dynamism, you see this ability to empower with decision-making.”

Beyond that, in 2014, the world was caught off guard as Russia moved stealthily into Ukrainian territory before other countries could react, annexing Crimea in March of that year. In April, pro-Russian gunmen stormed government buildings in eastern Ukrainian cities, sparking a protracted conflict in the Donbas region that Moscow backed with weapons, personnel and cash.

The Obama administration wanted to punish Putin’s aggression, but a long internal debate that extended into 2015 resulted in no lethal weapons being sent. The Russian downing of a commercial jetliner over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 with a Russian-supplied missile — which killed all 298 people onboard, most of them Dutch — galvanized Europe to join the United States in levying sanctions on the Russian energy and banking sectors, an unprecedented move at the time. Policymakers say in hindsight, those could have been stronger.

Biden and his team are determined to hit back harder this time.

“There is this sense that in 2014, it took far too long to rally the world to the defense of Ukraine and to open the eyes of our partners, our allies — really, the world — to Russian aggression,” said Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. This time, she said, “the focus on the speed of response, and the groundwork that we’ve laid leading up to the invasion with the allies, is particularly significant.”

Not everyone thinks Biden is getting the response right, however. John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said that although Biden’s response to Russia’s provocations “is far better than any previous administration’s, it has generally been characterized by an overly cautious approach.” The administration has “finally decided to provide high-altitude antiaircraft systems and short-range drones,” he noted, but “it still has not provided anti-ship missiles and more sophisticated drones.”

Some Republicans argue, too, that Biden did not learn the lessons of Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 well enough — that he’s too reluctant to give Ukraine equipment he worries could provoke a direct U.S. confrontation with Russia. The administration has been at pains to distinguish between giving Ukraine “defensive” vs. “offensive” weapons, a distinction its critics reject.

“It feels like a huge part of the administration’s audience is internal lawyers, and they do these ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ legal hairsplitting arguments,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said recently on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “At the end of the day, every weapon we ship to Ukraine is a defensive weapon system, because they’re the ones being invaded. Ukraine didn’t cause this. There’s a fight for freedom happening in Ukraine.”

Biden’s allies say those kinds of judgments — including not giving the Ukrainians everything they requested — come from his understanding of the region. “He was kind of the guy who was deputized to talk very regularly with the Ukrainians,” Rhodes said. “Part of it was the Ukrainians really wanted those weapons, and he was kind of representing that view, not in a bad way, but like, ‘Hey, I’m talking to these guys and this is what they really want.’ ”

Biden is clearly confronting the limits of just how far he is willing to go to support the Ukrainians. He and his administration — saying they want to avoid unduly provoking a nuclear-armed Russia — have refused some of Zelensky’s appeals, including a no-fly zone over Ukraine and assisting with the transfer of Polish MiG fighter jets to the country.

Biden and White House press secretary Jen Psaki have repeatedly said that the United States will not take any steps it believes could lead to “World War III.”

As vice president, Biden pressed the issue of arming Ukraine with Obama during their weekly private lunches. But he was hardly the only one in the administration pushing for a more aggressive response.

Evelyn Farkas, who was Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said civilian leaders at the Pentagon like herself also supported shipping Javelins to Ukraine, as much to send a message as to help the Ukrainians take on Russian-backed separatists.

“We understood that they wouldn’t change the military balance between Russia and Ukraine, but it would help deter,” Farkas said. “We felt we had to be firm and show the Russians there had to be costs.”

Obama was not persuaded. At the time, the Ukrainian military was struggling with corruption and Russian influence, and Obama believed that training and reform were necessary before the country could absorb weapons like Javelins, said a person familiar with his thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations.

Obama was especially concerned about the risk-reward calculation, this person said, believing that while the Javelins would not make a difference militarily, Putin would nonetheless view them as escalatory and might even be provoked to attack Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Pivotal to Obama’s thinking was a February 2015 visit to the White House by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who urged him not to send the Javelins. As the leader of a country highly dependent on Russian energy, she was still hopeful, the person said, that further diplomatic efforts would be effective without resorting to a move that could be escalatory.

“The big debate was about lethal assistance, and at the end of the day, the president decided that would get us into an escalation game that we wouldn’t win,” said Michael McFaul, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Russia.

Whatever the Obama team’s ultimate calculus, the experience had a deep impact on Biden. He seemed particularly moved one June day in 2014, when he traveled to Ukraine to attend Poroshenko’s inauguration. As vice president, Biden led the U.S. delegation from the Hyatt Regency Kyiv to a beautiful monastery not far away.

Biden found himself walking side by side with Sen. John McCain of Arizona — a Republican who was a close Biden friend — and Ukrainians spilled into the streets, chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”

“He just felt proud to be an American able to support Ukraine in that moment,” Carpenter said.

Karen DeYoung, Greg Jaffe, Matt Viser and Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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