April 1, 2022 | OPINION | By Tom Byron | Illustration by Kira Schulist
Joe Biden hasn’t been having a good couple of years. A stalled domestic agenda, rising inflation, squabbling party members and a catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan have all contributed to some Americans’ deep frustration with his presidency. But in the past two months, Biden has charted a delicate course through one of the most shocking events in recent history: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Throughout the crisis and the war that followed, Biden’s foreign policy has been calculated, careful, and consistent, with one major exception.
Biden’s policy toward the Ukrainian war has been a careful balancing act between supporting Ukraine, reassuring American allies, and preventing the war from expanding beyond its current scope. This has led to a focus on diplomacy, economic sanctions, and providing aid that will allow Ukraine to resist Russia without direct NATO involvement.
Though surrounded by outrage at Russia’s horrifying assault on its neighbor, Biden has kept American security at the center of his policy. Supporting Ukrainian resistance is both moral and in the best interests of the United States, but that support should not come at the cost of war with Russia. Biden understands this and has built his entire strategy around threading this difficult needle.
The results have already been impressive. American diplomacy has helped organize debilitating sanctions aimed at punishing powerful Russians for their support of Vladimir Putin and decimating Russia’s ability to wage war. These sanctions aren’t simply American policy–– they’re a multilateral assault on the Russian economy by nations and companies across the world. By presenting sanctions not as an instrument of American foreign policy but as a multinational condemnation of the invasion, Biden made them far more powerful, and much more difficult for Russia to escape.
This multilateral strategy extends to American attempts to reassure NATO allies. Instead of simply sending more American troops to Eastern Europe, Biden has combined these deployments with a concerted effort to encourage European nations to provide for their own defense.
Though American troops still form the core of NATO deployments in Europe, they come alongside military spending commitments from nations like Germany and tens of thousands of soldiers from nations in Eastern Europe. Biden aims to show that the United States is still committed to protecting Europe, but also eager to help Europeans protect themselves.
Military aid is the final pillar of this strategy, and Biden has been providing the Ukrainian military with specific kinds of weaponry designed to strengthen their hand against superior Russian forces. This targeted aid is focused on supplying anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, especially missiles and drones, which can help offset Russia’s overwhelming military advantages.
These weapons are simple to use, require little maintenance, and can be easily transferred across national borders. The goal of this aid is not to give the Ukrainians the tools to fight the Russian army head-to-head, but to make the invasion as costly as possible for the Russians while blunting the effect of their superior machinery.
Biden recognizes that the war in Ukraine is unlikely to end in a Ukrainian victory, let alone a collapse of Putin’s dictatorship, and his strategy is not aimed at accomplishing that goal. Instead, he hopes to help Ukraine survive the Russian assault while building up a coalition of nations willing to fight back against Russian aggression.
By using American power carefully, and only with the direct support of local allies, he can prevent the conflict from escalating while still punishing Russia and assisting Ukraine. And so far, this strategy has revitalized America’s most important alliance network, bolstered Ukrainian resistance, and turned Russia into an international pariah.
During Biden’s recent speech in Poland, however, he made his first real mistake of the war. By declaring that “(Putin) cannot remain in power,” he fed Russian fear that the United States is seeking to topple the Russian government. He left himself in a tight spot. There’s not much more he can do to remove Putin from power while maintaining his current strategy, and though that statement might reflect his own views, it cannot represent the views of the United States.
Doing so would mean committing to using American power to attack a nuclear-armed dictator, and possibly starting a third world war in the process. Putin and his inner circle are already convinced that the United States is implacably opposed to their regime, so there’s little more this comment could do to convince them. The real problem is that this statement commits Biden to an impossible goal that directly conflicts with his current policy.
In the past two months, Joe Biden has shown that he can handle a major international crisis with a deft hand and an eye on the future. His policy has already accomplished incredible things on the world stage and may make the difference for the survival of Ukrainian democracy. But all of these accomplishments have come from his understanding of the limits of American power. He must continue to resist the urge to use our military might to tip the scales in Ukraine and instead prioritize the good of the world over another American crusade.