As the fate of Ukraine teeters on the brink, President Biden has been tasked with a grave decision that has tremendous international consequences: cave into Russia’s demands or threaten to fight to defend Ukraine. The first option would preclude Russia from any attack, destroying their diplomatic reputation if they advanced their troops. The second, though it heightens the risk of a confrontation between the United States and Russia, two nuclear-armed nations, would likely scare President Vladimir Putin away from invading in the near future. This would ultimately show that the United States means business when it comes to defending freedom.
Unfortunately, Biden has chosen a third, murkier option that neither ends the conflict nor stands up to Russia. By continuing to support diplomatic channels with Russia while explicitly stating that his administration would never agree to Putin’s demands or send troops into Ukraine, Biden has made the United States look geopolitically weak, a nation uncommitted to its allies and unable to foster productive diplomatic discussions. Though it still remains unclear when Russia will choose to attack, Biden’s choices have permanently diminished the United States’s negotiating power and might prove catastrophic when Putin inevitably forwards his expansionist agenda.
Though Putin has been angling for a mainland invasion of Ukraine since his 2014 takeover of Crimea, the current conflict was instigated when he demanded that Ukraine be prohibited from ever joining NATO. While a drastic demand, the request is understandable and could even serve to reduce future provocations. Having NATO on Russia’s doorstep would be tantamount to having Russian troops permanently stationed across the Ambassador Bridge. Realistically, it would serve neither the interest of the U.S. nor Russia to have Ukraine join NATO, as it would dramatically increase the tension of an otherwise relatively stable relationship.
Beyond international security implications, Ukraine is unlikely to even be a strong fit for the NATO alliance. With a sizable sect of the population supporting the Russian separatist movement, Ukrainians would likely be wary of taking actions against Russia. The ongoing conflict in the Donbas region, which has been decimated by trench warfare between over 75,000 separatists and government forces since 2014, is evidence of just how unstable Ukraine’s national security was even before the recent spike in tensions. Attaching NATO backing to a region with tremendous turmoil could lead to the unnecessary involvement of Western troops in civil warfare and bloody internal conflicts.
While meeting Putin’s demands of curbing NATO’s eastward expansion would temporarily weaken our standing, in the long-run, it could serve to ease international tensions and increase our goodwill amongst European nations currently reluctant to sever their economic ties with Russia or risk sending in troops to an unstable region.
The other path that Biden could have taken was to hang the threat of war or harsh sanctions over Putin to deter him from engaging. Though Biden has threatened sanctions if Putin were to attack, the prospect of future sanctions might do little to dissuade a Russian administration that has erred on the side of recklessness with regards to long-term threats. If Biden had instead preemptively imposed sanctions on the Russians, he could have forced Putin back to the negotiating table on American terms and coaxed Russia into pulling its troops back from the border.
Another misstep came in Biden’s declaration that the U.S. would not engage militarily in Ukraine. Though the nation would clearly never send in American troops, the past century of U.S. foreign policy has shown our willingness to support proxy wars, with the U.S. training and backing forces throughout the Middle East and Africa. With three decades of built-up tension between the U.S. and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin would be wise not to risk any military action. By giving up this option, Biden has made clear that while the U.S. opposes Russia’s actions, it would never go to war with them, tacitly approving Putin’s decision to move forward with little U.S. military opposition.
Unfortunately, Biden is likely too late to fully avert a Ukrainian crisis. Whether Russia attacks now or waits until a later date, Putin is clearly set on expanding Russian influence in the region. While diplomacy is a viable negotiating tactic with other nations, as an ex-KGB officer, Putin seems far more likely to respect threats of force. With China rising as a global power, the U.S. can’t afford to stay distracted by Russia, so going forward, Biden would be wise to negotiate from a position of power to ensure that Russia doesn’t pose a future threat. If he is serious about reestablishing America’s commitment to its allies, it’s time for Biden to stop reacting to Putin and start proactively asserting American interests.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.