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The Ukraine Crisis Could Be a Turning Point for Biden

With a new Russian offensive imminent, Biden has an opportunity to prove his mettle.
January 18, 2022
The Ukraine Crisis Could Be a Turning Point for Biden
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Negotiations among American, European, and Russian diplomats over security in Europe ended last week with no clear outcome. Given the circumstances under which the Joe Biden administration entered them, that was the best to hope for—and, as Churchill is (probably falsely) reported to have said, “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.” But one specific non-outcome of the talks deserves special consideration: The idea of withdrawing American troops from Eastern Europe, which could be wise or catastrophic, depending on the circumstances.

NBC first reported that the administration was considering offering to reduce the American military presence in allied countries near Russia. The forces in question are relatively new: In 2014, at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, there was not a single American tank in Europe. The next National Defense Authorization Act hence included the European Deterrence Initiative, increasing America’s military presence in Europe to strengthen Eastern Europe’s defenses, including by rotating American and allied units through the Baltics. Per the NBC report, the Biden administration was considering a return to the status quo ante as a proposal, provided the Russians not only withdrew their troops from Ukraine’s borders, but also made further concessions.

National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne was quick to deny the report:

The administration is not weighing cuts to troops in Europe, as the headline suggests. The administration is not discussing with Russia the number of troops stationed in the Baltics and Poland. And contrary to the unnamed official quoted in this story, the administration is not compiling a list of force posture changes to discuss in the upcoming talks. These three assertions are false.

An unnamed State Department official also told NBC that “There are three key assertions in the report that has been circulating, those three assertions are false.” The denials from Horne and the unnamed official conflict with information provided by three unnamed sources, only one of which is currently in the administration.

It’s hard to tell if this report is good news or bad news, mostly because, despite its attention-grabbing headline, the facts are murky.

Let’s start with the assumption that the Biden administration was considering offering troop withdrawals, or even did make such an offer. There’s no law of nature that says that the United States must have a presence in the Baltics. There are scenarios under which it’s in America’s interest to withdraw its forces from the region, and those scenarios seem to be the ones the administration contemplated. Per the NBC report, “For any change in the U.S. military presence in Europe, Russia would have to take reciprocal, equivalent steps to scale back its forces, and pulling back Russian troops from Ukraine would not be sufficient.” This could mean any number of things, from arms control to troop withdrawal. But one possible scenario worth considering is the demilitarization of Kaliningrad, a highly militarized Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea in between Poland and Lithuania which makes the reinforcement of the Baltics at a time of crisis nearly impossible.

If the Biden administration didn’t make the offer reported by NBC, that could also be good news. American security guarantees have long been the basis for peace and stability in Europe, and offering withdrawals now could be seen as continuing a pattern of weakness and deference toward Russia by the president.

Over the summer, the administration dropped its objections to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would increase Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and therefore reduce its ability to stand up to Russian aggression. This week, it successfully blocked Sen. Ted Cruz’s bill to impose sanctions on the pipeline, despite bipartisan support for the measure. Biden has been even less tough than the EU itself, which voted overwhelmingly to block Nord Stream 2 by a vote of 581 to 50.

In some ways, the negotiations this week—one round between just the Americans and Russians, another with Russia and NATO, and a third with the whole Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—continued the pattern. Some of America’s allies and partners, especially the Baltic states and Ukraine, have raised reasonable objections to negotiations “about us without us”—i.e., deciding the fate of those countries without their participation. So far, and in stark contrast to the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, the administration has done a better (though not perfect) job of cooperating and communicating with America’s allies that these objections have been few and soft.

The administration has made clear that it sees China as the single, all-consuming security challenge for the United State. The problem is that other adversaries, including and especially Russia, are not going to stand by for the United States to address the China challenge; rather, they see this distraction as an opportunity to be even more aggressive. Since 2006, Russia has invaded two of its neighbors (Georgia and Ukraine); continues to hold territory illegally in a third (Moldova); has launched cyberattacks and shut down the internet of at least one other (Estonia); has deployed troops to Syria, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to suppress anti-autocracy protests, contributing to genocide in the former; and has dispatched paramilitary organizations to Venezuela, Libya, and the Central African Republic—to say nothing of its interference in elections in the United States and Europe as a part of its ongoing disinformation campaigns in the free world. It now threatens a new offensive in Europe that could threaten, like so many European wars of the past, to broaden into a wider conflict.

One reading of the NBC report is that the Biden administration is getting the message that Russia can’t be ignored—and neither can allies. Another reading is that the administration is simply desperate to manage a crisis its inattention invited.

This could be the defining moment of Biden’s presidency, as American voters and the whole world watch to see whether he can be pushed around. But this is more than one man’s legacy. If Biden becomes the third president in a row to downplay and ignore the Russian threat, then the world will assume the era of American resolve is over.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.