Biden’s policies toward Russia and Ukraine raise risk of Putin’s aggression

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Regardless of his genuine intentions, President Joseph Biden has announced policies toward Russia and Ukraine that substantially empower an aggressive Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With his wars carried out through more than two decades in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and Libya, Putin appears to be the world’s leading applicator of rude force in international relations today. The Russian war against Ukraine that Putin launched in 2014 is the only ongoing military conflict on European soil, and arguably the longest one over the past century.

U.S. policies are the opposite of what Biden said he would do

The genuine interest of any U.S. administration, to say nothing of its European allies, would be to put an end to this conflict. The United States pledged to ensure Ukraine’s territorial integrity when it persuaded Kyiv to hand its nuclear weapons over to Russia after the Soviet collapse. It has an obligation to help Ukraine restore its territorial integrity and not allow new Kremlin aggressions not only against Ukraine, but against other countries.

Therefore, the expected U.S. policies would be to prevent the aggressor (Russia) from new military actions while at the same time to support the victim (Ukraine).

But the actual policies of the Biden administration turned out to be exactly opposite – providing substantial political and economic support to the aggressor and diminishing support for its victim.

Biden’s actions make Putin the undisputed beneficiary

This policy of weakness tangibly increased the probability of new aggression from Putin. Let’s take a closer look at the Biden administration’s actions since January and the messages they sent Putin.

Personal contacts between leaders. Biden spoke twice to Putin, hosted him at the Climate Summit on April 22, and invited him to the bilateral meeting this summer. At the same time Biden spoke to the Ukrainian President Zelensky just once, and even then Biden cut the conversation short by not allowing Zelensky to touch several issues that led to unusual public complaints from the Ukrainian side. Biden did not invite Zelensky to the Climate Summit. State Secretary Antony Blinken rejected Zelensky’s offer to meet personally with Biden “due to COVID19 concerns.” Apparently, the pandemic was not a concern in scheduling Biden’s meeting with Putin.

Personal contacts between national security advisers. Jake Sullivan, the U.S. National Security Advisor, has had four known telephone conversations with his counterpart, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. With a 47-year career in the Soviet KGB and its successor FSB, the latter of which he headed for nine years, Patrushev is a seasoned political police veteran.

Sullivan is not known to have spoken to his Ukrainian counterpart, Security Council Secretary Alexey Danilov. Sullivan once spoke to Andrey Yermak, head of the Office of the President, and well-known for his pro-Russian views. Yermak was also present during Biden-Zelensky phone conversation.

START-3 extension. The refusal of then-president Donald Trump to agree with unconditional extension of the most recent Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-3) created a heavy headache for Putin and potentially almost unbearable diplomatic, security, and financial burdens for him for years to come.

But one of the very first actions of Biden as president was to extend START-3 just four days after his January 25 telephone conversation with Putin. Biden’s unconditional extension of the treaty gave Putin a valuable financial present worth of hundreds of billions of dollars by limiting U.S. strategic nuclear modernization, thus relieving Putin of the “need” to pour more money into his own strategic weapons upgrades. Biden freed Putin’s hands for possible military operations, especially against immediate neighbors.

Climate and energy policies. On the day of his inauguration, Biden signed the Paris Climate Agreement and halted construction of the American Keystone XL pipeline from Canada. A week later, he suspended the Trump administration’s designation of the Yemeni Houthi group Ansar Allah as terrorist. The Houthis “thanked” Biden with drone strikes on Saudi airports.

Biden’s climate and energy policies contributed to a sharp rise in world energy prices. The price of a barrel of oil (Brent) rose from $39 on November 3, 2020 up to $56 on January 20, 2021, and $69 on May 17, 2021 – a 75 percent increase in 6 months. Russia’s economy depends on high oil prices. Calculated for a whole year, Biden gave Putin an additional fifty billion dollars in oil revenue.

Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline. In December 2019, the Trump administration imposed sanctions which halted construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. But on January 24, 2021, four days into Biden’s presidency, construction resumed and new pipes were laid down starting on February 6. Biden himself as well as members of his Administration have said that the pipeline is “a bad idea and a bad deal for Europe.

In spite of these strong policy statements, obligations stipulated by law to put the pipeline under sanctions, and numerous petitions (including bipartisan ones from members of Congress and from 40 U.S. Senators), the Biden Administration did not introduce any new sanctions against the pipeline. Since Biden assumed office, more than 37 km of pipeline out of 49 km in Danish waters have been laid down. The completion of Nord Stream-2 construction now appears quite realistic by the end of summer.

Nord Stream-2 likely will reroute 55 billion cubic meters of Russian gas transported via Ukraine and deprive Ukraine of transfer revenues, significantly weakening Ukraine’s geopolitical position and reducing Europe’s interest in defending her territorial integrity.

Security aid to Ukraine. Since the start of Putin’s aggression in 2014 the U.S. provided almost $2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, with $243 million on annual average during all 7 years of the war, $197 million a year during the Obama presidency, and $306 million annually during the Trump presidency.

For 2021 the Trump administration assigned, and the U.S. Congress approved $275 million. On March 1, the Biden administration confirmed this total amount of aid by splitting it in two parts – $125 million in unconditional support and $150 million conditioned on the progress of reforms in Ukraine.

Thirty days later, the $150 million conditional part was omitted from the Secretary of Defense’ statement leaving Ukraine with only $125 million in unconditional support in 2021.

That is roughly 36% less than the average under Obama, 59% less than the average under Trump, and 48% less than the average in 2014-20. The security assistance to Ukraine that the Biden administration promised for 2021 ($125 million) is about 30% of (or 3 times less than) the amount provided by the Trump administration in 2019 ($415 million). Notably, the Biden administration reduced security assistance to Ukraine in April 2021 as Russia built up troops along Ukraine’s border.

Long-term military cooperation. For years Ukrainian authorities were expressing their interest in joining NATO and/or to develop deep military cooperation with the U.S. This interest became ever more urgent in the wake of the Russian aggression, its annexation of Crimea and backing the ongoing war in Donbass, and especially during the security crisis in April 2021.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration did not support Ukraine’s aspirations either for NATO, or for the membership action plan (MAP) for NATO. Biden did not even support Ukraine for the status of major non-NATO ally (MNNA), a strictly bilateral issue not requiring consensus among NATO members.

Objectively speaking, Ukraine is definitely not less geopolitically important and not less militarily and institutionally ready for the MNNA than, for example, Afghanistan and Tunisia, both of which received MNNA. Especially symbolic and painful was the White House disavowal May 6 of U.S. support for Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO. In a very similar political environment, the refusal of the NATO Summit in Bucharest in April 2008 to provide MAP to Georgia and Ukraine turned out to be a critical trigger for Putin’s attack on Georgia four months later. 

Short-term military cooperation. The April, 2021 security crisis caused by the buildup of Russian troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border could be mitigated by expressing the U.S. and overall Western support to Ukraine not only in words, but also in practical actions.

Among the conventional and non-controversial options are to send military delegations from the U.S. and NATO to Kyiv; increase the number, size and intensity of joint drills on Ukrainian territory; move some American troops into Ukraine on a rotation basis; establish temporary or permanent military bases in the country; conduct joint U.S./NATO-Ukrainian patrols of Ukrainian airspace; make regular U.S. and other NATO member naval visits into the Black Sea; increase military aid; enable special financial assistance to Ukraine either directly or via the IMF and World Bank; and deliver excess vaccines to help Ukraine fight the coronavirus pandemic. Nothing of that kind has been done so far. Moreover, the Biden administration has cancelled the deployment of two warships to the Black Sea.

Regular diplomatic relations. In the four months since Joe Biden assumed office, the U.S. still has not sent an ambassador to Ukraine. Moreover, a candidate for that position not been debated, let alone confirmed, by the U.S. Senate. It seems that Biden has not even chosen a candidate. This is noteworthy because as vice president under Obama, Biden’s portfolio included relations with Ukraine. Biden traveled to Ukraine six times as vice president. On top of this, Biden has failed to appoint a Special Envoy/Representative for Ukraine, a position occupied by Kurt Volker in 2017-2019.

Putin can make his own conclusions

The stark differences between Biden’s policies toward Russia (a combination of moderate public criticism with tangible financial backing) and Ukraine (a combination of praise in words with withdrawal of real support in deeds) are so evident that they cannot be missed by such attentive observer and beneficiary as Vladimir Putin.

Based on these observations, Putin makes his own conclusions about the Biden administration’s profound lack of existing desire and actual ability to support Ukraine. Real policy of the current U.S. Administration, not its rhetoric, will help Putin decide if and when to launch another wide-range attack against Ukraine.

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