Will Russia’s aggressive maneuvers in Ukraine warm Biden’s chilly NATO leadership?

  • Biden’s NATO leadership was rocked by tensions between member-states after AUKUS and divisions in the EU
  • The crisis in Ukraine should help Biden re-affirm NATO’s crucial strategic necessity and unity, but missteps may also signal weakness
  • As the guarantor of European security against Russia, Biden is poised to regain lost American standing in NATO from the Trump presidency and Afghanistan retreat.
President Biden speaks during a news conference at the NATO summit in Brussels.
US President Joe Biden/ Patrick Semansky, AP

Why is Biden chilly, but warming up?

Answer: The crisis has united NATO’s member states, but Biden’s leadership is constrained by political posturing

“We have run out of patience.” Sergei Lavrov’s declaration on January 14th reflects the current state of extreme tensions between Russia and NATO. Russia has massed 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, threatening a new offensive, while denouncing NATO’s “aggressive” expansion into Russia’s bordering states. To de-escalate the crisis, Putin demanded that NATO pull out of the Baltic states and Poland, along with a legally binding promise to never allow Ukraine to join the alliance. 

These demands were swiftly rejected by Biden, who engaged the US in diplomatic talks to de-escalate through disarmament and other guarantees. However, the American president stated that any Russian invasion of Ukraine would be met by “massive consequences,” assuring Ukrainian president Zelensky that the US would respond decisively to Russian aggression. Furthermore, the failure of the 2014-2015 Minsk Protocols, designed to end fighting in Donbas, has left Russia uninterested in further extended diplomatic talks. NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg re-affirmed that NATO would never compromise on its core principles, notably the alliance’s open-door policy. 

Not receiving the security guarantees he has been looking for, Putin amped up military pressure on NATO. A large portion of Russia’s amphibious landing ships sailed in the Baltic Sea, prompting Sweden to reinforce the island of Gotland. It’s a veiled threat to Finland and Sweden, aiming to dissuade rapprochement with NATO. The naval group’s final destination appears to be the Black Sea, which would allow Russia to threaten Odessa and Ukraine’s southern flank. More imminently for Ukraine, Russian air force movement has been intensifying near the border, further heightening the risk of invasion. 

These aggressive maneuvers have united NATO’s member states, who denounced Russian maneuvers, affirmed common defense and rallied behind Biden’s leadership. Eastern European countries in particular have emphasized the importance of American protection, as head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations Piotr Buras explains “for Poland, NATO is the key and irreplaceable element.” Thus, Biden once again represents the only counter to Russian expansion, speaking for NATO and European allies as the premier military force opposing Russia. 

Much of the tension and posturing on both sides is rooted in a denial of reality. First, Ukraine will not join NATO, and NATO/US will not fight for Ukraine. Russia knows this but acts as if Ukraine is on the verge of joining the alliance. Although the idea was raised in 2008, no formal steps were ever taken. NATO will not admit Ukraine, despite several past opportunities to do so, because it understands Russian grievances and does not wish to enter into open conflict with Russia. 

Second, sanctions and arm sales to Ukraine will not deter a Russian invasion. Russia is committed and capable of invading Ukraine regardless of opposing armaments. Any significant sanction on Russia would have to include gas, which Putin knows Europe is heavily dependent on. Despite these realities, Biden is determined to maintain NATO’s deterrence role against Russian aggression in Europe, and thus, present Putin with severe consequences in the case of an invasion of Ukraine. 

Who is changing Biden’s heat level? 

Answer: Putin’s moves make Biden the guarantor of European security, boosting the US president’s influence on the continent

On one hand, Putin’s decision to call Biden’s bluff on defending Ukraine with NATO has improved the American president’s damaged leadership of the alliance. Although promising to tend the broken relationships left by Trump and reinforce the transatlantic alliance, Biden’s first year in office was marked by the AUKUS deal. The US secretly worked with the UK and Australia to cancel France’s submarine deal with the latter, instead selling American nuclear submarines. The news of AUKUS sent ripples throughout NATO as the French protested the actions of their allies. Furthermore, calls for European defense integration were picking up amidst Macron calling NATO brain-dead,” NATO’s supposed strategic realignment focusing on China, and border issues between Poland and Belarus. 

However, as tensions with Russia peaked over Ukraine, Biden re-affirmed the US’s commitment to NATO and protecting its member states. Harkening back to the Cold War era, the US is once again the guarantor of European security and defense. For 30 years, the European states and EU have indulged in the peaceful status quo with Russia, never preparing for a break of the established order. As Putin now seems emboldened to break that status quo, its neighboring states of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland depend entirely on NATO, and by extension the US, for protection and deterrence. In this position of power, Biden has regained part of the US’s declining standing in Europe.  

On the other hand, Putin has put Biden in a difficult position regarding Ukraine. American promises of “massive consequences” or Macron claiming to be ready to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity cast doubts regarding the extent of NATO’s reaction. However, it’s clear that Biden and NATO will not send troops to defend Ukraine. Indeed, US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III warned that a Russian invasion would be met with a Ukrainian insurgency backed by NATO, while UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace said it was highly unlikely UK troops would be deployed as Ukraine is not a NATO member state. Although not defending Ukraine from a Russian invasion could seem like weakness from Biden, guaranteeing the integrity of NATO remains a priority. Furthermore, bogging Russia down in a Ukrainian insurgency would be a geostrategic success. 

Behind NATO’s united stance on opposing Russian violation of Ukrainian sovereign territory, divisions linger over which specific sanctions to implement. Biden admitted on January 20th that members of the alliance could “end up having a fight” over the issue, drawing criticism from European allies. On the same day, Macron re-emphasized in front of the EU Parliament the necessity for integrated European defense. These comments frustrated NATO partners, who see the comments as a signal of division, weakening the alliance’s position against Russia. As such, Biden has yet to fully unite NATO in its response to potential Russian aggression, and the specific sanctions that would be implemented. 

Nevertheless, Putin is just as aware of the potentially devastating effects of a prolonged Ukrainian counterinsurgency. An offensive does not necessarily imply occupation, and the Russian attack could serve to weaken the Ukrainian military to consolidate control over pro-Russian Ukrainian territories. Although such an attack would reflect negatively on Biden in the short-term, the American president knows the value in choosing his battles. 

What is driving Biden?

Answer: Countering Russia as NATO’s leader, but Biden’s private family interests and past involvement in Ukraine may bring his actions into question

The timing of Russia’s maneuvering in Ukraine is not incidental. Biden has overseen the US’s strategic foreign policy realignment focusing on China and preparing for another great power competition. The retreat from Afghanistan rekindled strong apprehension in Congress and public opinion for significant US military intervention in less strategic conflicts. Furthermore, Biden’s domestic action is hampered by record inflation, high gasoline costs and political divisions in Congress. In the US president’s first months, Russia was not a priority: it took the maneuvering of 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border for Putin to get his first phone call with Biden in April, 2021. As such, Putin exploited Biden’s focus on other priorities to further his geostrategic aims in Ukraine, while reminding the US that Russia is also a world power to be reckoned with. 

Now faced with the Russian show of strength, Biden is focused on leading NATO and upholding the US’s deterrence role against Russian expansion in Europe. The US president is eager to use the crisis to regain American standing in Europe by reminding European partners that NATO is integral to their security against Russia. The reconsolidation of NATO plays into Biden’s hand geopolitically by tying European security to the US for the near future. The alliance will also continue to develop and potentially grow, as Sweden and Finland have been under strong Russian military pressure. Additionally, transatlantic alliance is a significant economic asset, allowing the US to sell in large quantities the products of its military-industrial complex, notably the Javelin missile and F-35 fighter jet in recent years. 

Biden has also been heavily involved in Ukraine politically before his presidency. As vice-president, he took a special interest in Ukraine in 2014, seeing it as the key to limiting Putin’s expansionist policies. Biden lobbied to send military advisors and arms to Ukraine, while pressuring the country’s politicians to reduce corruption and reform the country in order to maximize support from NATO. Although not always successful, this allowed him to forge strong ties with Ukrainian elites and understand the inner-workings of the country. This previous experience may also be a strong dissuading factor in defending Ukraine militarily, considering the still-rampant corruption and array of power-players, from oligarchs to ultra-nationalist groups. 

Finally, Biden’s family has strong personal interests in Ukraine, particularly through his son Hunter Biden, who sits on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Hunter Biden’s role in Ukraine was a focal element of Trump’s attacks on Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential elections, alleging that Biden pressured members of Ukraine’s government to have the Attorney General removed as he was investigating Burisma. Although claiming to be completely removed from his son’s activities in Ukraine, it’s clear Biden is personally tied to the country and able to exert pressure over leading officials. While the geopolitical confrontation with Russia has taken precedence, Biden’s personal interests facilitate US aid and arms sales to Ukraine, which reached $450 million in 2021. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: If you are European, you’re under the protection of Joe Biden and the US. If you’re Ukrainian, NATO isn’t coming to save you, as Cold War era zones of influence are being drawn once again. 

Despite Western threats, Russia is very likely to support a military operation in the near future to strengthen pro-Russian separatist Republics, weaken the Ukrainian military, and potentially control pro-Russian territories further east of the Dnieper River. In continuation of traditional US foreign policy in zones of Russian influence, Biden will not intervene in Ukraine. 

Nevertheless, this crisis has made one thing clear: NATO is alive and well under US protection. That means NATO countries are unlikely to be attacked by Russia, no matter the political posturing. This effectively brings us back to a similar scenario from the Cold War: Biden has drawn a clear red line on aggression of NATO countries. However, what of non-NATO countries in Russia’s sphere of influence? Good luck! As seen during 2008 Georgia, 2020 Armenia, Kazakhstan 2021, and Ukraine from 2014 to today, Russia will not hesitate to use hard power to preserve its influence over former Soviet countries, and NATO will not come to their aid. 

The current conflict in Ukraine will further raise tensions with Europe, leading to Russia withholding gas exports, lowering European gas reserves and raising prices. Despite German assurances related to Nord Stream 2, Putin will not hesitate to degrade Europe’s energy security to gain a geopolitical advantage. European security integration will once again be called into question, as the EU’s inability to exert any kind of hard power puts it at a significant disadvantage on the geopolitical scene. Thus, Biden will come out hot or even blazing once the crisis is over, having recaptured lost American influence in Europe and strengthened NATO, two of the most important foreign policy goals of his presidency. 

David Salinger

Research and Analysis Coordinator