Biden and Putin Both Say They Don’t Want War, But They’re Inching Closer Anyway

9 minute read

The United States and Russia claim to have no interest in fighting a war over Ukraine, yet the two nations have spent the past several weeks building up military forces and inching them closer together on the European continent.

The most recent move came Wednesday when the U.S. announced it was deploying 3,000 troops to eastern Europe to demonstrate solidarity with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies confronting a possible Russian ground invasion of neighboring Ukraine. For several months, Moscow has sent troops, tanks and artillery units to encircle Ukraine in a show of force not seen since the Cold War.

The Biden Administration had initially relied on diplomacy to resolve the deteriorating situation, but the lack of progress—and continued build-up of Russian forces—has prompted the U.S. to draw up more aggressive strategies to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition to the troop deployment, the White House in recent days has unveiled a sweeping package of sanctions designed to cripple Russia’s economy; a top U.S. cybersecurity official visited NATO leadership in Brussels in preparation for debilitating cyber attacks; and the Defense Department has mobilized military units, warplanes and naval ships to eastern Europe.

Thus far, no additional U.S. troops are being sent directly into Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, but rather as reinforcements to allies. There are about 200 U.S. troops are currently in Ukraine, where members of the Florida National Guard have been training forces in the western part of the country far from the front lines. But after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has made clear that he has no plans to send combat troops into Ukraine, though he’s sent more than $600 million of security assistance to its government over the past year.

On Wednesday, Biden directed an Army Stryker squadron consisting of 1,000 troops to move from Germany into Romania in order to join the 900 U.S. forces already there. An additional 1,700 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and 300 troops from 18th Airborne Corps are heading to Poland, where NATO allies are concerned about the security of their eastern borders.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday the moves were not permanent but necessary amid heightened tensions over Russia’s massing combat power in the region. “It’s important that we send a strong long signal to Mr. Putin and, frankly, to the world that NATO matters to the United States,” Kirby said. “It matters to our allies. And we have ironclad Article 5 commitments that an attack on one is an attack on all.”

NATO’s defining Article 5 principle for collective defense has only been invoked only once, by North American and European allies after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. The 30-member alliance principal purpose is to ensure they’re prepared to defend themselves, particularly in the face of Russian aggression. Russia now has more than 100,000 troops surrounding Ukraine and enough fire power that U.S. officials fear will lead to a grinding, bloody operation.

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The U.S. has about 70,000 troops on the continent, but only around 6,000 are in eastern Europe. They are mainly in Poland, where forces are on a rotational basis, including an armored brigade combat team. The Pentagon has alerted more than 8,500 U.S. service members for possible deployment to bolster NATO allies’ defenses should Russia invade, Kirby said. “We are making it clear that we’re going to be prepared to defend our NATO allies if it comes to that,” he said. “There’s no reason for there to be armed conflict in Ukraine or anywhere else on the European continent. And Mr. Putin can go a long way to serving that end, by taking seriously the proposals that we have put forward diplomatically.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said he doesn’t expect the new U.S. troop deployments to make much of a difference in altering Putin’s calculus in whether to invade. “I don’t think it’s important since they aren’t—and won’t be—going to Ukraine,” he said. “It raises the temperature slightly, but nothing like Putin’s own moves.”

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Ukrainian officials, for their part, have urged calm, saying there is no reason to panic in the face of U.S. intelligence warnings that an invasion is imminent. Putin has maintained all along that he has no plans to move on Ukraine, but he has voiced his concerns over NATO’s military expansion along its borders in recent decades. Perhaps chief among these worries is that the U.S. could one day deploy midrange missiles inside allied countries that could reach Moscow and other Russian cities. Biden has publicly stated the U.S. has no plans to do so and there is no indication that any European ally would want them in their country. Nonetheless, Putin said Tuesday at a news conference it was clear “the principal Russian concerns turned out to be ignored” by the U.S. and allies.

On Wednesday, the Spanish newspaper El Pais published previously undisclosed diplomatic documents that indicated the U.S. and NATO was willing to enter into an agreement with Russia over placement of missiles in Europe should Moscow relieve tensions in Ukraine. Specifically, the paper said the U.S. was willing to give Russian inspectors access to American missile defense systems in Poland and Romania to ensure they have no offensive capabilities.

“We did not make this document public,” Kirby said, referring to the El Pais report on Wednesday. “But now that it is, it confirms to the entire world what we have always been saying: There is no daylight between our public statements and our private discussions. NATO and its partners are unified in their resolve and open to constructive and serious diplomacy.”

Putin may say he has no plans to invade, but his words provide little assurance to U.S. and NATO officials who watched as Russian forces invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine six years later. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has supported separatist militias in several eastern Ukrainian cities ever since. The military action came after those countries moved farther from Moscow’s sphere of influence.

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“The decision to send U.S. military forces to Romania helps resolve the imbalance of forces protecting the northern and southern parts of NATO’s borders in the east,” said Jorge Benitez, NATO expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “For many years, the Black Sea region desperately needed more attention and resources from NATO. The Black Sea region is where Russia; attacked Georgia in 2008, attacked Ukraine in 2014, seized three Ukrainian military vessels in 2018, and has been regularly attacking and killing Ukrainians in the Donbass area.”

The U.S. has also planned for other contingencies in preparation for war. Russia supplies about 40% of the European Union’s natural gas; the U.S. has already begun lining up natural gas supplies from various areas of the world—from North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the U.S.—to make up for the shortfall if Russia moves on Ukraine and supply is shut off, according to two senior Biden Administration officials who spoke to the media last week on the condition of anonymity.

“There is still natural gas in storage in Europe, but just not enough,” one official said. “We would be able to draw on storage for the first couple of weeks as these supplies come in and supply the rest. That’s the contingency effort that we’re putting in now to cut down that effort from months to just days and weeks, and to be able to have a seamless continuation of winter supplies and into the spring.”

If Putin does invade, the U.S. and its European allies plan to target Russian banks and individuals linked to the invasion and try to hobble foreign investment, borrowing costs and the value of the Russian ruble, the officials said. Unlike past U.S.-led sanctions campaigns, in which measures were rolled out incrementally and ratcheted up over several months, the Biden Administration intends to create an abrupt impact on the Russian financial system. “The gradualism of the past is out, and this time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there,” one official said, adding that the goal is to inflict an “immediate and visible effect on the day they are implemented.”

In December, Moscow publicly issued a set of the documents that laid out what it sought from Washington and NATO. The most controversial of these demands was for the alliance to stop allowing new members into the alliance and a request for NATO members to withdraw troops, equipment and weaponry from countries bordering Russia. The U.S. responded that these issues were non-starters and urged Russia to focus on areas where they could agree. Instead of finding that common ground in the intervening weeks, the U.S. has watched as thousands of additional troops have joined their comrades along Ukraine’s borders.

“Mr. Putin continues to add forces… even over just the last 24 hours,” Kirby said. “And it’s not just the United States that’s noticed this. Our NATO allies have noticed this, and we have been in constant communication and consultation with them, and they have expressed their concerns… We’re not ruling out the possibility that there will be more (troop movements) coming up in future days and weeks.”

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