Politicians have a tell. In moments of crisis, American Presidents are often most resolute about what they’re most worried about. When Joe Biden, visibly tired and facing a crisis of generation-defining proportions, walked to the lectern under the chandeliers of the White House East Room on Thursday, he did his best to show resolve about America’s preeminent place in the world order.
“America stands up to bullies,” Biden said. “We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin must stop his invasion of Ukraine—which U.S. intelligence officials anticipate will include an attempt to occupy the capital Kyiv and overthrow the current government—or face further global isolation.
The coming days and weeks will test Biden’s foundational foreign policy pledge to restore U.S. leadership in the world. Biden entered the Oval Office more than a year ago promising to reverse Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach that had all but abrogated the U.S.’s central role in holding together global alliances.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the shelling of Kyiv sets up a clash between Russia and European countries, with the U.S. playing a vital supporting role as a major military backer of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But Putin wants the conflict to have bigger stakes and paints it as a broader contest between Russia and the U.S.-led global order.
This is Biden’s test. Can he keep European powers united against Putin’s aggression? Can he follow through on the pledge he made a year ago while speaking over video to the Munich Security Conference that “America is back”? Can he do all this without feeding further into Putin’s quest to return Russia to its former superpower status? During those remarks last February, Biden rattled off a checklist of challenges facing the world including ending the COVID-19 pandemic, reopening the Iran nuclear deal, and countering economic threats posed by China and Russia.
Biden’s report card so far is mixed. He failed to deter Putin from further invading Ukraine after weeks of threatening sanctions and declassifying material about Russia’s intentions. But he has managed to strengthen European resolve against the Russian threat, including preparing Germany to suspend the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The U.S.’s own challenges controlling the pandemic at home have undermined its international leadership on countering the virus, even as Biden has rolled out more than 100 million vaccine doses around the world. The effort to reopen the Iran nuclear deal has languished. Biden angered allies with his ham handed withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine presents another moment for Biden to live up to his promise that America is back. But it is possible that too much has already changed.
Early Thursday morning, Biden convened a classified national security council meeting at the long wooden table in the Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing. Biden heard a military update of U.S. troop deployments from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley as well as an assessment of Russian military moves inside Ukraine. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen described a menu of financial sanctions and what impact they could have on the Russian economy. Biden signed off on the raft of sanctions that had been joined by major democratic economies.
Within hours of Russian missiles raining down across Ukraine and Russian tanks rolling into the country, Biden in his East Room speech described how allied nations were exacting what would be a crippling economic cost on Russia’s economy. “Putin is the aggressor,” Biden said. “Putin chose this war. Now he and his country will bear the consequences.”
Biden said nations representing half the world economy have blocked major Russian banks from trading in dollars, euros, pounds and yen and that half of Russia’s high tech imports will be cut off, and vowed other harsh economic penalties will hobble Russia’s industrial sector and military for decades. He also said sanctions would bite into another circle of Russia’s elite. The sanctions would have a broad financial impact on Russian institutions, but Biden stopped short of cutting Russia off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a system based in Belgium that governs global money transfers. Biden said European allies weren’t quite ready to take that additional step.
Read More: Why Sanctions on Russia Won’t Work
As reporters peppered him with questions, Biden said he had no plans to speak with Putin. Talks between Washington and Moscow, which Biden hoped to set on a stable path when he met with Putin in Geneva last June, have broken down. “There is a complete rupture right now in U.S.-Russian relations, if they continue on the path that they’re on,” Biden said.
Biden will now have to decide what other steps to take, and bring allied governments along with him. The U.S. military is ratcheting up its troop presence in Europe to 90,000, though the Biden Administration isn’t considering deploying troops inside Ukraine. Instead, the U.S. has added American forces in Europe and in eastern NATO countries including Poland, which sits on Ukraine’s western border.
U.S. officials are concerned Russia may launch debilitating cyber attacks against the U.S. or NATO countries, or that a Russian cyber attack directed at targets inside Ukraine may infect computers in other countries. The Department of Homeland Security has warned U.S. businesses to increase their cyber defenses and security protocols in the event of a Russia-backed software attack.
What Biden decides to do next will help determine his legacy. He will have to weigh how forcefully to respond to Russian aggression and whether to deploy U.S. cyber weapons against Russian forces, which could have the potential of escalating the conflict and bringing the U.S. into direct confrontation with Moscow. Another challenge on the horizon for Biden is to convince more countries to denounce Putin’s decision to invade a sovereign nation. Biden said that any nation that stands by Putin’s aggression will be “stained by association,” a line that seemed pointed at China, which has urged diplomacy but fallen short of condemning Russia’s invasion.
Speaking at the White House, Biden warned that the impact of sanctions will take time to unfold and allies will have to hold firm on the restrictions imposed. This will be particularly challenging for European economies like Germany that rely heavily on buying Russian gas. “This could take time,” Biden said. “And we have to show resolve.” Biden said the goal of the U.S. and allies is to make sure that Putin’s actions will diminish Russia’s influence and standing in the world. “When the history of this era is written, Putin’s choice to make a totally unjustifiable war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker, and the rest of the world stronger,” Biden said.
Whether that’s true will depend on what happens in the coming weeks and months. Aides around Biden had hoped March would usher in a moment for the President to focus on domestic accomplishments. He has promised to name a Supreme Court nominee to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer by the end of February. White House speechwriters have been drafting Biden’s State of the Union speech scheduled to be delivered before Congress on Tuesday, March 1, with hopes that Biden could use the moment to highlight the job growth in the economy, investments in infrastructure and efforts being made to get COVID-19 tests into more households. But Putin clearly had other plans for what should dominate Biden’s agenda. Any hope for a political reset in the U.S. has been scrambled by Putin’s war in Europe.
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