Vladimir Putin’s name barely came up as Joe Biden stood with the leaders of Finland and Sweden on Thursday under a bright May sun and praised their newfound interest in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But the question of how the Russian President would react to the development loomed large over the proceedings in the White House Rose Garden.
“New members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation—it never has been,” Biden said to reporters, although he may as well have been speaking to Putin directly. “NATO’s purpose is to defend against aggression. That’s its purpose: to defend. Let no one make a mistake of the meaning of this historic day.”
But as a seismic shift in alliances in Europe unfolds, some Russia experts warn that the long-term effects are difficult to game out, and are concerned that the Biden Administration is not fully thinking through the far-reaching ramifications as it careens forward in the region. Since Russia began its invasion in February, the U.S. has gotten progressively bolder in its efforts to support Ukraine’s military and bolster NATO, even as Putin has claimed the alliance’s actions, and particularly the prospect of Ukraine joining it at some point, were factors in his decision to launch the current war.
Asked a day earlier about what preparations Biden was making in case Putin decided to escalate the war in retaliation for Finland and Sweden joining NATO, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said, “I’m not going to go into hypotheticals. We’re going to focus on what’s happening here and now.”
Hours after the meeting of world leaders at the Rose Garden, Congress approved sending an additional $40 billion in assistance to Ukraine’s defense, the largest single foreign aid package of its kind in decades. The U.S. and European allies have already shipped massive amounts of artillery and firepower to Ukraine as its forces fight to reclaim territory taken by Russia since February. Nonetheless, Putin isn’t backing down.
“The Russian leadership is showing no signs of self doubt about the necessity of fighting on,” says Andrew Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council staff. Russia still has vast resources to keep the fight going, he notes, even as its economy has cratered under international sanctions. A grinding land war that continues with no end in sight remains a possibility. The Russians “are definitely waging a war in a way that is brutal and sloppy,” says Weiss, “but the ability of the Russian state to find the resources to keep doing that is rather open ended.”
Russia also has other tactics it hasn’t reached for yet, including cyberattacks against European countries and the U.S., says Michael Kofman, the director of the Russia studies program at CNA, a think tank, and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Kennan Institute. The U.S. is “very much a material party to this conflict as are other European states,” Kofman says. “Just because you haven’t seen Russian cyberattacks or another form of retaliation against the United States in the war so far, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.” Kofman thinks the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons remains low, despite Putin’s announcement that he had put Russia’s nuclear forces on a higher level of alert.
The pressure to de-escalate the conflict is likely to grow as the impact is felt around the world. Russia has largely blockaded grain exports from Ukraine, contributing to global shortages and price spikes. Sanctions against Russian energy sales imposed after the country’s armored units advanced on the interior of Ukraine in late February has led to a world-wide increase in fuel costs, contributing to rising inflation in the U.S. and increasing political liability for Biden and the Democrats going into the midterm elections in November.
Biden is committed to supporting Ukraine in the long-term, Jean-Pierre said on Thursday in response to a question from TIME. “This is something that’s incredibly important to the President,” Jean-Pierre said, “but also to our partners and allies, that we make sure that Ukraine is able to defend their democracy.”
At the end of his appearance in the Rose Garden with President Sauli Niinistö of Finland and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden, Biden hugged Andersson as a reporter shouted a question, asking what Biden had to say to those who “might be worried right now during this vulnerable transition.” Biden didn’t stop to answer, and the three leaders turned to walk back into the West Wing.
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