The Risks of Biden’s New Boldness in Ukraine

4 minute read
Ian Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME. He is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. He teaches applied geopolitics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and his most recent book is The Power of Crisis.

As Russia’s war grinds on, the Biden Administration is now taking on bigger risks to support Ukraine. The latest example is a White House decision to allow Ukrainian forces to use U.S.-provided weapons to strike targets inside Russia. We may also soon see NATO personnel on the ground in Ukraine to train fighters.

Six months ago, Western leaders weren’t ready to discuss either of these changes—at least not publicly. But recent Russian battlefield gains and a hardening of Western attitudes toward Vladimir Putin have begun to erase these red lines. After Ukraine’s highly anticipated counter-offensive fizzled late last year, emboldened Russian forces began advancing along the war’s long frontlines and are again threatening Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. Because that city is less than 20 miles from the Russian border, many of the weapons used against it are fired from inside Russia. It’s impossible to defend Kharkiv indefinitely without firing back on targets across the border. The fear of more Russian advances this summer has left Western leaders worried that Ukraine could lose the war if they don’t take urgent and decisive action.

Read More: Ukraine Can’t Win the War

Biden has also decided that most of Vladimir Putin’s threats of retaliation aren’t credible. After repeatedly threatening (usually unspecified) action against NATO countries in response to various acts of perceived aggression, and even warning that Russia might use nuclear weapons, Putin has taken very few actions that would trigger a broader war. That may be in part because Washington appears to have expressed its red lines to Russia. “The Americans have told the Russians that if you explode a nuke, even if it doesn't kill anybody, we will hit all your targets [positions] in Ukraine with conventional weapons, we’ll destroy all of them,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in an interview last month.

Biden is also taking bigger risks with Russia because he wants to avoid the perception he’s doing less than America’s European allies. Both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have signaled openness to Ukrainian strikes against military targets inside Russia. Denmark has said it will supply F-16s that Ukraine can use across the border. Finally, after 27 months of war, with no genuinely dangerous escalation toward a conflict that would bring NATO and Russia nose to nose, risk tolerance is rising as the war drags on.

We can also expect news, perhaps from next month’s NATO Summit in Washington, about a Western security pact with Ukraine. While it won’t be the kind of automatic mutual defense commitment that comes with NATO membership, it will likely reaffirm a long-term commitment to Ukraine and formalize a process that accelerates weapons and other aid approvals.

All that said, there is a real and increasing risk of Russian conflict with the U.S. and other NATO members. Western leaders can’t expect Putin to sit still when all his bluffs are called. He’s not going to launch a frontal assault on a NATO country, but the risk of increasingly aggressive and disruptive Russian cyberattacks is rising, and the Kremlin can find other ways to make life more difficult in NATO countries. There is also an obvious risk that Ukraine might use Western weapons for attacks that (accidentally or deliberately) hit Russian civilians. Or that Russian strikes on Ukraine kill NATO trainers. Either scenario would force further escalation.

In short: don’t be fooled by the appearance of a battlefield stalemate in Ukraine. There are growing dangers than could dramatically, and suddenly, up the stakes in that conflict.

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