Biden and Putin: Patience and resolve

Biden and Putin: Patience and resolve

Miller Center Director and CEO William Antholis takes stock of Russia's invasion of Ukraine

By all accounts, Russian President Vladimir Putin conceived of and is the driving force behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That means that, for good or bad, this will be a central crisis for President Joe Biden – in competition with the pandemic, economic shocks, and the deep polarization that has divided America. Putin’s rash move is obviously about much more than the relationship between him and Biden. Yet each man’s assessment of the other was essential to Putin’s decision to go to war. Their actions and relationship will shape how the war moves forward, how it ends, and what comes next.

As we approach the war’s three-week mark, it is worth taking stock of how all this is going. This essay argues that Putin feared the growing power of Western economic and cultural systems while badly misperceiving the strength of Western political leaders and institutions – particularly Joe Biden. In scoping out possible scenarios forward, it is tempting to work backwards from a hoped-for end game of Putin having to settle for an outcome short of victory. As Putin’s war effort has gone badly, Biden, his team and the West now appear to have an upper hand. It will require ongoing support for Ukraine and patience to grind Putin to a tacit admission that his effort has failed.

And yet the challenge of thinking about an end game is that Putin will continue to be tempted to escalate the war, even if he is seeking a way out.

Putin feared the growing power of Western economic and cultural systems while badly misperceiving the strength of Western political leaders and institutions – particularly Joe Biden.

PART I: The decision to go to war: a “strong” Putin misperceived a “weak” Biden

Just prior to the invasion on February 24, Putin and Biden appeared to be moving in different directions. Putin’s job approval in Russia was at about 71 percent – up from a slump to the mid-60s during COVID, but still below the upper 80 percent ratings he held after the relatively swift annexation of Crimea in 2014 (largely unopposed by the West) and the Sochi Olympics. He seemed completely in command of his domestic situation, having either sidelined, imprisoned, or killed his potential rivals. And the bump in domestic approval he received for the 2014 operation in Crimea reinforced the view that he would be rewarded for bold action.

By contrast, on the day that Russia invaded, President Biden’s job approval among Americans was at 41 percent -- near the lowest level of his presidency, down from the mid-60 percent ratings in his first months in office. The chaotic and rapid pull-out from Afghanistan had been the starting point for Biden’s rapid fall in popularity. Putin likely saw multiple signs of weakness in the U.S. withdrawal: a wounded Biden who did not have the stomach for war; a disorganized and naïve national security team who under-estimated the Taliban and over-estimated Afghan’s democratic leaders; and an American people who more broadly had lost interest in a foreign conflict.

And yet, in hindsight, the internal logic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its mediocre execution shows that Putin’s perceptions of strength and weakness were misguided.

Regardless of his feelings about Biden, Putin’s logic for war was that of a lesser power. As Putin consolidated his personal power in Russia, he came to realize how far Russia had to go to catch up to the Western systems – economic and political. That fear sat in direct tension with Putin’s glory-filled ambition to restore the greatness of the Russian empire – which at the very least was a compelling narrative he could sell to the Russian people. For Putin and those around him, feelings of rivalry, resentment, and paranoia about the West became paramount. That extended to how Ukraine was drawing closer to the West. According to former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, Putin feared that Ukraine was growing more liberal and moving in the direction of European and American values. With a tacit blessing from Beijing, Putin felt that the time was now to test Western resolve.

The internal logic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its mediocre execution shows that Putin’s perceptions of strength and weakness were misguided.

While Putin likely dismissed Biden’s political power in the U.S. and abroad, it is likely that he did worry Biden would try to reconstitute American alliances after President Donald Trump had abandoned them – and that that would extend to Ukraine. Putin saw in Biden someone who had supported Ukrainian democracy since the days immediately after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and a stark contrast to the overt indifference that Trump exhibited toward Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy. So while Putin perceived Biden to be a weak leader, he wanted to test him as the head of a renewed Western alliance.

And how strong was Putin’s Russia, after all? Russia’s conduct of the Ukraine war so far shows a military of superior numbers and a willingness to use lethal force, as opposed to greater sophistication of either equipment or intelligence gathering or strategic and tactical planning. While Western newspaper headlines are largely about the slow but certain advance of Russian troops, and the bombing of civilian targets, the live feeds on social media tell the story of deeply flawed Russian planning and strategy, heavy Russian losses, an ongoing inability to capture major cities, and a brave and successful Ukrainian resistance.

Moreover, Putin’s authoritarianism has demonstrated some real weaknesses. The free flow of information on the Ukrainian side of the border has engendered both domestic and international support for its resistance. That sits in stark contrast to an official news blackout in Russia of any mention of Ukrainian successes – which has only led to growing street protests and reports of thousands of arrests.

In short, Putin’s malevolence seems hampered by incompetence.

Biden and his team, by contrast, seem to show that a more traditional management of the NATO alliance can pay both security and political dividends. Franklin Foer has summarized this argument well in The Atlantic: So far, Biden’s quieter, collaborative approach has worked. The president’s team appears to have rebounded from the Afghanistan stumble. Europe continues to move in the direction Biden has led. That includes some of the more authoritarian leaders within NATO – such as Hungary’s Urban and Turkey’s Erdogan – whose supply to Ukraine of tank-killing drones has been a game-changer. But it even extends to Sweden and Finland contemplating NATO membership.

The Biden team began with the deft release of intelligence – which has been borne out by the facts on the ground. After paying little attention to Ukraine until the fall of 2021, Biden’s accurate prediction in early 2022 that Russia would invade helped mobilize the administration, NATO, and other nations to support the Ukrainian resistance and punish Russia. One key biproduct has been to revive the reputation of America’s battered intelligence community.

And at home, Biden now appears significantly stronger than even just two weeks ago. One recent poll saw his popularity jump to 47 percent. Moreover, Biden’s response has divided the GOP. On the one hand, Biden earned praise from former Republican national security officials and even a few GOP members of Congress. On the other, some conservative commentators followed the lead of Trump, who praised Putin as “smart” and “savvy” on the eve of the invasion.

As the war has continued, the pro-Ukraine forces in the GOP appear to be winning. Trump’s past effort to hustle Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019 now presents a major liability for him and his wing of the party. The Stinger and Javelin missiles Trump was withholding are the very ones being used in defense against Russia’s invasion. Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, was so bold as to declare: “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin,” though he did not name Trump specifically in his attack.

At home, Biden now appears significantly stronger than even just two weeks ago.

Part II: Where does this conflict go from here?

As Biden and the Western alliance continue to assess a way forward and their responses to Putin’s provocations, they must consider at least three potential scenarios.

Russia “wins.” For a complete win, Putin’s Russia would need to conquer and pacify Ukraine. This is Russia’s most optimistic scenario, and yet even so, it would be a bleak and ugly victory. Russia has become a pariah state and has reset the global order to its economic and political disadvantage. Should this happen, “losing Ukraine” would be a setback for Biden.

Lucky for Biden, and not least the Ukrainians, this seems the least likely scenario. Russia’s stalled military effort has involved more than 150,000-175,000 troops. Experts estimate that to win and pacify a nation of more than 40 million people will require an occupying force of approximately 600,000 troops.

Ukraine “wins.” A complete win for Ukraine would mean a Russian withdrawal and Ukraine’s continued independence as a sovereign nation. Even a clear win would require settling a series of complicated issues: Ukraine’s NATO ambitions, the status of Crimea and two breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine, and the long-term fate of sanctions against Russia. (One irony is that as Russia focuses its grinding war in Ukraine’s east, it is driving the Russophone part of Ukraine into feeling more sympathetic toward the west.)

A clear win for Ukraine would be, by definition, a defeat for Russia and for Putin. That could be deeply destabilizing politically, adding to the enormous economic costs he has imposed on the Russian people. Putin’s own hold on power could be on the line. He knows this well, as the collapse of the Soviet empire (which he is trying to reassemble) came after the failed Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Putin losing power would perhaps be the biggest win of all for Ukraine. If and how that comes about must be high on Biden’s watch list, not only because of Putin’s control of nuclear weapons, but also because a complete economic and political collapse in Russia could lead to even wider political threats.

A clear win for Ukraine would be, by definition, a defeat for Russia and for Putin. That could be deeply destabilizing politically, adding to the enormous economic costs he has imposed on the Russian people.

War grinds on. We are most likely settling in for a drawn out conflict, with an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. In either of two sub-scenarios, Biden must be seen as helping steer and manage the international coalition that supports Ukraine, including providing military and refugee assistance.

Formal War Continues. The most likely circumstance here is if Russia fails to take major urban centers such as Kiev, Kharkiv, or (especially) Odessa. Odessa and Kharkiv are particularly important in Russia’s efforts to cut off Kiev, so a failure to take either is a good sign that formal war will continue. That also means Russia will likely increase shelling of these city centers, to make the war as painful on the civilian population as possible.

Russia takes cities but fails to pacify a guerrilla resistance. If Kharkiv or Odessa fall to Russia, it gives Moscow complete dominion over Ukraine’s east and the Black Sea coast and makes it easier for the Russian army to surround Kiev. But simply taking either of these cities or the capital city does not necessarily pacify a resistance. Russia is unlikely to quickly call up military reserves and train and arm them sufficiently to put down Ukrainian guerrilla resistance – especially if the U.S. and NATO arm, train, and advise the insurgency.

American and NATO support for Ukraine will play a critical role in each scenario. That runs the risk of Russia escalating the conflict – either by perceiving that support to mean that NATO is itself a combatant or by using NATO support as an excuse to expand the conflict for domestic political reasons. Here it is important for the United States to regularly return to the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, where Russia, the U.S., the UK, and Ukraine agreed to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including agreeing to guarantee it.

PART III: Where does Biden take this now?

If a grinding war is the most likely scenario, Biden and his team will face three questions: How does the fighting stop? Can Putin be deterred from expanding the conflict – either increasing the atrocities in Ukraine or engaging the United States and NATO directly? Can we live with Putin after the war is over?

Biden’s preliminary answers seem to be: “Prevent a Russian win by supporting Ukraine and punishing Russia.” “Deter Russian escalation with consistent resolve.” “Do not make regime change in Russia an explicit policy goal.”

Support Ukraine within limits; punish Putin. Judged by Biden’s stated goals, U.S. “support” policies have been working – perhaps better than expected, including by possibly leading to a protracted Ukrainian insurgency. Russia’s invasion was slowed considerably by a combination of Ukrainian courage and NATO-supplied munitions.

That support has not been unlimited. Biden’s brightest red line has been his pledge to not send American troops, as that would be perceived as attacking Russia itself and could lead to nuclear escalation. Doing so would confirm broader Russian fears that a pro-European Ukraine is just an excuse and invitation for American encirclement and domination.

On a range of other issues – from no-fly zones to transferring Polish-owned fighter jets – Biden has tried to deter an escalation. The American public supports Biden’s policies to date, including favoring economic sanctions but also avoiding a nuclear conflict. Biden’s policies also have had the effect of spotlighting the bravery of the Ukrainians.

As Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary of defense for policy and a Miller Center senior fellow, has argued, Putin will perceive U.S. self-imposed limits either as weakness or as indifference to the suffering of Ukrainians or both. Biden’s position is likely to be harder to maintain as fighting persists, and/or if Ukrainian cities fall and atrocities against unarmed civilians continue.

The one additional place Biden has been willing to punish Putin and Russia has been on the economic side. The combination of searing sanctions and a stalemate on the battlefield are already being felt in Russia, though it is difficult to know how much. Russian public opinion (to the extent polls can be trusted) seemed to support Putin prior to the outbreak of fighting.

But that could change in the coming weeks, as war news – and Russian losses -- becomes known inside Russia. American officials formally estimate more than 2,000 dead Russian soldiers in just two weeks – the same number of American servicemembers lost in two decades in Afghanistan. Ukrainian government and media sources estimate that more than 12,000 Russian troops have been killed – or about two-thirds the number who died in Russia’s 10 years in Afghanistan. Thousands of Russians have protested in some major cities – leading to an estimated 13,000 arrests.

The economic pain of Western sanctions will contribute to that. The falling value of the Russian ruble and the challenges of doing business will be felt by everyday Russians. Banks will be short of cash, foreign goods will be harder to get, and banning Russian oil may become a price all Western democracies are willing to pay. Moreover, much of Russia’s advanced manufacturing depends on technology and parts from the West. On everything from airplanes to tractors – and perhaps military equipment – Russia’s ability to replace physical equipment and infrastructure will be limited. And despite having stashed away a reported $600 billion in cash reserves, Putin’s economic team did not adequately anticipate how western sanctions would limit his ability to use these resources.

Biden has turned this from a test between himself and Putin to a war of attrition between Russia and Ukraine – a competition between Russian and Ukrainian publics for who can suffer the most and the longest. Indeed, if the Biden team has fallen short in one regard, it is by not regularly making the case to the Russian people that these sanctions are not necessarily aimed at them, but rather at their leader. And yet the sanctions are explicitly intended to put pressure on Putin by putting pressure on the Russian people. That may appear callous to many outsiders, but for now it avoids the kind of escalation to existential nuclear threats that many analysts fear.

Biden has turned this from a test between himself and Putin to a war of attrition between Russia and Ukraine – a competition between Russian and Ukrainian publics for who can suffer the most and the longest.

Deter Russian escalation with consistent resolve: A long war in Ukraine runs the risk of Russian escalation. Putin has demonstrated that he respects neither innocent life within Ukraine nor national borders. The latter, more than anything, unnerves and unites our NATO allies – especially those on Russia’s borders in the Baltic states, and in Poland, Moldova, and Hungary.

That is why the United States has been quick to reposition American soldiers to the NATO countries that border Russia and Ukraine. While Biden has sworn off U.S. ground troops in Ukraine, he is signaling loudly that America will defend NATO allies if they are attacked. He and his team also chose not to respond to Putin’s announcement that he was placing Russia’s nuclear forces on “high alert,” in part because this announcement was purely rhetorical and had no practical follow-through.

Putin’s nuclear threat has set off a wave of speculation and debate about Putin’s sanity. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Putin’s behavior “erratic” and former director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper believes that Putin is “unhinged.”  

Alternatively, Russia’s former foreign minister Kozyrev found this to be a very typical bluff by Putin. Similarly, John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, has argued that it costs Putin nothing to make nuclear threats, but it will cost him everything to use his nuclear weapons. And, as Miller Center Senior Fellow Dale Copeland has argued, even if one considers Putin’s broader aims of reconstituting the Soviet empire as fanciful or unrealistic, it doesn’t mean he’s irrational. But the flip side of that is, while Putin may have an internal rationale that makes sense, he also sits atop an authoritarian system where the vetting of information is corrupted by a desire to please him. As Steven Kotkin, a Princeton historian of Russia told the New Yorker: “Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining. The information gets worse. They sycophants get greater in number. The corrective mechanisms become fewer. And the mistakes become more consequential.”

Putin may enter a period of domestic instability where, to unite the Russian people, he is tempted to draw NATO into the conflict. While Biden must resist that, if he does not respond to even small overt attacks, he will lose the credibility of deterring a larger one. Indeed, precisely because the stakes of mutual nuclear conflict are so high, making clear to Russia that we won’t back down is as important as making clear that we do not seek conflict.

Can we live with Putin when this is over? Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked by CBS’s Margaret Brennan whether the U.S. wanted to see Putin go. “For us, it's not about regime change. The Russian people have to decide who they want to lead them."

Even with all the death and destruction Putin has unleashed, there are scenarios where Biden has an interest in Putin finding a way out of this. Even the most tolerant scenarios require a tricky balance. Contemplating an exit strategy that leaves Putin in office poses a own moral hazard: It would seem to condone a war that already has upended the order of states in Europe and is starting to produce war atrocities. The more provocative Putin becomes inside Ukraine or toward NATO countries on the border – that is, the more he builds up a resume of war crimes -- the harder it will be to tolerate his being in power.

Yet encouraging Putin’s removal comes with its own risks. It is for that reason that the U.S. must plan for post-conflict scenarios that contain Putin. Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal put it succinctly: “We have to find a way to end the suffering in Ukraine, secure the principle of national self-determination, and yet provide Mr. Putin with something that enables him to escape without the excuse for further escalation.”

As of this moment, that means not directly pushing for regime change in Russia (as that would escalate the situation) but leaving that option open to the Russian people – if that could be done without triggering a nuclear conflict. Like many countries, Russia has a history of deposing leaders who fail in foreign wars. Putin is said to have openly feared that he would be treated the way other deposed leaders have been – humiliated and even killed on the spot, like Libya’s Muammar Khadafi. Fearing either a foreign or domestic effort to depose him may make Putin more dangerous. He may be inclined to pursue either further expansion or nuclear recklessness.

The sad truth, of course, is that nuclear-armed Russia has never deposed a leader bent on territorial expansion. Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev all died in office. More accommodating leaders such as Khrushchev and Gorbachev were peacefully removed. The regime Putin has built over the last two decades pivots around him, and it is uncertain whether any institutional capacity exists to manage a peaceful transition of power. On top of that, Putin is even more dangerous because his ruthless external ambitions combine with nuclear weapons. Containing those ambitions – or allowing the Russian people to contain them or end them – may end up being Biden’s greatest challenge.