Liberal messianism and the Ukraine crisis have turned Joe Biden into a Russia hawk
For Biden, giving in to Putin on Ukraine means ending US centrality in the international system
The international crisis around Ukraine is far from over, but it has now revealed a problem at the very top of the Biden administration. In its relations with Russia, the president has prioritized pressures, threats, and rhetorical escalation over dialogue and negotiations.
The Kremlin has contributed to the crisis by surrounding Ukraine with troops from the southern, eastern, and northern directions. These actions have served to intimidate Russia’s neighbours and the Western states in the NATO coalition. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not hide his intention to create “tensions” with the West in order to draw attention to Russia’s security concerns.
However, the root cause of the crisis extends beyond Putin. Independent observers including some of the United States’ European partners acknowledge that Russia’s legitimate security interests in Europe have not been taken into consideration following the end of the Cold War.
The eastern expansion of Western military infrastructure accompanied by NATO enlargement and the alliance’s refusal to consider Russia’s multiple security proposals since the 1990s have now reached their limit. Russia’s main demands—an end to NATO expansion, the non-deployment of military infrastructure in the former Soviet states, and withdrawal of Western troops to 1997 positions—deserve to be discussed. These continent-wide security negotiations are long overdue.
The statesman-like approach would have been to engage Russia on issues central to its security while pressing it to offer its own guarantees of security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity for its neighbours. This approach may have led to a comprehensive security framework for Russia and all European nations. Instead, Biden has chosen to reject Moscow’s main concerns by shifting the conversation to more peripheral issues and hyping the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Biden’s participation in the Geneva summit and subsequent phone conversations with Putin during the second half of 2021 were encouraging. After all, it was Biden who reached out to Putin to renew the START nuclear arms reduction treaty and to initiate an important discussion on cybersecurity. During summer 2021, Biden has also effectively closed the issue of sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which remains essential to Russia, Germany, and other European nations. While choosing dialogue with Russia, Biden also placed limits on military assistance to Ukraine and indicated his support for the Minsk Protocol as a way of resolving the conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
However, in 2022, Biden has shown an entirely different side. His advisors have regularly fed the media stories of Russia preparing a ground invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the White House approved an additional supply of lethal weapons for Kyiv while pressuring it to support the narrative of Russia’s “imminent” invasion—one that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has refused to embrace.
The US State Department also placed the blame for not implementing the Minsk Protocol on Russia. Furthermore, Biden has deployed several thousands US troops to eastern Europe and threatened to introduce some unprecedented sanctions including against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, should Russia invade Ukraine.
Not only Kyiv, but US European allies such as France and Germany have taken issue with Biden’s hawkish stance on Russia. Neither country has viewed the invasion of Ukraine by Moscow as “imminent” or decided by the Kremlin. Instead, they have assessed the issue in terms of the larger European security framework, in which Russia must be given a proper place.
Following his phone conversation with Putin on December 30, 2021, Biden did not communicate with his Russian counterpart again until February 12, 2022. Instead, the US president continued to threaten Russia with new sanctions, while his advisors repeatedly cited dubious intelligence of the Kremlin’s preparation of a false flag operation as a pretext for an invasion. At no point have any of them mentioned that Ukraine has amassed most of its troops near the Donbas, and that the ceasefire in the region has been regularly violated.
The White House has elevated the war scare to the highest degree by advising all Americans to urgently leave Ukraine and by warning that the invasion was set to take place on February 16.
Biden’s phone conversation with Putin took place on February 12 on the initiative of the Kremlin, although the Russian president wanted it two days later. It was reported that the conversation was “business-like.”
However, Biden’s televised statement on February 15, while mentioning a diplomatic path, doubled down on threats and fears of a Russian invasion.
What explains the Biden administration’s shift away from constructive dialogue has less to do with Russia and its “war preparations,” and more with Biden’s self-assumed responsibility for preserving a Western-led “liberal” international order, his character as a leader, and the current state of US domestic politics. For Biden, engaging Russia on its central demands is difficult to accept because it means a potential change to the US role in the European order.
Every international order is based not only on common norms but also on a balanced distribution of power. If Russia is granted an expanded place in European security, the international order on the continent will no longer be US-centred. If Russia negotiates a new security treaty by enhancing its presence in Europe, then the role of the US will be diminished. By granting Russia’s wish to establish a zone of neutrality around its borders, American efforts to influence international developments will be also constrained in Eurasia. Russia, China, and other non-Western powers would assume a more central position in the wider region that Russian strategists describe as “greater Eurasia.”
Biden’s missionary ambition to preserve the US-centred “liberal” global order is well-established. This ambition is widely shared by Washington’s establishment and is based on the belief in the US as the only guarantor of world peace and stability.
The American diplomatic tradition is not comfortable with the notion of balance of power and accepts the idea of multilateral security only from the position of US global leadership. The US political class assumes that with America being merely one of the other powers, the world will again descend into the darkness of war and oppression, as it did in the 20th century. In this mentality, those who oppose such a worldview are either naïve and should be ignored or malicious and should be punished or deterred.
It is no wonder that within this context Putin is routinely compared to Soviet leader Josef Stalin, while Russia’s political system is described in US political and media circles as “neo-Soviet.”
It follows that the US simply must stay strong and deter the “aggressor” to ultimately win another Cold War—first against Putin’s Russia and then against China. The two are intertwined, and the war with China cannot be won if Europe is no longer dominated by the United States.
This explains the centrality of Ukraine to the Biden administration. Biden views the issue in stark terms: giving in to Putin on Ukraine means ending US centrality in the international system. It also likely means the end of Biden’s political career and the victory of Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections and then in the 2024 presidential election. Moreover, the Washington establishment holds US domination in the international system to be a self-evident truth, and it will spare no one who undermines it, at home or abroad.
Biden’s domestic problems are already serious and include growing inflation, the unresolved issue of migration, high levels of COVID-19, and the failed Build Back Better bill. What’s more, with his administration’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden has been attacked for his handling of not only domestic but also foreign policy issues, including the Ukraine crisis. The typical line of attack by Donald Trump and other critics has been that Biden has betrayed American national and energy interests and is too soft on Putin, Europe, and China.
This domestic reality further encourages Biden to take a hawkish position on Russia, one that may also appeal to his personality. A liberal ideologue with a Cold War mindset, Biden has not been a creative and consistent policy thinker, spoiling even some well-intentioned ideas such as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. These tendencies make him an unlikely pragmatist in negotiating issues central to transforming the international order and the US position within it.
The unfortunate reality is that the Biden administration is likely to continue to obstruct a multilateral European settlement with a new place for Ukraine and Russia in the continent’s security system. The Kremlin will conclude that more “tensions” are needed for moving the US toward comprehensive negotiations on the European and international order. Crisis bargaining has become the order of the day.
Andrei P. Tsygankov is a Professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University, and author of Russia and America: The Asymmetric Rivalry (Polity Press, 2019). His forthcoming book is Russian Realism: Defending ‘Derzhava’ in International Relations.