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. Over the White House Rose Garden, the questions of Russian President reaction to these developments loomed large.
“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.”
Some Russia experts are warning that long-term changes in Europe’s alliances are not easy to predict. They also worry that the Biden Administration may not be fully considering the implications of its actions in this 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. In support of Ukraine’s fight for retaking territory seized by Russia, U.S. allies and European allies already have sent huge amounts artillery firepower and artillery. 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. He notes that Russia has enormous resources and can continue the struggle despite its economic woes due to international sanctions. It remains possible that a long-running land war will continue with no end in sight. 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.
As global reactions to the conflict become more severe, there will be greater pressure for a de-escalation. Russia has been blocking grain exports from Ukraine for a large portion of the time, leading to price rises and global shortages. 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.
Jean-Pierre stated that Biden will continue to support Ukraine over the long-term in a response to TIME’s question. “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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