Political leaders know what they are thinking. In moments of crisis, American Presidents are often most resolute about what they’re most worried about. When Joe Biden, visibly tired and facing a crisis of generation-defining proportions, walked to the lectern under the chandeliers of the White House East Room on Thursday, he did his best to show resolve about America’s preeminent place in the world order.
“America stands up to bullies,” Biden said. “We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin must stop his Ukraine invasion—which U.S. intelligence officials anticipate will include an attempt to occupy the capital Kyiv and overthrow the current government—or face further global isolation.
The coming days and weeks will test Biden’s foundational foreign policy pledge to restore U.S. leadership in the world. Biden entered the Oval Office more than a year ago promising to reverse Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach that had all but abrogated the U.S.’s central role in holding together global alliances.
Putin’s invasion of UkraineAnd the bombardment of Kyiv creates a Russia and European countries clashWith the U.S. serving a critical supporting role of a major military supporter to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, (NATO), But Putin desires that the conflict has greater stakesAnd paints it in a wider contest between Russia-led global order and the U.S.
This is Biden’s test. Can he Keep European power units united against Putin’s aggression? Can he follow through on the pledge he made a year ago while speaking over video to the Munich Security Conference that “America is back”? Can he do all this without feeding further into Putin’s quest to return Russia to its former superpower status? Biden made these remarks in February and listed a list of global challenges, including ending the COVID-19 epidemic, opening the Iran nuclear agreement, and countering China’s economic threat.
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Biden’s report card so far is mixed. He failed to deter Putin from further invading Ukraine after weeks of threatening sanctions and declassifying material about Russia’s intentions. However, he was able to consolidate European resolve to counter the Russian threat. He also prepared Germany to stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipe. The U.S.’s own challenges controlling the pandemic at home have undermined its international leadership on countering the virus, even as Biden has rolled out more than 100 million vaccine doses around the world. Reopening the Iran nuclear deal is a futile effort. Biden’s unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, which was hamhanded, angered many of his allies.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine presents another moment for Biden to live up to his promise that America is back. It is possible, however, that too many things have already changed.
Biden held a secret meeting of the national security council on Thursday morning at the Situation Room, basement level. Biden received a U.S. military update on troop deployments by Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. Also, he was informed about the assessment of Russian military movements inside Ukraine. Janet Yellen from the Treasury Department described a list of sanctions financial and their potential impact on Russia’s economy. Biden approved the list of sanctions, which had been added by other major democratic countries.
Within hours of Russian missiles raining down across Ukraine and Russian tanks rolling into the country, Biden in his East Room speech described how allied nations were exacting what would be a crippling economic cost on Russia’s economy. “Putin is the aggressor,” Biden said. “Putin chose this war. Now he and his country will bear the consequences.”
Biden said nations representing half the world economy have blocked major Russian banks from trading in dollars, euros, pounds and yen and that half of Russia’s high tech imports will be cut off, and vowed other harsh economic penalties will hobble Russia’s industrial sector and military for decades. He also said sanctions would bite into another circle of Russia’s elite. While the sanctions will have a wide financial impact upon Russian institutions, Biden didn’t cut Russia off of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), which is an organization based in Belgium and that regulates money transfers worldwide. Biden said European allies weren’t quite ready to take that additional step.
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Biden denied that he planned to meet with Putin as reporters pressed him. Biden wanted to establish a steady path for talks between Washington, Moscow and Washington. Putin was met at GenevaLast June, the relationship between U.S. and Russia was strained. “There is a complete rupture right now in U.S.-Russian relations, if they continue on the path that they’re on,” Biden said.
Biden now has to make decisions about what next steps should be and will need to bring along allied government representatives. The U.S. military is ratcheting up its troop presence in Europe to 90,000, though the Biden Administration isn’t considering deploying troops inside Ukraine. The U.S. instead hasAmerican forces added in Europe and in eastern NATO countries including Poland, which sits on Ukraine’s western border.
U.S. officials fear Russia might launch devastating cyber attacks on the U.S., NATO and other countries. They also worry that cyber attacks directed against targets within Ukraine could infect computers throughout other countries. U.S. firms have been warned to beef up their security and cyber defenses in case of an attack by Russia-backed hackers.
His legacy will depend on what Biden does in the future. Biden will need to decide how to react to Russian aggression, and whether or not to use U.S.-made cyber weapons against Russian forces. This could lead to an escalation of the conflict that could bring the U.S. closer to Moscow. Another challenge on the horizon for Biden is to convince more countries to denounce Putin’s decision to invade a sovereign nation. Biden said that any nation that stands by Putin’s aggression will be “stained by association,” a line that seemed pointed at China, which has urged diplomacy but fallen short of condemning Russia’s invasion.
Biden spoke at the White House and warned that sanctions’ effects will not be immediate. Allies must remain firm in their support of the restrictions. It will prove difficult for European countries like Germany, which heavily rely on Russian gas. “This could take time,” Biden said. “And we have to show resolve.” Biden said the goal of the U.S. and allies is to make sure that Putin’s actions will diminish Russia’s influence and standing in the world. “When the history of this era is written, Putin’s choice to make a totally unjustifiable war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker, and the rest of the world stronger,” Biden said.
Whether that’s true will depend on what happens in the coming weeks and months. Biden’s staff had expressed hope that March would bring the President back into focus on domestic accomplishments. Biden has pledged to nominate a Supreme Court nominee by February’s end to succeed retiring Justice Stephen Breyer. White House speechwriters have been drafting Biden’s State of the Union speech scheduled to be delivered before Congress on Tuesday, March 1, with hopes that Biden could use the moment to highlight the job growth in the economy, investments in infrastructure and efforts being made to get COVID-19 tests into more households. But Putin clearly had other plans for what should dominate Biden’s agenda. Any hope for a political reset in the U.S. has been scrambled by Putin’s war in Europe.