President joe Biden always considered the plausibility of a Russian invasion and dreaded its consequences. Not just for the human costs, but how it might harm his presidency. He could foresee how a distant conflict might reverberate at home—with skyrocketing energy prices that could slow the economic recovery and retaliatory ransomware attacks that could disrupt daily life. To stave off the worst case, he kept offering Vladimir Putin opportunities to back away, even if he didn’t put much stock in them.
Over the course of his initial conversations with Putin, he chastised the Russian leader for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, damned him for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, threatened him over ransomware attacks—and then set out to charm the man, sensing he had no other choice. Where Barack Obama once dismissed Russia as a “regional power,” Biden pointedly called it a “great power.” Rather than speaking with Putin on the sideline of a global conference, he met with him in Geneva, one-on-one, a gesture of respect meant to recall the Cold War summits of yore. I imagine Biden choking on his words—or perhaps suppressing the urge to take a swing—as he tried to initiate a productive conversation with the man whose intelligence services did whatever it could to elect Donald Trump.
Biden was hoping to avert the crisis that arrived last night as Russian rockets began to fall on Ukrainian cities. As Putin made his middle-of-the-night public case for invasion, he warned Biden against escalating by threatening the very worst—“consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” Even if that’s bluster, it sets Biden’s dilemma in relief: How far is he willing to go in preventing Putin from realizing his irredentist dreams?
In March 2021, the White House published its “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” a first pass at laying out Biden’s foreign policy. The document argued that the United States was locked in a global struggle to preserve democracy against its authoritarian enemies. And it was clear which authoritarian state was top of mind: “This agenda will strengthen our enduring advantages and allow us to prevail in strategic competition with China or any other nation.” Russia fell into the bucket of “any other nation.”
Although Biden always regarded Russia as a threat, he didn’t regard it as a long-term priority. Unlike China, Russia isn’t an economic competitor. With a few exceptions, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, Russia hasn’t built a network of alliances or effectively projected soft power. There are no prominent magazine articles or academic books extolling the advantages of the Russian Model. Biden tried to make Putin feel respected, but he did so with the intent of buying space for American foreign policy to reorient to the Indo-Pacific.
But from the start, Biden worried about how tensions with Russia could spin out of control. The White House has always regarded Putin as an adversary who can’t be deterred by conventional means. They believe he has the mindset of a guerrilla fighter—who has no conscience about widening the battlefield to civilian targets—which limits the ability of the United States to respond in kind. To become enmeshed in a conflict with Russia is to inevitably become the victim of cyberattacks against banking systems and digital infrastructure, assaults with the intent of paralyzing society.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, citizens around the world deposed police states and embraced political liberalism. It wasn’t a painless transition—and there’s been gnarly backsliding in places such as Hungary and Poland. Still, most of the inhabitants of a former empire assumed political agency.
Putin at first tried his hand at illiberal democracy—to live within the democratic contours that emerged after the collapse of communism. In Ukraine, for a time, he managed to use bribery, the ruthless exploitation of tribal anxieties, and disinformation to shape the country’s course to his liking. But in 2014, the country decisively rejected Russian-led kleptocracy. And after Putin failed to exert control over Ukraine through peaceable means, he reverted to the barrel of a gun.
His invasion of Ukraine—which began in 2014—reflects the autocratic view of the global order. For the strongman, a government’s only meaningful source of legitimacy is strength. Borders are simply an expression of a nation’s might. A people’s sense of nationhood and its claims to its own history are meaningless if it is too weak to defend itself. In the state of nature, all that matters is the triumph of will. Another country’s democratic choices—its self-determination, to use an antique term—are unworthy of respect. And because Putin did not meaningfully suffer for 2014, he can logically claim vindication: Democracy simply doesn’t have the fortitude to withstand his strength.
In Biden’s mind, a conflict with Russia takes the form of a clash of dueling systems—an ideological clash described in his “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.” Although he wanted to contain Russia, he also sought to refute Putin’s notion that the West has become too decadent to mount a credible defense of itself. Or as Biden wrote in the introduction to his strategy, the underlying purpose of American foreign policy is to prove that democracy is “not a relic of history.”
If those sentiments are to have any meaning, he has no choice but to come to Ukraine’s, and democracy’s, defense—to disprove the strongman’s assertion about democracy’s weakness. While he’s explicitly ruled out sending troops to Ukraine, he’s also planning on arming an insurgency. What form will this take? Will the U.S. send military advisers? What risks will the U.S. take to deliver arms to Ukrainian fighters? If Putin is bent on provoking NATO into a wider war, will Biden join it? These are dreadful questions, where high ideals crash against terrifying realities, and they will define the Biden presidency.