Biden sounds like a wartime president. Putin may force him into some ‘very, very difficult choices’

If Russia's invasion expands to NATO states, Biden has pledged to defend every inch of their territory

President Joe Biden arrives in the East Room of the White House on Thursday to deliver remarks about Russia's 'unprovoked and unjustified' military invasion of neighboring Ukraine. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden arrives in the East Room of the White House on Thursday to deliver remarks about Russia's 'unprovoked and unjustified' military invasion of neighboring Ukraine. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Posted February 25, 2022 at 11:44am

ANALYSIS — Joe Biden, for the first time since taking office, sounded this week like a wartime president as he panned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and announced economic penalties meant to stagger Moscow’s economy.

But is he ready to truly be one?

“Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences,” Biden said Thursday at the White House. “America stands up to bullies and we stand up for freedom. This is who we are.”

Biden and his top lieutenants have been clear that the commander in chief has no interest in deploying American troops to fight Russian forces, even if they barnstorm through Kyiv all the way to Ukraine’s borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova — and even if they pillage their way to linking up with Russian naval forces already in the Black Sea.

The U.S. president intends to keep fighting — or, more accurately, trying to change Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind — by applying economic sanctions and positioning more American troops on NATO soil in the region.

Biden announced on Tuesday the sanctions and that he has ordered U.S. military forces into Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — all former Soviet republics and potential Putin targets.

“Let me be clear: These are totally defensive moves on our part; we have no intention of fighting Russia,” he said. “We want to send an unmistakable message, though, that the United States, together with our allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO.”

The trouble for Biden is twofold.

One, how effective can a threat to defend territory be — especially when heard and interpreted by Putin — if it is preceded by a statement saying you have no interest in fighting?

Two, if Putin turns his military or cyberattacks on any of those alliance countries, tens of thousands more American and NATO troops would be needed to stop Putin’s march toward restoring the former Soviet Union.

Chris Krebs, a former senior cybersecurity official in the Trump administration, warned Friday that past Russian cyber strikes have hit American and European companies. A repeat now could drag Biden into a shooting war in Europe, Krebs told CNN.

'Larger ambitions'

Tellingly, Biden and his top national security officials are not ruling out that Putin’s offensive could soon bleed into NATO’s neighborhood. “He has much larger ambitions than Ukraine,” the U.S. president said ominously Thursday in the East Room.

Lawmakers from both parties agree with that assessment of Putin and with Biden’s declaration he won’t use U.S. military force. A range of Republican lawmakers on Thursday backed the president’s use of sanctions, though some wanted the economic penalties to be even tougher. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky urged the president to “ratchet the sanctions all the way up. Don't hold any back. Every single available tough sanction should be employed and should be employed now."

Still, Biden this week appeared to play the role of commander in chief well enough for even his Republican critics. He also flashed his “Scranton Joe” persona, asking a key geopolitical question in plain Rust Belt-speak.

“Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives them the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belong to his neighbors?” Biden said Tuesday. “This is a flagrant violation of international law and demands a firm response from the international community.”

But merely sounding like a wartime president might not be enough given Putin’s apparent aims to put back together some of the Soviet Union. Biden may soon need to act like a wartime commander in chief. But he, like the American people, has shown no interest in doing so.

Remember this telling line — the closest thing to a “Biden Doctrine” we have gotten 13 months into his presidency — from his Aug. 31 remarks explaining his decision to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and end America’s longest war: “To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask: What is the vital national interest?”

He is, so far, applying the same clear metric to Ukraine. The result is no American boots on the ground there.

Biden told the world last summer that he warned the Russian strongman after their summit: if ransomware attacks from his soil continue to hit U.S. companies, Russian oil refineries would be on his retaliatory targets list.

Notably, such cyber strikes are not on the White House Situation Room table over what Biden said is an imminent Russian plan to take a “large chunk” of Ukraine. Often, it’s what a president doesn’t say that provides the most clarity.

'Very, very difficult choices'

For now, this wartime American president will wait for his sanctions to slowly sink their claws into Putin’s economy — and the bank accounts of his influential friends.

“He’s going to begin to see the effect of the sanctions,” Biden said of Putin. “Because it will so weaken his country that he’ll have to make … very, very difficult choices of whether to continue to move toward being a second-rate power or, in fact, respond.”

He also will depend on and support an Ukrainian insurgency made up of regular folks and even the country’s former president, Petro Poroshenko.

One risky scenario for Biden and NATO allies is “Russia takes all of Ukraine and NATO members provide materiel support to insurgents,” according to Emily Harding, a former CIA and National Security Council official now with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

“That sets up a dynamic in which every insurgent attack on Russian forces is an irritant between Russia and the West, and Moscow has at its disposal several impactful tools for retaliation, including cyberattacks and economic leverage,” she added. “It is also likely that Moscow is underprepared to fight an insurgency.”

Biden predicted Thursday sanctions being imposed by Washington and other Western capitals soon would force Putin into a strategic corner. The idea is to force him to decide whether to fight his way out of it — or retreat.

Biden was firm again Thursday that he will not order U.S. troops to fight Russian forces inside Ukraine. But if sanctions and Ukrainian pushback fail to dissuade Putin from trying to seize one of the former Soviet Baltic states, he could face his own “very, very difficult choices.”