Throughout Joe Biden’s life, America’s place in the world has been determined, more often than not, by Washington’s relationship with Moscow. He was born in 1942, just months after the United States and the Soviet Union, with Britain, agreed to collaborate against the Axis powers to insure their mutual survival during the Second World War. It didn’t last. When Biden was three, George F. Kennan, the legendary U.S. chargé d’affaires in Moscow, sent the historic eight-thousand-word cable warning about Soviet expansionism and urging Washington to move to contain Moscow. Biden was a kid when President Harry Truman issued an ultimatum to Joseph Stalin demanding that he withdraw Soviet forces from a huge swath of Iran—the first crisis of the Cold War. Biden graduated from high school in 1961, the year that Moscow built the Berlin Wall. Biden turned twenty a month after President John F. Kennedy blockaded Cuba to prevent the delivery of more Soviet missiles a hundred miles from American shores. In 1979, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden led a Senate delegation to Moscow to help persuade reluctant senators to ratify the SALT II nuclear-arms treaty. Four months later, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and President Jimmy Carter requested that the Senate delay action on SALT II.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991, Biden ran Senate hearings on how to consolidate democracy in Russia. In words that may haunt him today, he worried that Washington would not do enough to aid Russia’s political and economic transformation—and that he would someday have to explain the failure to his grandchildren. “I want at the very least to be able to say that the United States did all it reasonably could to help this great attempt in democracy building.” (Three decades later, he has seven grandchildren.) In 2008, Biden chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Russia, under Vladimir Putin, who used Russia’s political and economic chaos to gain power, invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia. And he was Vice-President when Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed the strategic Crimea, in 2014. President Barack Obama tasked Biden to orchestrate U.S. strategy in supporting Ukraine.
In the twilight of his life, Biden’s Presidency may now hang on how he handles Moscow’s threat to Ukraine—and, broadly, everything America has built since Biden was born and the United States became a superpower. Personally, for Biden, who first ran for President in 1988, the stakes are the standing of the office that he sought for so long. Will he leave the office and the nation weaker? The President was far too slow in grasping the dangers, experts on Russia and Ukraine have told me. A year into his Presidency, he has yet to appoint an ambassador to Ukraine. Biden came into office a year ago promising to end old wars and make the long-delayed pivot to the fresh challenges, namely China. For his first eight months in office, Biden was intent on proceeding, even if it meant a humiliating and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan. The President’s pivot—the core of the Biden doctrine—is now being blocked by the world’s wiliest autocrat, a man with a Napoleonic hunger for power and property. “This is what happens when a well-meaning incrementalist locks horns with a brutal opportunist: The opportunist seizes the opportunity,” Frederick Kempe, the president of the Atlantic Council, wrote this week.
In a notable shift, Biden is now consumed with the prospects of a Russian invasion of Ukraine—a country only slightly smaller than Texas—and what it could mean for global stability. Putin has deployed roughly a hundred and twenty thousand troops along Russia’s twelve-hundred-mile border with Ukraine, and others in neighboring Belarus. Trains have ferried in hundreds of tanks to the front lines. “If he were to move in with all those forces, it would be the largest invasion since World War Two,” the President told reporters on Tuesday. “It would change the world.”
In Washington, there’s a deep foreboding about the stakes that are so reminiscent of the past. “It’s a moment of truth for President Biden because he is being tested on the big foreign-policy issues of the hour—and maybe of the month, and the year, and his Presidency,” William Taylor, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, told me. Biden has to face down Putin, he said, to preserve America’s place in the world, its ideals, and the international order over which it fought two world wars and one even longer cold war.
The world—both allies and adversaries—is watching closely to see whether Biden, the most experienced President on foreign policy in U.S. history, can prove America’s resolve after abandoning Afghanistan. “This is a defining moment for Joe Biden, because it is a defining moment for America’s credibility and capacity to lead ‘the free world’ into the new era of strategic competition—an era where liberal democracies are strong on paper but are only strong strategically, geopolitically, if they can hang together in the face of revanchist Russia and increasingly assertive China,” Robin Niblett, the director of the think tank Chatham House, told me. Biden’s response will ripple back home, as well. “If he is seen to cave in to Russian pressure, this will undermine his entire Presidency, not only his foreign policy,” Niblett added.
Biden has a personal history with Putin, too. During a trip to Moscow, in 2011, Biden, then Vice-President, was blunt. “I’m looking into your eyes,” he told Putin. “I don’t think you have a soul.” (The comment was a jab at President George W. Bush’s claim, a decade earlier, that he had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul.) Putin replied, “We understand each other.” At a speech in 2015, after Russian forces seized Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, Biden warned Putin not to underestimate the Western alliance. “We have moved from resetting this important relationship to reasserting the fundamental bedrock principles on which European freedom and stability rest,” he said. “And I’ll say it again: inviolate borders, no spheres of influence, the sovereign right to choose your own alliances. I cannot repeat that often enough.” Last year, Biden was asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos whether he thought Putin was a killer. The President replied, “Uh-huh, I do.”
If Biden doesn’t deter Putin from “rash action” on Ukraine, “then the alliance will fragment,” Niblett said. “This is why the Ukraine crisis is the test.” Other nations have been flexing muscles and pushing the limits for their own misadventures. On Sunday, China flew thirty-nine warplanes near the disputed island of Taiwan, forcing Taiwan to scramble its own air fleet. Beijing has claimed the island since the two nations split, in 1949. “The nightmare scenario is war on two fronts—Ukraine and Taiwan blowing up at the same time,” Mark Leonard, the co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. This month, North Korea has carried out five ballistic-missile tests, and Kim Jong Un has threatened to end the moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests. Since December, Iran’s new hard-line government has played hardball in talks, in Vienna, with the world’s six major powers about how to get the U.S. and Iran back into the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran is now estimated to be only three weeks away from having enough enriched uranium to fuel its first nuclear bomb.
Biden’s showdown with Russia over Ukraine could affect U.S. interests around the world. The stakes include the fate of peace in Europe and the power of the Western alliance and NATO, the world’s mightiest military coalition. More broadly, the crisis is about the balance of power between democrats and autocrats worldwide. It’s about “whether nations—big or small, powerful or weak—are sovereign and can’t be forced into a larger power’s sphere by coercion,” Taylor said.
If Biden can’t persuade Russia to accept Ukraine as a sovereign state allowed to make its own decisions on security, Niblett said, America’s allies in Asia and the Middle East may feel they can no longer trust U.S. commitments to their security, leading them to seek accommodations with China and other adversaries of the United States.
At the same time, Leonard said, Biden’s strategy globally “will fail if it continues to increase the time, resources, and energy in Europe or the Middle East instead of the Indo-Pacific,”around which his doctrine is built. The challenge for Biden, he added, is “not to get sucked further into Europe and triple down his troop presence in Europe, or get into a military entanglement,” which would be a “massive setback.”
While the global focus has been on Biden, the stakes are just as high—or higher—for Putin. Russia has already lost the support of most Ukrainians, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told members of an Atlanta synagogue on Monday. Moscow was viewed favorably by up to seventy per cent of Ukrainians before its invasion and seizure of Crimea, in 2014, he said. Roughly one in four Ukrainians wanted the country to join NATO. Russia’s image has since plummeted—to about twenty-five per cent who view Moscow favorably—while sixty per cent of Ukrainians now want NATO membership. “As a matter of Russia’s self-defined strategic interests, it’s on one level hard to explain,” America’s top diplomat said.
But Putin has now invested so much manpower, military resources, and political leverage that Russia’s place in the world and his own power longer term are now at stake, too. He faces two stark options—invade or retreat, Eugene Rumer, a former U.S. intelligence specialist in Russia, wrote this week. Both are costly.
On Wednesday, Washington sent a formal written reply to Russia’s demands that NATO never admit Ukraine and that NATO forces withdraw from any country in Eastern Europe that joined the alliance after 1997. The U.S. did not release the letter, but Blinken said at a press conference that the United States—in coördination with its allies and partners—made clear that “there are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend, including Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances.” Blinken said he expected to talk with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whom he met in Geneva last week, again soon. There is, as yet, no end in sight to the biggest buildup to a potential new war in Europe in Biden’s lifetime.