International Politics

Biden’s diplomacy of deterrence is paying off

Biden’s approach to Ukraine seeks to avoid the mistakes Obama made in 2014. 

Inaugural visit to Washington: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House. Credit: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Alamy Live News

Tensions between the West and Russia remain enflamed over the increasingly precarious situation with Ukraine, as Europe finds itself embroiled in the most significant security crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union some 30 years before. 

In the face of a rapidly escalating crisis, U.S. President Biden has remained committed to a strong response to the Ukrainian situation. At the heart of Biden’s approach, there is a clear understanding of Cold War strategic thought. Through the administration, the United States remains the critical unifier for its European allies, capable of rebuffing Moscow’s attempts to destabilise what Putin views as a fragile and vulnerable Europe. 

Thus far, the Americans have made every effort to balance diplomacy with a commitment to regional allies and European security more collectively. Biden has even alluded to the threat of harsh economic sanctions, should Moscow instigate an invasion of Ukraine. It appears that so far, the President’s approach is very different to that of the Obama administration in 2014. 

Dr Jonathan Eyal, Associate Director at RUSI said: “The response of the current administration could not have been more different to the response of the Obama administration in 2014.

“First of all, there was a very early warning from the U.S. administration about the concentration of Russian troops. Russian troops were concentrated around Ukraine in April last year, but when the current concentration started, it was Washington that raised the alarm well before anyone else. 

“It was the Americans that started the intense diplomacy with the Europeans in order to create a joint position. It was also the Americans that bent over backwards to consult with European governments in order to maintain this unified position.”

This week, Biden wrestled with German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz to establish a unified stance on the future of the Russian-owned Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The pipeline, operated by Russian energy company, Gazprom, is due to commence operations pending the approval of German energy regulators, and will provide gas to over 20 million German households. 

Unsurprisingly, Scholz had been reluctant to commit to the termination of the project due to Germany’s reliance on Russian Gas, but Biden, when questioned on the subject, remained adamant that the project would ‘end’ if the Russian’s invaded Ukraine. 

Unanimity of allies, and multilateral action is a cornerstone of Biden’s strategy. 

Economic sanctions, especially regarding energy provision and export would hit Russia very hard indeed. Currently, over 60% of Russia’s import revenues come from trade with the EU, with gas and oil sales accounting for a large portion of this. Biden understands this, but he also understands that an effective economic deterrent can only be achieved through multilateral cooperation. 

Dr Eyal added: “Without the U.S. nothing would have happened. It is the United States that forged unanimity on Russia, and it remains the United States that is the only country that has credibility in dealing with Mr. Putin. It is obvious that the Russians are not very impressed by the Europeans or take them very seriously.”

“The real contribution of France, and Germany, and the UK is to try to maintain that unanimity, and to ensure that all the European countries remain united on this issue, and not to give an indication to the Russians that they have the ability to be divided.

“Without the United States, I shudder to think where we would be now.”

This week, Russian troops have continued to mass on the Ukrainian border, and over the course of the past week, Washington has estimated that the build-up of Russian troops is numbered to be between somewhere between 100,000 and 125,000. This is a force, it warns, that is completely capable of launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and even seizing the capital, Kyiv.

In December 2021, when the Kremlin issued a list of demands to the west, it stipulated that there must be assurances from the United States that Ukraine would never become a NATO member, and that NATO weapons, equipment, and troops in Eastern European countries would be drawn down – effectively rolling back NATO to its post-USSR 1997 levels and positions. 

Moscow stated that If these demands were answered with legal assurances by NATO allies, Russia would respond in kind with a measured de-escalation of the Ukrainian situation. 

Biden’s administration offered a strong response to the Russian demands. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, in the United States’ formal written response to Russia’s demands, that the U.S. and its NATO allies would remain committed to assuring the sovereignty of Ukraine is maintained, and that Ukraine would remain an autonomous state, capable of making its own decisions relating to security arrangements. 

Whilst the robust stance of the Biden administration seems to appear in stark contrast to his predecessor, Donald Trump, who side-lined strategic concerns in favour of an ineffectual relationship with Vladimir Putin, Biden’s approach is chiefly informed by the mistakes of the Obama administration in 2014. When the United States was blindsided by Putin as Russia steamrolled through Crimea, Biden was given a front-row seat on how not to handle conflict with Putin. 

Dr Eyal commented: “What happened during the Obama presidency was that the first reaction was to exclude NATO and the prospect of any military talk. ‘This is not a conflict that had a military solution’ was another slogan that came out of Washington at the time. 

“Of course, it was completely wrong. Mr. Putin was showing that this was a conflict that very much had a military solution. It was also wrong to remove NATO from the discussion when clearly this was the most serious security challenge in Europe at that time.

“You had the Russians pouring in weapons to rebel areas in the east of Ukraine, and the Americans discussing whether any bit of equipment delivered to the Ukrainians had an offensive or defensive capability. 

“I would say that it was the response of the Obama administration in 2014 that in many respects dictated the response of Putin at this moment.”

Biden seems to have learnt the lessons of the American handling of the invasion of Crimea. As the president wrote in 2018, the U.S. and its regional allies are working to ensure that heavy costs will be imposed on Russia should an invasion take place – allowing more elegant resolutions to manifest via diplomacy. 

By reengaging with its role as the leader of the NATO alliance, Biden has signalled very clearly what he means when he says: “America is back”. Whilst it is speculation as to whether these tactics will prevent Russian military action in Ukraine, as Dr Eyal stated: “for the moment, the administration has not put a foot wrong in discussing with the Russians; in showing a clear and strong position on Russia; in keeping the alliance together and in, preparing for every eventuality.”

Michael is a freelance journalist from Yorkshire, currently living in London. He has a BA in History and Politics from the University of York, an MA in International Relations from Durham University (specialising in U.S. Foreign Affairs), and an NCTJ diploma in multimedia Journalism, studying with News Associates. 

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