intelligencer chats

Is Biden Trying to Psych Putin Out?

U.S. President Joe Biden talks on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: Doug Mills - Pool/Getty Images

As Russian president Vladimir Putin threatens — and perhaps backs off from — Ukraine, the Biden administration is attempting to manage a crisis in which it has limited leverage. I spoke with national correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about how the White House is attempting to thread the needle on Russia and Ukraine.

Ben: With Russia moving more and more troops closer to Ukraine the last few weeks, the Biden administration has been playing an information-warfare game to an extent we don’t usually see from the U.S. government. They’ve been issuing dire warnings about an imminent invasion — and even getting into the pretext Putin would use for one. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has played down the invasion threat and even scolded the U.S. for being overly alarmist. I’m a little unclear on the Biden team’s strategy here — is it just that, by revealing Putin’s plans, it will keep him off balance in some way?

Gabriel: First, let’s be clear that they’re also working with NATO allies to build up forces in neighboring countries, and that Biden has threatened extremely harsh sanctions (though we don’t really know what that means or why we should believe that’s a real deterrent), and is also taking defensive preparatory measures, like telling Americans in Ukraine to get out and trying to secure alternative gas sources for western Europe. So there’s a lot going on. But sure, the U.S. is clearly trying to signal that it is deep inside the Russian plan based on intel Putin would prefer they not have. I don’t think we can read that, alone, as an attempt to make Putin second-guess himself. Biden also talked to Putin over the weekend and French and German officials have been working on the diplomatic angle, too. One way to read it is simply trying to make clear to the Russian side that the U.S. is deeply engaged … even though Biden is plainly not willing to turn this into a ground war featuring American troops.

Ben: Do you think that they actually believe an invasion is inevitable at this point? There have been some apparent signs of progress this week; Russia’s foreign minister signaled an openness to more talks on Monday, and the country pulled back some troops on Tuesday.

Gabriel: It’s really hard to tell. The U.S. has certainly acted like it thinks an invasion is imminent. Russia saying there’s still a diplomatic solution isn’t exactly surprising, but it is interesting that European diplomats remain so engaged, clearly thinking all hope is not lost to find a diplomatic solution, and that the Ukrainian leadership has been downplaying the threat of invasion, too. That might be about domestic concerns, of course, but at least here the government has publicly mobilized in a way that suggests they expect an invasion.

As to the timeline, who knows? There was a brief moment when the D.C. blob seemed convinced a full-scale invasion was going to happen over this last weekend, and that obviously didn’t happen. The line has more confidently been that it could happen before the end of the Olympics (i.e., within the next few days). Then again, the fact that we haven’t heard about specific intel on timing doesn’t mean that such intel doesn’t exist.

Ben: Beyond the enormous human tragedy that would unfold if Russia did send in troops, this would be another unwelcome crisis for the Biden administration, which is already unpopular and struggling to combat problems on the inflation and COVID fronts. As you said, they’re not going to be sending in any troops, and there isn’t much of an appetite for that among the American public in any case. Yet you could easily imagine Republicans attacking Biden for failing to stand up to Putin anyway (even if there’s a significant faction of that party that takes the nonintervention Trump line, and may even think Russia has a point). How is the administration thinking about this from a domestic-politics standpoint?

Gabriel: First, on one front the expected complications may actually not be so complicated for this administration, where the president has already been extremely clear about his unwillingness to get involved with new wars (or to continue old ones; see: Afghanistan). So it’s likely he’d take some political incoming on that, but it might be limited because no one really expects him to act differently. It’s been hard to get a real read on the White House’s domestic political expectations here, because this has been such a Europe-focused saga. They are concerned about the economic aftershocks, including on oil and gas around the world, if the invasion happens. But if it does go ahead, I’d expect to see Biden talking plenty about what he has ordered, to counter possible accusations that he hasn’t done enough (sanctions, troops to allied countries, etc.). That said, as you pointed out, the critiques here aren’t necessarily intuitively partisan as far as our usual domestic divides go. So in that way, it’s not as obvious a question as it might seem.

Ben: Do you get the sense there are other steps the administration is considering taking that go beyond the severe sanctions they threatened?

Gabriel: I’m not sure we know what else might be on the table, but do you remember last month when Biden did his marathon press conference? In my opinion, not enough attention was paid to this exchange with Jennifer Epstein from Bloomberg:

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you. Your top foreign policy advisors have warned that Russia is now ready to attack Ukraine. But there’s still little unity among European allies about what a package of sanctions against Moscow would look like. If the U.S. and NATO aren’t willing to put troops on the line to defend Ukraine and American allies can’t agree on a sanctions package, hasn’t the U.S. and the West lost nearly all of its leverage over Vladimir Putin? And given how ineffective sanctions have been in deterring Putin in the past, why should the threat of new sanctions give him pause?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, because he’s never seen sanctions like the ones I promised will be imposed if he moves, number one.

He went on to talk about cooperation with NATO allies and giving Ukraine “defensive equipment,” but that initial answer re: sanctions really struck me. Obviously, it could just be bluster. But if he really does have some sort of unexpectedly harsh and pointed sanctions up his sleeve, I suspect we’ll hear about them. Beyond that, though, there’s only so much he can do, or certainly say out loud, given his unwillingness to get the U.S. involved in a direct war with Russia.

Benjamin: Well, I guess we’ll soon find out if there’s even a war to get involved with.

Gabriel: That we will.

Is Biden Trying to Psych Putin Out?