World·Analysis

Biden signals a tougher stance against Russia. Will it deter Putin from invading Ukraine?

U.S. President Joe Biden's move to put 8,500 troops on "heightened alert" for a potential deployment to Europe, along with a $200-million shipment of weapons to Ukraine, suggests he wants to signal he is taking a more aggressive approach toward Russia and the looming threat of a Ukraine invasion.

Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine in recent weeks

The U.S. has ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert to potentially deploy to Europe as part of a NATO "response force" amid growing concern that Russia could soon make a military move on Ukraine. It came after U.S. President Joe Biden consulted with key European leaders. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

U.S. President Joe Biden's move to put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for a potential deployment to Eastern Europe, along with a $200-million US shipment of defensive weapons to Ukraine, suggests the administration wants to signal it is taking a more-aggressive approach toward Russia and the looming threat of a Ukraine invasion.

While some observers believe the U.S. administration is on the right track and have praised Biden's performance in handling this crisis, others say he has reacted too slowly — and his recent actions may not be enough to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin's military ambitions.

"I think they've reached the conclusion — which a lot of critics have been telling them — that just threatening after-the-fact punishment … is not the best way to deter," said Alexander Vershbow, former deputy secretary general of NATO and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Bush administration. 

"You want to try to do things that have a preventive character," he said, noting the policy decisions of the past few days could've been executed much earlier. "I think there was a sort of hesitation in the White House to do this sort of preventive deterrence or active deterrence — not wanting to be the ones that are escalating the situation."

"The Biden administration has been incredibly slow in doing what I think is necessary to help Ukraine," said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

"I really do believe that the Biden administration should have been — at least since November — moving heaven and Earth to get Ukraine additional defensive weapons that it needs to defend its territorial integrity and national sovereignty."

While it was understandable that Washington started off with a policy of not wanting to provoke Putin, that approach needed to end sooner, echoed Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defence for European and NATO Policy.

"They certainly changed their tactics over the weekend at Camp David, that they're coming out now, showing a little bit more of a military muscle, with promises of more to come," he said.

'Change the tactic'

Biden had met with top military officials at the presidential retreat, where several options were presented that would shift American military assets much closer to Eastern European countries bordering Russia, the New York Times reported.

"They have finally found, I guess, here in Washington, that it had gone on too long and they didn't want to be played for time," said Townsend. "And so they did get to change the tactic."

A convoy of Russian armoured vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion. (The Associated Press)

Tensions have long been simmering in the region, in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea. But they hit a boiling point in December, when Russia had massed an estimated 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. As part of de-escalation talks, Russia has demanded that NATO deny membership to Ukraine, along with a reduction of NATO troops and weapons in former Soviet bloc countries.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a written letter delivered to Moscow that the U.S. has made no concessions to the main Russian demands over Ukraine and NATO. It rejected the call to permanently ban Ukraine from joining, and said allied deployments of troops and equipment in Eastern Europe are non-negotiable.

WATCH | U.S. touts diplomacy with Russia but prepared for 'aggression,' says Blinken:

U.S. touts diplomacy with Russia but prepared for 'aggression,' says Blinken

4 months ago
Duration 0:33
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the U.S. is preparing for 'defence and deterrence' if Russia continues its aggression toward Ukraine.

However, U.S. proposals do include the potential for negotiations over the placements of offensive missile and military exercises in Eastern Europe, as well as a broad arms-control agreement. Blinken said he hoped to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming days.

Politicians from both sides have called on Biden to provide more military aid to Ukraine. In early December, 22 House lawmakers wrote a bipartisan letter to Biden, urging him to immediately provide the military aid Ukraine had requested, including Stinger and Javelin missiles, drones, electronic jamming gear, radars, ammunition and medical supplies, The Hill reported.

Last week, the Biden administration announced it  will be providing an additional $200 million US in military aid, with the third shipment landing in Ukraine on Tuesday. The delivery included 276 Javelin anti-tank missiles, more than 800 SMAW-D shoulder-fired "bunker buster" missiles, 170,000 rounds of 50-calibre ammunition, as well as bomb-disposal suits, ABC News reported.

Biden has also indicated that along with tough economic sanctions on Russia, he would be prepared to impose sanctions on Putin personally in the event of an invasion.

8,500 troops on 'heightened alert'

While the U.S.has indicated that sending troops directly into Ukraine is not an option, it has placed 8,500 troops on "heightened alert" to assist with the defence of NATO allies in Eastern Europe — a move aimed at bolstering NATO's quick response force.

While putting American troops at the ready is an important step to secure U.S. interests and defend NATO allies, Bowman said, unless the administration plans to deploy U.S. combat forces into Ukraine to oppose Russia, it won't do much to deter the impending potential invasion of Ukraine.

"That's why the urgent delivery of additional defensive weapons to Ukraine is so important," said Bowman.

The weapons delivered so far, he said, are "wildly insufficient" and not enough to raise Putin's "cost-benefit analysis" — the casualties he thinks his troops may incur if he were to invade.

The Biden administration has been working under the "provocation premise," said Bowman, refusing to provide adequate weaponry to Ukraine out of fear it may provoke the Russians to action.

"Anyone who's spent any time on the playground kind of understands how ridiculous that is. Bullies, by definition, bully — and they will continue to bully as long as they think they can get away with it."

Some observers say the recent U.S. actions may not be enough to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin's military ambitions. (Sputnik/Kremlin Pool via The Associated Press)

Not being more proactive was likely interpreted by Putin as weakness or lack of resolve, said Vershbow. "I think it's sort of better late than never that they are moving to this active-deterrence mode, and it might make a difference to the Russians, who do have to calculate the costs and benefit."

Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and an expert in Russia, agreed that Biden needs to "up the cost" to Russia, should it invade. 

To do that, he said, the U.S. needs to improve Ukraine's ability to defend itself, "or at least to impose costs on Russian aggressors, and that that would change the strategic calculus in Moscow."

Miles also said he believes Putin could withstand any personal sanctions, due to his significant wealth.

'Juggling a piece of war'

Some former diplomats have praised how Biden has handled the situation so far.

"I think the Biden administration has done a pretty good job dealing with this Russian manufactured crisis," said John Tefft, who served as a U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration.

"I think they've done a pretty good job to certainly pull the alliance together."

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said the administration outlined the right framework after the first conference back in December between Biden and Putin, saying it was prepared to have a dialogue to try to address legitimate Russian concerns.

WATCH | Diplomatic solution remains fragile:

Fragile diplomacy over Russia-Ukraine tensions

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Hopes for a diplomatic solution remain fragile as Ukraine accepts military support from allies and Russia shows fighter jets heading to Belarus.

But in that meeting, U.S. officials also laid out the potential costs to Russia, and talked about punitive sanctions and increased Western military assistance to Ukraine, should Putin choose to launch an offensive, Pifer said.

"I was part of a group back in December that said, 'Yes, but maybe you should think about doing some of these things now.' So for example, on greater military assistance, not waiting until the Russians attacked, but do it now. 

"And it does look like the administration is doing that."

Pifer also agreed with the administration's decision to so far avoid pre-emptive sanctions. 

"The way the Russians perceive Western sanctions is that once American sanctions come on, they're never coming off," he said. "So if you were to put on sanctions now, I think the sanctions would be totally discounted in terms of the Russians calculating what cost will we pay if we go into Ukraine, militarily."

Townsend said the U.S. could have delivered more military equipment to Ukraine earlier, but overall, the Biden administration has played this "about as good as you can" when you're both "juggling a piece of a war and you're trying not to, certainly, provoke a war."

"I think he's probably done the best he could, given the cards that have been dealt to him," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press

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