Ukraine crisis could be a turning point for Biden

Negotiations between American, European and Russian diplomats on security in Europe ended last week without a clear outcome. Given the circumstances under which the Joe Biden administration entered it, that was the best to hope for — and, as Churchill is (probably wrong) reportedly said, “Jawbone, jawbone is better than war, war. But one specific non-outcome of the talks deserves particular attention: the idea of ​​the withdrawal of American troops from Eastern Europe, which could be wise or catastrophic, depending on the circumstances.

NBC reported for the first time that the administration was considering proposing to reduce the American military presence in the countries close allies of Russia. The forces in question are relatively new: in 2014, at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, there was not a single American tank in Europe. The Next National Defense Authorization Act included the European Deterrence Initiative, increasing the US military presence in Europe to bolster the defenses of Eastern Europe, including rotating US and allied units across the Baltics. According to the NBC report, the Biden administration was considering a return to the status quo ante as a proposal, provided that the Russians not only withdraw their troops from the borders of Ukraine, but also make new concessions.

National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne was quick to deny the information:

The administration is not weighing troop cuts in Europe, as the title suggests. The administration does not discuss with Russia the number of troops stationed in the Baltic countries and in Poland. And unlike the anonymous official quoted in this article, the administration is not compiling a list of force posture changes to discuss in future discussions. All three of these statements are false.

An unnamed State Department official also told NBC that “there are three key claims in the report that has been circulating, all three of which are false.” The denials from Horne and the unnamed official contradict information provided by three unnamed sources, only one of which is currently in administration.

It’s hard to say whether this report is good or bad news, mainly because, despite its catchy title, the facts are murky.

Let’s assume that the Biden administration was considering offering troop withdrawals, or even made such an offer. There is no law of nature that says the United States must have a presence in the Baltic countries. There are scenarios in which it is in America’s interest to withdraw its forces from the region, and these scenarios appear to be the ones the administration has considered. According to the NBC report, “For any change in the American military presence in Europe, Russia would have to take reciprocal and equivalent measures to reduce its forces, and withdrawing Russian troops from Ukraine would not be enough.” It could mean a number of things, from arms control to troop withdrawals. But one possible scenario to consider is the demilitarization of Kaliningrad, a highly militarized Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania, which makes it almost impossible to reinforce the Baltic in times of crisis.

If the Biden administration hasn’t made the offer reported by NBC, that could also be good news. U.S. security guarantees have long been the foundation of peace and stability in Europe, and offering withdrawals now could be seen as a continuation of a pattern of weakness and deference to Russia by the president.

Over the summer, the administration dropped its objections to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would increase Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and therefore reduce its ability to resist Russian aggression. . This week he successfully blocked Sen. Ted Cruz’s bill to impose sanctions on the pipeline, despite bipartisan support for the measure. Biden was even softer than the EU itself, which voted massively to block Nord Stream 2 by a vote of 581 to 50.

In some ways, this week’s negotiations — one round between the Americans and Russians only, another with Russia and NATO, and a third with the entire Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE ) – continued the pattern. Some of America’s allies and partners, particularly the Baltic states and Ukraine, have raised reasonable objections to negotiations “about us without us,” that is, deciding the fate of those countries without their participation. So far, and unlike the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, the administration has done better (although not perfect) work of cooperation and communication with America’s allies that these objections have been few and moderate.

The administration has made it clear that it sees China as the single, all-consuming security challenge for the United States. The problem is that other adversaries, including and especially Russia, are not going to wait for the United States to take up China’s challenge; rather, they see this distraction as an opportunity to be even more aggressive. Since 2006, Russia has invaded two of its neighbors (Georgia and Ukraine); continues to illegally hold territory in a third (Moldova); launched cyberattacks and cut off the internet of at least one other (Estonia); deployed troops to Syria, Belarus and Kazakhstan to quell anti-autocratic protests, contributing to genocide in the former; and sent paramilitary organizations to Venezuela, Libya and the Central African Republic, not to mention its interference in elections in the United States and Europe as part of its ongoing disinformation campaigns in the free world. It now threatens a new offensive in Europe which could, like so many European wars of the past, widen into a wider conflict.

One reading of the NBC report is that the Biden administration is getting the message that Russia cannot be ignored, and neither can allies. Another reading is that the administration is simply desperate to manage a crisis its inattention has invited.

This could be the defining moment of Biden’s presidency, as American voters and the world watch to see if he can be pushed around. But it is the legacy of more than one man. If Biden becomes the third consecutive president to downplay and ignore the Russian threat, then the world will assume the era of American resolve is over.

Christi C. Elwood