President Biden’s pledge to support Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia suddenly clashes with his efforts to avoid a direct confrontation with Moscow.
The president’s announcement to smear senior military and intelligence officials for leaks bragging about how US intelligence helped Ukraine kill top Russian generals and sink a battleship highlights the tensions – and the fraying of messages from the administration.
“The president was unhappy with the leaks. According to him, it was an exaggeration of our role, an inaccurate statement and also an underestimation of the role of Ukrainians and their relations, and he did not think they were constructive,” the press secretary of the White House, Jen Psaki.
PSAKI did not confirm the details of Biden’s remarks. Thomas Friedman, in a New York Times column, reported that the president had called the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the CIA and the Secretary of Defense to warn them that such “chatter” must stop immediately “before we found ourselves in an involuntary war with Russia.
The administration has long taken steps to decouple US support for Ukraine from direct conflict with Moscow — even when the president himself has overstepped the mark.
Biden has often overstepped the bounds of his official talking points – calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal who must give up power. But his staff were quick to come back to those comments.
Warmongering supporters of Ukraine who have criticized the United States for failing to provide decisive and lethal military aid have contributed to the narrative that the United States is taking steps to avoid direct conflict with Moscow.
But that position is seen as increasingly untenable as the administration has doubled down on support by sending larger, longer-range weapons and asking Congress to authorize $33 billion in additional aid to the Ukraine.
Administration officials have shifted their rhetoric to more fully support Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s stated goals of pushing Russia back to its positions ahead of the Feb. 24 invasion.
“The end state should be determined by Ukrainians, as an independent sovereign country we will support that, we will continue to support that no matter what they choose to do,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. months after meeting Zelensky in person in Kyiv.
The secretary also sought to clarify remarks by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the time that the US objective was to see ‘Russia weaken’, a statement that has drawn scrutiny as growing rhetoric against Moscow.
Blinken said it was important that US strategy “ensure, in various ways, that Russia does not have the effective means” to invade Ukraine again.
Foreign policy experts have said the United States is taking a risk by being less cautious about getting involved in a drawn-out conflict with a nuclear-armed Moscow. They also said the United States could falter given perceptions of Moscow’s own weaknesses.
“I think there’s a much higher risk tolerance for Russian escalation, and I think it comes down to the fact that the Russians have underperformed, and that has given us increased confidence as to how far we can push,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president. from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Parsi said it was a positive signal that the president would have stopped his officials from speaking too freely about how the United States had helped weaken Russia’s onslaught, but he called for more clarity on the scope of the administration’s strategy.
“I see a trajectory that I think is worrying,” he added. “There needs to be a bit more awareness of what those risks are and what we’re doing to minimize those risks.”
Eugene Finkel, associate professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, said Putin had long viewed the war in Ukraine as a proxy battle between Russia, the United States and NATO.
“We are not at the stage where rhetoric alone can do more damage,” Finkel said, adding that speculation that Putin would utter new goals in Ukraine or a widening of the war during his Victory in Moscow on Monday did not succeed. materialize.
But Finkel said Biden’s signing of legislation on Monday that would allow the United States to provide military aid to Ukraine more quickly “obviously could affect Russian attitudes.”
The risk of Putin using nuclear weapons in Ukraine is present but low, at least so far, said Shannon Bugos, senior policy analyst at the Arms Control Association.
Both sides have taken steps to maintain stability, including statements by US and NATO officials that the allies’ nuclear posture has not changed and Russia’s warning to the United States that it was testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last month.
Bugos added that Russia had not moved its mobile ICBMs, which would signal that the Kremlin was preparing an immediate nuclear strike.
A significant concern is whether the United States and Russia can reinvigorate the Strategic Stability Dialogue, a framework for Washington and Moscow to establish clear communication to avoid nuclear confrontation and engage on issues of arms control.
The dialogue was suspended following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins said on April 4 that “we simply cannot to have these kinds of discussions”.
Bugos said the administration has not specified what it will take to resume those talks.
“It was understandable that the dialogue was interrupted, but at the same time, I see the possibility that it will be restarted in the weeks or months to come, because there is this guiding principle that they both do not want start a nuclear war,” she said.