President Joe Biden spoke with Vladimir Putin earlier this month as the world braced for a possible Russian invasion into Ukraine. The meeting came toward the end of Biden’s first year in office – a year that saw him allow Russia to complete construction of the Nord Stream II pipeline, with adverse economic results for Ukraine, a mammoth national security debacle in Afghanistan, and unrelenting negative popular opinion polls on his leadership.
When it comes to American national security, what does this mean going forward?
Putin is a strategic player. He has fine-tuned his national strategy chess game over the course of four U.S. presidencies. The chess match the former KGB agent is playing now with Biden will be the most dangerous the world has seen since the end of the Cold War.
The buildup of well over 100,000 Russian troops along the Ukrainian border, accompanied by mortars, tanks and missiles, is not by chance. It is designed to apply pressure not just on Ukraine but all of Europe and the United States as well.
As someone who has been involved with national strategy, it is imperative that any adviser to the president look through the lens of an adversary and ask what is driving their actions. What Putin wanted out of his conversation with Biden was predictable, and he got what he wanted. Biden said he was going to discuss with our major NATO allies "the future of Russia’s concerns relative to NATO and whether we can work out any accommodations as it relates to bringing down the temperature along the eastern front."
Putin’s path to a checkmate is to force the Europeans’ hand and, seeing their inaction and his aggression, deal the final blow to diminish NATO. History is on his side, given how Europe acted during the Obama-Biden administration.
In 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea, Europe did not aggressively respond. Over time, any sanctions imposed had a lesser bite. As European nations see it, the economic lifeline Russia provides them through its gas pipeline is more important than defending NATO’s eastern flank with Ukraine. Putin’s move on Ukraine, should it happen and if there is no military response by European nations, would be the move that finally discredits the European alliance.
Unfortunately, it may be too late for Biden to learn how to play chess.
Bringing Ukraine into NATO increases the potential of a global conflict because admission is a stated "red line" for Russia. Putin is looking long term, Biden is looking short term.
This is Biden’s pattern of behavior. He continues to play his game of checkers – a series of soft half-measures against adversaries to try and convince audiences at home he is serious without thinking through long-term solutions.
But this political performance will not work. Americans have watched on the same TV screens what he has done in other parts of the world and see that this is a man who does not do the hard work of protecting Americans’ security.
Ukraine is primarily the Europeans’ dilemma, which they must address with Russia.
President Trump demonstrated how this should look. He continually pressed the Europeans to demonstrate their commitment to the alliance, and to take the threat from Russia seriously. This included a tough stance when it came to the Nord Stream II pipeline, pushing the Europeans to stand by principles instead of profits, and for alliance members to fulfill their Wales Declaration pledge to greatly increase NATO’s military capacity.
Additionally, Trump’s direct negotiations with Putin ensured this relationship was one of respect, in which it was clear to Putin that any act of hostility by Russia would receive a decisive response from the United States, a fact that was reinforced by Trump’s decisive actions against ISIS and Iran, including the elimination of Qasem Soleimani, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other top terrorist leaders.
Biden has unraveled this. His repeated failures around the world in his first year have now had a domino effect, telling our adversaries that America will not respond. Unfortunately, Biden wants to be liked rather than respected on the world stage.
From his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, evacuating while leaving Americans in harm’s way, to his concessions to Iran’s leadership despite their explicit refusal to halt their nuclear program, to his economic capitulation to President Xi Jinping – all of these have conveyed to Putin that the United States will take no decisive action to respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Unfortunately, it may be too late for Biden to learn how to play chess. His behavior today reflects his checkers game that he refined over his entire career – one that included objecting to the military raid to kill Usama bin Laden and ignoring Syrian use of sarin nerve gas against civilians.
With Putin’s potential to remain as Russia’s president until 2036, it is a question of when and not if he stages his European checkmate.