Biden shouldn't have played Putin's game with Ukraine

Opinion: Why is the United States the primary one dealing with Russia, when our security interests with Ukraine are, at most, peripheral?

Robert Robb
Arizona Republic

For President Joe Biden and his administration there are no good options, or potential outcomes, regarding Russia and Ukraine.

Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has already pocketed two significant gains.

  • First, he has made the United States dance to his diplomatic tune.
  • Second, he has stalled and chilled Ukraine’s movement toward integration with democratic Europe.

U.S. could suffer two humilitations with Russia

If he invades Ukraine, the outcome on the ground may not be the cakewalk commonly assumed. The Ukrainians appear willing to fight and in recent days have obtained more stuff to fight with.

Putin may be engaged in shadow boxing.

If there is an invasion, however, the United States is likely to suffer two humiliations.

  • First, our diplomacy will have failed to avert the invasion.
  • Second, the crippling sanctions Biden has vowed as a consequence likely won’t materialize. Europe, particularly Germany, won’t want to run the risk of Russia shutting off the gas valve in retaliation. And the U.S. would be isolated if we attempted unilateral sanctions that were truly crippling.

The Biden administration’s reflex will be to flinch at that.

The dual humiliation would become an intense domestic issue, as Republicans link the failure to stop or devastatingly respond to a Ukrainian invasion with the shambolic evacuation in Afghanistan as examples of Biden’s supposedly feckless foreign policy.

It’s easy to talk tough when you bear no responsibility for the consequences.

Ukraine is not a key security interest. Why get involved?

Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't want Ukraine to join NATO or become a full member of the European Union.

All of which raises the question: Why is the United States continuing to allow ourselves to be put in the pivot in situations where our security interests are, at most, peripheral? Worse, why do we rush to occupy the pivot in such circumstances?

The larger the writ of democratic capitalism in the world, the better for the United States. The Ukrainian people seem to want to fully join democratic Europe, and are willing to fight and suffer through hardships to get there.

None of that, however, adds up to an actionable security interest for the United States. The security and prosperity of the United States will not be materially affected by either the success or failure of the Ukrainians to achieve their goal of European integration.

Putin’s demand is that Ukraine serve as a buffer between Russia and the democratic West, and not be permitted to join NATO or become a full member of the European Union. 

NATO has a secretary general, its chief executive officer. And it has a governing council.

The European Union has a president of the European Commission, the union’s executive branch. And it has a foreign minister.

The United States is one of 30 members of NATO, which is governed by unanimity. We have no role in the European Union.

This is Europe's problem. Tell Putin to talk to them

So, why is the United States Russia’s principal interlocutor on Ukraine? Why not NATO’s secretary general or the president of the European Commission? Or the democratically elected president of Ukraine?

Why is the U.S. secretary of state scurrying around in frenzied diplomacy, rather than the European Union’s foreign minister? Or Ukraine’s?

The Biden administration is trying to consult widely with European allies and the Ukrainian political leadership. But there is no question that the U.S. has occupied the pivot, just as Putin wanted us to.

Putin has a cold war mentality, seeing Ukraine as a struggle for influence between Russia and the United States. But so does the United States in accepting Putin’s designated role for us as chief interlocutor, rather than saying: This is a European security issue. Talk to the Europeans and Ukrainians.

The way not to lose is not to play

French President Emmanuel Macron has long argued for Europe to develop strategic independence, not in opposition to the United States but to reduce its dependence on us. That would include marshaling a security force separate from NATO.

The United States has been opposed to that, but in actuality it would be in our interests for such a security force to be established. First, as a supplement to NATO, which continues to rely on the United States for any meaningful muscle.

Then, as an alternative to NATO for some European security matters. And ultimately, as a replacement for NATO.

That would increase the ability, and perhaps the willingness, of the United States to avoid taking the pivot in situations in which our security interests are peripheral. 

The way not to lose at Putin’s game was not to play it.

Reach Robb at