/ 20 December 2021

Understanding Biden’s dilemma in Ukraine

Biden has had a reputation in Washington for awkwardly touching the wives
US President Joe Biden. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

US President Joe Biden faces a horrible dilemma in Ukraine. He is cast in the position of the proverbial African hyena at a forked crossroad. Unsure of which way to turn to catch a gazelle whose scent comes from both the left and the right side of the road.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) is the Cold War-era mutual defence pact the US created to defend its allies against the threat of Russia or what used to be the USSR. Biden faces the unenviable choice of backing up America’s military commitments by force on the one hand, against the possibility of starting World War III with Russia on the other. This is at the heart of understanding Biden’s dilemma in Ukraine. 

Biden’s challenges in Ukraine fall under three main arenas. The diplomatic, the strategic and the economic. On the diplomatic front, the US faces the challenge of aligning a fractured Nato military coalition. The different European powers are on different sides of how to deal with Russia. 

Conservative EU members such as Austria and Hungary are ambivalent about relations with Russia. They are concerned about Moscow’s strategic adventures, but also want good economic ties with the Kremlin. 

Radical EU members such as Poland and the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, want the US to confront Russia and stop Russian expansionism into Ukraine. They see Russia’s unchallenged takeover of Crimea and its massing of more than 120 000 troops at its border with Ukraine, as a clear sign of the expansionist dream of Russian President Vladimir Putin

Moderate EU members such as Germany and France strike a middle ground. Not wanting to have Russia’s expansion into Ukraine going unpunished, but also being careful not to provoke a war with Russia which would be fought primarily in Europe. With deeply divided allies in Nato, Biden’s plan for Ukraine becomes more challenging.  

Strategically, Biden understands the Russian concern with its Western flank that the Ukraine occupies today. Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler used Russia’s western flank to invade Russia. Keeping this strategic area within the orbit of Russia’s “near abroad” is critical to Russia’s territorial integrity and security. In addition to this, Biden is on record as indicating the US will not go to war with Russia over Ukraine

For Nato’s mutual defence clause of Article 5 to be enforced, Ukraine will have to become a member of the organisation. This is something Russia is not willing to countenance. Moscow has also been quick to establish a strategic partnership with China to check the advance of US influence in Ukraine. The recent video conference between Putin and President Xi Jinping of China heralded the Sino-Russian alliance of firm authoritarian government as a model for the rest of the world. In this regard, Putin’s alliance with Beijing strategically cripples any censure of Russia on the UN Security Council.  

The biggest tool for the Biden administration is economic sanctions. Diplomatic censure and a direct military conflict with Russia would be devastating to both the US and Russia. In this regard, the threat of increased sanctions on Moscow for any invasion of Ukraine seems to be the only real threat Putin faces from the US. 

Targeted sanctions on close Putin business associates, removal of Russia from the Swift interbank financial telecommunication system, sanctions against Russian-supported mercenaries in the form of the Wagner Group that operate in Eastern Ukraine and threats to cancel the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline that will transport gas from Russia to Germany appear to be Biden’s best options. However, the true effectiveness of economic sanctions is minimal at best and ineffectual at worst.  

With limited diplomatic, strategic and economic options to change Russia’s belligerent stance over Ukraine, Biden’s dilemma remains a foreign policy enigma. It is a potential stain on his foreign policy credentials in the runup to the 2024 presidential elections. 

A successful Russian invasion of Ukraine will have deleterious consequences for the credibility of the US’s commitment to its allies in Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. War is not an option. Both the US and Russia will have to come to a gentleman’s diplomatic agreement over Ukraine. Each side will get some of what it wants but not enough to antagonise the other side. How to do this without starting a war is Biden’s dilemma in Ukraine.