Inside the Biden-Putin Chess Match

American troops in Ukraine, 2015
Photo by Pete Kiehart/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
January 25, 2022

On Sunday, the British government announced that Moscow was cooking up a plan to topple the government of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and install a pro-Kremlin government in his place. Later that night, the New York Times reported that President Joe Biden was weighing sending thousands of troops to NATO countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. An hour or so later, the Washington Post broke a story that the U.S. State Department ordered diplomats’ families and non-essential staff to leave Kyiv, citing the “threat of Russian military action.” By Monday afternoon, the Pentagon announced that it was putting 8,500 troops on alert so that they could be moved into NATO territory in Eastern Europe. 

It’s been a pretty wild 36 hours, given how tense the situation has been since Russia pooled over 100,000 troops, including materiel and logistical support, along its border with Ukraine, surrounding the country on three sides. More ominously, two weeks of shuttle diplomacy have failed to release any of that tension. Russia could invade at any moment, and it’s hard to see how Vladimir Putin, after calling up such a large force and publicly and angrily making his demands, can back off now without losing a lot of face. This whole thing feels like 100,000 of Anton Chekhov’s guns hanging on 100,000 walls. Once they’re introduced, they have to go off. The very real threat of a full-out land war in Europe for the first time in decades is absolutely terrifying.

My first reaction to the news that the Biden administration was considering beefing up NATO’s eastern flank with U.S. troops was, well, Putin got his wish. So much of this conflict has been the West scrambling to react to Putin, who imagines himself encircled by NATO forces ready to pounce and swallow up Ukraine. Now, he’s getting the exact thing he said he didn’t want. One of his demands was that NATO military posture be rolled back to 1997 levels, but now, as a direct result of his actions, NATO is even closer and more bristly than it was before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for Putin, though. For one thing, it lends credence to his claim that NATO is breathing down his neck—how and why the alliance’s troops got there notwithstanding. It also feeds into and reinforces a historic narrative that Russia is surrounded by enemies on all sides. This fortress mentality, which was particularly strong among the Bolsheviks, is something Russian autocrats can’t seem to live without. It rallies the population around the Kremlin, regardless of who’s in it, and justifies all kinds of extreme measures, both at home and abroad.