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. 

This isn’t to say that I don’t think that NATO or the Biden administration should send more troops to countries on NATO’s eastern edge. In fact, I think that, given the worry that Putin might want to test NATO states if a campaign in Ukraine goes well, it’s not a bad idea. I do, however, think that everything Putin has feared—Ukraine drifting further toward the West, Ukraine getting more lethal aid from NATO countries, NATO troops massing close to Russia’s borders—is all happening because of what Putin is doing. He is making his paranoid fantasy a reality, and it’s kind of incredible to watch. 

Another thought: Before the new year, Biden made clear that there would be no American boots on the ground in Ukraine, and NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg reiterated that because Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the country is not entitled to a defense by NATO states should it be attacked by Russia. At the same time, they are defending Ukraine before it has been attacked. In addition to the weapons shipments and the training of Ukrainians for an Iraq-style insurgency should Russia invade, we’re seeing some new strategies deployed. NATO governments are exposing the diversions that the Kremlin is apparently planning, thereby defanging them. Earlier this month, the Biden administration unmasked an alleged Russian plot to send saboteurs to blow up their own fighters in the Donbas in order to create a pretext for Russia to invade Ukraine. Once that plan for a false flag operation is made public, there’s very little the Russian government can do with it. The logic for the British government revealing Russia’s apparent plan to install a friendly government in Kyiv—a fear that’s been batted around national security and foreign policy circles since this crisis began—is much the same. Neither revelation is guaranteed to stop the Kremlin from pursuing either tack, but it certainly strips it of a really important element: plausible deniability. If you recall the invasion of Crimea by “little green men” and of the Donbas by “volunteers on vacation,” plausible deniability is a key Kremlin strategy. 

Finally, some parting gossip from Washington. As strongly as the Biden administration has been backing Ukraine, the White House as well as its Democratic allies have just about had it with president Zelensky. According to three sources in the administration and on Capitol Hill whom I’ve spoken to in the last couple months, the Ukrainian president is by turns annoying, infuriating, and downright counterproductive. The White House, according to one source, was extremely displeased with Zelensky’s response to Biden’s press conference last week, during which Biden got some flak for suggesting that a “minor incursion” by Russia would be met proportionately. The view among these Democrats is that Biden’s commentary wasn’t wrong—there is a difference between, say, a cyber attack on Ukraine, and a ground invasion, and it’s kind of a no-brainer that there should be a difference in the response. 

But Zelensky’s decision to publicly criticize the man whose help he most needs—tweeting that “there are no minor incursions and small nations”—was not looked upon kindly by the administration. Last week, Zelensky publicly praised Senator Ted Cruz and called for the passage of the Texas senator’s bill to impose sanctions on the Nord Stream II pipeline. Democrats on the Hill were furious: Cruz has been using that issue to hold up scores of Biden nominees to key posts, including to embassies abroad. Why would Zelensky cheer the man who has been such a massive thorn in the side of the one guy who can send him more lethal aid to fight the Russians? 

Democrats also didn’t appreciate that, by cheering on Cruz’s bill, Zelensky could box in Germany, which has been quietly cooperating with the Biden administration in waiting to bring the pipeline online. The new German government has also let it be known that it may shut down Nord Stream altogether if Russia invades Ukraine. There’s a sense that Zelensky isn’t very good at navigating American politics and is stepping on all the wrong feet. Perhaps it’s because he is frantically trying to save his own country; perhaps it’s because the former TV star had no preparation for, or education in, geopolitics. It is also, unfortunately, the plight of a country that is caught between two behemoths fighting over its fate. Supplicating while maintaining your dignity is hard enough; doing so while not pissing off your geopolitical backer is harder still.