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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.