Frustration in Kyiv has mounted in recent days over escalating US rhetoric on the crisis, even as Moscow pours more troops into positions near the Ukrainian border. Washington and its allies have been waging an unusually open and vocal public relations warfare campaign — an approach that primarily appears rooted in genuine fears of a major conflagration in Ukraine.
But there are clear signs that the strategy is also designed to pile pressure on Putin and to sharpen his strategic dilemma while compelling US allies in Europe into taking tougher stands. It may offer political cover to Biden by showing that he was not caught off guard if Russia does invade. The strategy also shields a President, who is wobbling at home, from attacks by Republican hawks keen to portray him as a weak appeaser ahead of midterm elections.
Yet it also threatens to cause a clash between the wider interests of Biden and those of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is trying to maintain calm at home even as he tries to enlist international arms and support for his country’s defense.
A call between Zelensky and Biden on Thursday should have been used to get on the same page. But the Ukrainians made it known ahead of time they would ask the US President to tone down his rhetoric. After the leaders spoke, a senior Ukrainian official told CNN’s Matthew Chance in Kyiv that the call “did not go well” and that Zelensky had asked his US counterpart to “calm down the messaging” while arguing the Russian threat was still ambiguous.
According to the Ukrainian official, Biden warned an invasion was now virtually certain once the ground freezes in February, making it more passable for military vehicles. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne disputed the account of the call and said “anonymous sources are ‘leaking’ falsehoods.” She noted that Biden had warned that a February invasion was a possibility, a position she said he had adopted for months.
Zelensky’s spokesman also disputed the Ukrainian official’s characterization of the call. The Ukrainian President himself tweeted that he and Biden had a long call and “discussed recent diplomatic efforts on de-escalation and agreed on joint actions for the future.”
Suggestions that the US and Ukraine are on a different page on the likelihood of a Russian attack might also cause political problems for Biden back home — from critics on the radical wings of both political parties who have criticized his hawkish approach. After all, why should the United States be more worried about the security of a country in Russia’s backyard than its own leader is?
As Russia has built up its massive force around Ukraine, the United States has responded by deploying information warfare against a proven master of the genre — Putin. Biden and his aides have not pleaded with the Russian leader not to invade. They have instead said repeatedly that they think he will do so and used the word “imminent.”
The first explanation is that the US actually believes what it is saying — that Russian tanks could soon start rolling in one of the most serious threats to an independent nation in greater Europe since World War II. While direct clashes between US and Russian forces are unlikely, there would be global implications from such a conflict. The principle would be established that powerful autocracies could swallow smaller democracies. Reverberations between the US and Russia, possibly including cyber exchanges, could follow. All of that would explain why the administration is working so hard to put the world on notice.
Pressure on Putin
Washington may also be driven by a desire to deprive the Russian leader of any element of surprise for his mobilization. If Moscow does invade, or bites off another chunk of Ukrainian territory to add to its 2014 annexation of Crimea, the administration’s urgency will have been vindicated. If Putin eventually backs down, Biden can argue that his strong stand worked, and the Russian leader may look diminished in the eyes of the world. But the strategy also risks putting the Russian leader into a corner and could force him to act to save his strongman image.
While praising Biden for refusing to accept Russian concessions, Thomas DiNanno, a former senior State Department arms control official in the Trump administration, said it might be wise to cool the language.
“I would encourage the administration to return to the notion of strategic ambiguity, you know, don’t tip your hand. And I think maybe they’ve done that a little bit too aggressively,” DiNanno, now with the Hudson Institute, said on CNN “Newsroom” on Thursday.
One reason why Biden and Zelensky’s messages are clashing is that they are addressing different audiences. Biden is speaking to Russia, Europe and the American people. Zelensky is trying to guard against panic at home. He responded to previous warnings by the US that an invasion could be imminent by telling his people to take a deep breath and to stay calm. Yet his aides may have seriously erred in their readout of the Biden call. The US President has stuck his neck out to support Ukraine. Embarrassing him is no kind of payback and Zelensky risks his own stature in Washington.
More importantly, Russia will take advantage of such splits.
“I am a little bit worried that disclosing a lot of this in the public is not going to help anything, it will help just Mr. Putin,” John Tefft, a former US ambassador to Moscow, said on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront” on Thursday.
Upping the heat on Europe
Robust American rhetoric on the crisis also appears to have another purpose — convincing America’s less hawkish European allies that their own security is at risk.
Still, the US diplomatic effort also reflects Putin’s underlying advantage. He knows his own mind and few others do. The question will soon start to be asked how long the United States can continue to warn that an invasion that doesn’t come is “imminent.” Prolonging the alert might eventually open up new divides between the US and Ukraine and Washington and its European allies.
And Putin may spot an opening.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Matthew Chance and Jim Sciutto contributed reporting to this story