President Joe Biden listened politely Sunday as his Ukrainian counterpart made an audacious proposal: Fly to Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky told Biden, to show the world the United States is committed to stabilizing a region on edge.
Sitting in the wood-paneled conference room at Camp David, Biden demurred. Later, aides told CNN that a presidential visit to Kyiv – where American officials have said Russian aerial bombardments and missile attacks could begin any day – was exceedingly unlikely.
Yet if Biden did decide to visit, it would not be an unfamiliar city. He is currently the highest-ranking official to last visit the Ukrainian capital, jetting there as vice president three days before leaving office in January 2017. It was his sixth official visit to Ukraine, where he was hoping to prevent Russia from consuming more of the country after its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Now, as Biden confronts the potential for another Russian invasion, he is approaching the matter on new terms.
On Tuesday, after his aides spent weeks privately weighing an address to lay out his strategy, Biden delivered an 11-minute speech in which he warned that “an invasion remains distinctly possible,” even as he left the door open for diplomacy.
“The American people understand that defending democracy and liberty is never without cost,” Biden said in his most robust attempt to date at leveling with the American people about the crisis in Europe. “I will not pretend this will be painless.”
Over the past weeks, Biden has been deeply engaged in discussions with his team on how to maneuver through the high-wire crisis, according to officials, exercised by a geopolitical flashpoint that is testing his foreign policy acumen. Aides describe the President as in his element, drawing on decades of experience and specifically the years he spent as the US frontman on the issue during his last stint in the White House.
At the same time, Biden and his team are mindful that events on a border 5,000 miles away are not front of mind for many Americans. His remarks in the East Room on Tuesday were his first dedicated speech on the topic and came after weeks in which advisers had weighed a more formal address laying out his strategy and the stakes for Americans. As far back as last month, Biden’s team had sought a moment for the President to deliver an update, though the fluid situation on the ground made finding the right time difficult.
Biden “felt it was important to be very clear and direct with the American people about what the impact could be on them,” according to his press secretary, Jen Psaki. “What the consequences would be, what our values are and why it is important to stand by, not just the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a country, but also stand among our allies and partners around the world.”
Memories of 2014 linger
While Biden has explained his thinking at length in interviews and news conferences, much of his efforts have taken place behind the scenes and on the phone with fellow world leaders.
He has dropped by Situation Room meetings where the issue is being discussed by his national security team and has canvassed outside experts for their views of the matter. While aware he cannot read Vladimir Putin’s mind, Biden has spent long stretches trying to explain the enigmatic Russian leader to his aides, according to people present for the conversations.
Biden is surrounded by a team of advisers who, like him, wrestled with Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent efforts to fuel a separatist uprising. His current top diplomat, Antony Blinken, was then deputy security of state. Two top diplomats, Wendy Sherman and Victoria Nuland, were in other senior State Department roles. The national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and his deputy, Jon Finer, both worked in Biden’s vice-presidential office.
Like Biden, officials say members of his national security team took lessons from their past experience, determined to avoid being caught off-guard as the West had appeared to be eight years ago.
Now Biden has signed off on a strategy of exposing Russian plans ahead of time, hoping to either deter Putin or at least make him aware the US is watching closely. And he has made a more robust effort to share US intelligence with allies in the hopes of cultivating a united front against Putin.
That stands in stark contrast with 2014, when officials said the US had to purchase commercial satellite imagery on the open market, instead of using American intelligence products, to share details with allies who weren’t cleared for sensitive information.
“This is a really great example of how all of my former colleagues have learned and, really, the trans-Atlantic community has learned,” said Evelyn Farkas, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the Obama administration during the last Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s very important, because you want to have a solid, solid understanding of what the Russians are doing and then a solid, firm front against Russia, and not just among the US and Canada and our European allies, but frankly, around the world.”
Building to a boil
The strategy currently playing out was borne from worrying assessments last fall that Russia could be preparing for an invasion in the coming months. After the National Security Council recognized in November that Russia could potentially invade Ukraine, a broad range of government officials formed a so-called “Tiger Team” to develop a playbook to game out how the US would respond to such an attack.
The effort – led by Alex Bick, the director for strategic planning at the National Security Council – has been months in the making and involved several components to a response, “from humanitarian assistance, to force posture moves, to embassy security, to diplomatic efforts, to sanctions and other forms of pressure, to cyber,” an administration official told CNN.
The team – which included officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the US Agency for International Development, the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security and the Treasury and the intelligence community – conducted two lengthy tabletop exercises to practice, including one that involved Cabinet members.
“The reality is that what the Russians may end up doing is not likely to be a 100% match for any of these scenarios,” Finer said in a statement. “But the goal is for them to be a close enough facsimile of what they end up doing that the plans are useful in terms of reducing the amount of time we need in order to respond effectively. That’s really the whole goal.”
The detailed preparation, which was first reported by The Washington Post, is one way Biden is adopting a different approach from 2014.
In contrast to then-President Barack Obama rebuffing his vice president’s recommendation to ramp up lethal aid to Ukraine, Biden has authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance, including Javelin anti-tank missiles. He has looked at Putin over videoconference and warned him that sanctions the US avoided as too severe in 2014 were now in play.
At the same time, Biden has attempted to keep his commitments realistic. He has made explicit that US troops won’t be deployed to protect Ukraine itself or to rescue Americans caught there should a war begin.
“While I will not send American servicemen to fight in Ukraine, we have supplied Ukrainian military equipment to help them defend themselves,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve provided training and advice and intelligence for the same purpose.”
As in 2014, Biden is mindful of overpromising, harkening back to advice he received then from Obama: “We’re not going to send in the 82nd Airborne, Joe,” Obama told him, according to Biden’s memoir. “They have to understand that.”
So far, all of Biden’s efforts have not defused the crisis. He did order troops – from the 82nd Airborne, no less, along with other divisions – to Europe to reassure NATO allies and has threatened withering economic sanctions on Moscow should an invasion proceed.
Yet Western officials warn that an invasion could begin any day, pointing to Russian troops massing on three sides of Ukraine. Yet those troops haven’t yet crossed the border, leaving officials in Washington, Europe and Kyiv on tenterhooks as they await Putin’s next move.
Some Republicans have pressed the Biden administration to take preemptive action against Putin, arguing that the escalation along Ukraine’s borders warrants punishment even without an invasion.
John Bolton, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration and later as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, said Putin’s experience in 2014 could also weigh into his thinking now.
“We’re in a situation where, even if Biden means everything that he says and carries it through, Putin may not believe him based on history,” Bolton said.
It’s a history Biden knows well. His last visit to Ukraine in 2017 was a swansong of sorts after being appointed to lead US efforts in the country after street protests had forced out a Russian-backed leader in 2013 and allowed a pro-Western opposition to take power.
Jetting between Washington and European capitals to bolster support, he stayed up late into the evening revising his speeches and dictating new passages to his aides.
He took the assignment because he viewed himself as an expert on Europe and held the view that Putin would respond to strength. It wasn’t a universally held opinion on Obama’s team; some advisers feared escalating the conflict. And it was ultimately clear that Biden wasn’t setting the policy himself when Obama rebuffed his plan to send weapons.
Still, Biden took a uniquely personal view of his task.
“The Ukrainian people had been on a thrilling and sometimes harrowing roller coaster,” he wrote in his book, “and I felt like I had been on it with them.”
CNN’S Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.