The Biden administration's Russia policy recipe presently consists of four slices of appeasement (ransomware, space conflict, energy blackmail, Ukraine), and a generous dollop of fiction (pretending that the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline gives the West "leverage").
President Joe Biden's strategy toward Ukraine is the most timely concern. After all, the central European democracy's 44 million citizens are under great threat. They simply want to retain a democratic government, control their own borders, and expand their cultural, economic, and political links with the West. Russia, however, denies them that right. It occupies Crimea and holds power over rebel forces across a swathe of southeastern Ukraine. Vladimir Putin now threatens to invade the rest of Ukraine, using an ideological reimagining of history to claim that Kyiv's political existence must be subordinated to Moscow.
Putin is ramping up the pressure.
On Friday, Russia's FSB security service declared 70% of the Sea of Azov, Ukrainian waters east of Crimea, no-go zones. This follows a Russian-imagined controversy on Thursday involving a Ukrainian warship's standard passage through the sea. Putin's chief spokesman claimed that this transit was a "provocation" that "can lead to very, very serious consequences." Such rhetoric underlines concerns that Russia will create an incident in order to then justify its own military action. Putin is a noted aficionado of such "provocation" gambits, recognizing their long-standing place in Russian intelligence tradecraft.
There is a way to prevent this drip-drip Russian escalation turning into a flood across Ukrainian borders. That's for the West to outline specifically and immediately the sanctions that would follow such an invasion. That should mean cutting off Russian access to international banking systems, permanently suspending the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline, and sanctioning Putin's oligarch allies who reside in the West (most notably, in London). Reflecting bipartisan sentiment in Congress, Biden could and should make clear that he would pursue these sanctions unilaterally if necessary.
Instead, Biden is dancing to Putin's waltz.
As CNN's Jim Sciutto and Natasha Bertrand reported last week, Biden is pressuring the Ukrainians to make compromises under the February 2015 Minsk II format. The Associated Press echoed that reporting on Thursday.
This is a highly problematic tack from the White House. Put simply, the Minsk II negotiating parameters are utterly absurd. As Chatham House's Duncan Allen has outlined, "Implementation of these measures would in effect destroy Ukraine as a sovereign country." Agreed by Ukraine only amid Russian-directed rebel military action and simultaneous pressure from Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-French President Francois Hollande, Minsk II would turn southeastern Ukraine into a Russian satellite state. It would also require Ukraine's constitutional commitment to neutrality, thus negating any prospect of the country's eventual accession to the European Union or NATO. More ludicrous, at least in terms of judging Biden's apparent support for Minsk II, the protocol demands the removal of all foreign forces and mercenaries from Ukraine. Seeing as the Russian GRU and FSB retain command of rebel forces and an active combat presence in Ukraine, Russia has shown utter disregard for the protocol. It should be thrown in the trash.
Unfortunately, if predictably, the Europeans are now following Biden's weak lead. President Emmanuel Macron warned on Thursday that the West cannot address the Ukraine crisis simply by increasing pressure on Russia. This sounds like a nuanced strategy but is in fact a reflection of the Franco-German desire to once again increase pressure on Ukraine to make concessions. That's easier than staring down Putin. Making matters worse, early signs suggest that new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is somehow even more sympathetic to Russia than his predecessor.
Regardless, we should expect more from the leader of the free world.
In his inaugural address, Biden pledged to "be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security." Now, we learn what he actually meant: to "be a strong and trusted partner for Putin."