The Biden administration is resisting steps, short of military deployments, that would broadcast its greater resolve toward resisting a prospective Russian offensive against Ukraine.

Such possible steps include the specific identification of sanctions that would follow any attack, the pledge that those sanctions will be U.S. unilateral if necessary, and the clarification that Russia is in breach of its Minsk II commitments and that a new diplomatic track is necessary. The White House is also slow-rolling a new arms support package to Ukraine.

When it comes to increasing arms support, some Democrats suggest that Biden's hands are "partly tied" by spending negotiations. But these excuses are weak. Biden has the executive power and the bipartisan consensus to provide emergency arms support to Ukraine. He simply chooses not to use it.

Sen. Marco Rubio, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me that "Putin views President Biden’s pattern of concessions on Ukraine as a sign of weakness. This appeasement is not only a mistake, it is a danger to the national security of the United States and our allies."

The Biden administration is certainly taking a more cautious stance than allies such as Britain, for example. Its tolerance of Putin's proxies aside, the U.K. has earned Russian ire by increasing military and intelligence support to Ukraine in recent days. In June, a British warship challenged Russian claims of sovereignty over occupied Crimea.

Biden has taken no such action, and the message is getting through to the Kremlin.

Absent strong U.S. leadership, the international response to Putin's threat is fraying. Once again illustrating Moscow's growing confidence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov used a Tuesday phone call with his new German counterpart to lecture her on Russia's expectations. Annalena Baerbock is pushing, unsuccessfully thus far, for a more robust German response to Russia's threats. But a Russian readout of her call shows just how confident the Russians are that Germany won't sanction Russia where it hurts. The readout says that Baerbock was "given detailed explanations about the lack of alternative to the Minsk agreements on the settlement of the internal Ukrainian crisis and their implementation by Kiev, as well as the demand for influence in this regard on the Ukrainian authorities from [Germany] ..."

This rhetoric should be taken for what it is: Russia's assumption that it has seized the strategic initiative. Still, Biden insists on vacillating somewhere between overdue caution and pointless rhetoric.

This is a very dangerous message to send to a Russian leader who revels in taking risks in the face of apparent weakness. Indeed, it is absolutely critical to recognize how deeply Putin's policy choices are shaped by his sense of any opportunity to manipulate and intimidate. The Russian leader is a graduate of the KGB Red Banner Institute, after all. And like the Foreign Intelligence Academy that has now replaced it, the Red Banner Institute's curriculum prioritized the education of psychological manipulation and the aggressive seizure of opportunity. Putin and his security cadre respect strength and loathe weakness. Indeed, they devour it.

Put another way, Ukraine has a problem.