Good morning. With tensions rising, we explain the new relationship between Russia and the U.S.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center front, in Kyiv yesterday.Ukraine's Foreign Affairs Ministry, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Biden, Putin and Ukraine
Russia has stationed nearly 80,000 troops on its border with Ukraine. Not far away, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed separatists have recently intensified their attacks
. And yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv
, to emphasize American support for Ukraine.
Blinken, holding a bouquet of roses, stood in a rainstorm to visit a memorial for Ukrainian soldiers killed in the fighting with Russia. He later said he had been emotionally moved “to pay tribute to those who lost their lives defending Ukraine’s democracy.”
Since President Biden took office — following Donald Trump, who was famously solicitous of President Vladimir Putin — tensions between Russia and the U.S. have been rising. This morning, we want to help you make sense of what’s going on.
For Ukraine, it appears to be a classic attempt at intimidation. It is a reminder that Russia considers the country to be within its sphere of influence and opposes Ukraine’s attempts to join NATO. Russia has already annexed Crimea from Ukraine, after a 2014 invasion. Now, says Michael Crowley, a Times correspondent traveling with Blinken this week, the 80,000 Russian troops may be partly an attempt to strengthen Russia’s position in peace talks over the Donetsk region
, potentially giving Putin more control over eastern Ukraine.
For the U.S. and the European Union, the troops are a signal that Russia cares more deeply about Ukraine than they do. The U.S. and NATO are currently staging their own military exercise across Eastern Europe, called Defender Europe, which involves 28,000 troops. Russia’s deployment “is essentially intended to call the bluff of the United States and Europe,” The Times’s Helene Cooper and Julian Barnes wrote
, “and to make clear to Kyiv the limits of Western support.”
The troop deployment also seems to contain a message bigger than just Ukraine. It is a show of strength by Putin as he also takes steps to quash
the protest movement led by Aleksei Navalny, which has inspired more dissent
than Putin has faced in years. And it’s a reminder to Biden that if he becomes too aggressive toward Russia, Putin can create problems for him.
Biden has an ambitious foreign policy agenda, some of which has little to do with Russia and some of which requires Russian cooperation, such as climate change
and Iran’s nuclear program
. An escalating conflict over Ukraine would make all of that more difficult.
“Putin is a master of raising tension and then tamping it down a bit,” Roger Cohen, a longtime Times correspondent, told us. By getting more aggressive with Ukraine, Putin can show Biden and Europe’s leaders that he has leverage over them.
And what is Biden doing?
Biden has used some harsh words about Putin — calling him a killer
— but Biden’s actual policies have been more moderated. On the one hand, Blinken’s visit to Kyiv has been provocative, and last month the U.S. imposed sanctions
on Russia, in response to hacking and election interference.
But the sanctions stopped far short of what the U.S. could have imposed. “I was clear with President Putin that we could have gone further, but I chose not to do so,” Biden said when announcing them. “The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia.”
Anton Troianovski, The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, describes the White House strategy as “a carefully choreographed carrot-and-stick approach.” Lara Jakes, who covers the State Department, points out that Biden and Putin have known each other for years and that their relationship, for all of the tension, is characterized by “pragmatism and a fair bit of predictability.”
Perhaps Biden’s biggest goal is to create a stable relationship in which Putin decides that he has more to lose than to gain from confrontation. And that’s not easy.
Russia, as The Economist recently wrote
, is already “the single most prolific stoker of instability on Europe’s borders, and arguably the most energetic troublemaker in rich democracies, funding extremist parties, spreading disinformation and discord.” But of course Russia could still cause even more trouble, as Putin is now demonstrating in Ukraine.