Is the U.S. leading from behind on Russia?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Clearly, yes.

But also clearly, that’s a good thing in this case.

It’s hard to tell to what extent the U.S. is rallying European opposition to Putin behind the scenes and to what extent the Europeans are charging ahead, surprising Washington with an uncharacteristic show of bravado towards Russia. For strategic reasons, the White House wants to stay in the background of this conflict: The more obvious it is that America is ringleading global solidarity against Putin, the easier it is for Russian media to demagogue the response as just another attempt by Uncle Sam to undermine Russia. If you care about Russian citizens turning on Putin — which may be the only way out of this — you want a light American footprint here.


To borrow a framework typically used for U.S. elections, we want Russians to view the crisis in Ukraine as a referendum on Putin, not as a choice between Putin and the U.S.

Mindful of that, the White House is keeping a low profile while European leaders rattle their sabers. The most momentous diplomatic development of the past week wasn’t anything Biden said, it was Olaf Scholz announcing that Putin’s imperial ambitions have left Germany no choice but to rearm and modernize its military. The most notable military development from western countries wasn’t the Pentagon riding to Ukraine’s rescue with new supplies, it was the EU agreeing to supply Kiev with new fighter jets. Russian citizens would think nothing of those damned belligerent Americans scrambling to make life harder for Russians abroad, as that’s just what Americans do. But their peace-loving cousins in Europe?

To see them this angry and belligerent, the Russian people might conclude that Putin really has overstepped this time in a fateful way. It’s one thing to have poor relations with America, it’s another thing to have poor relations with everyone.

Still, I don’t think “leading from behind” is pure shadow play in this case, a smokescreen aimed at disguising the extent to which America is in charge of this production. The leaders of Europe really do seem to be out in front of the U.S. in meaningful ways in devising countermeasures to Russia’s aggression. WaPo reported yesterday that the decisive moment in the European response came when Zelensky phoned in to the EU summit held last Thursday and warned his colleagues that this might be the last time they hear from him.


“It was extremely, extremely emotional,” said a European official briefed on the call. “He was essentially saying, ‘Look, we are here dying for European ideals.’” Before ending the video call, Zelensky told the gathering matter-of-factly that it might be the last time they saw him alive, according to a senior European official who was present.

Just that quickly, Zelensky’s personal appeal overwhelmed the resistance from European leaders to imposing measures that could drive the Russian economy into a state of near collapse. The result has been a rapid-fire series of developments boosting Ukraine’s fight to hold off the Russian military and shattering the limits on European assertiveness in national security affairs…

Surprised by the unusually rapid European decision, the White House scrambled over the weekend to catch up in drafting its own related measures, according to one American and one European official. The latest sanctions mean the Western allies are effectively waging financial war against Russia, matching Moscow’s military offensive in Ukraine with attacks on the foundation of a $1.5 trillion economy.

A few days later, the EU closed its borders to Russian aircraft. An announcement that they would send jets to Ukraine soon followed. The economic sanctions they’ve imposed, cutting off Russia’s central bank, are ruthless on an unprecedented scale. Galvanized by one of their own, Zelensky, Europe has taken the lead in the fight against Russia.


Which is … a good thing, no?

Even Trump’s critics were forced to admit the truth of his critique in 2017 when he complained that too many members of NATO, Germany most notably, fail to pull their weight by spending the recommended two percent of GDP on defense. Our friend in Moscow has now forced our allies to see the light, with Scholz pledging a few days ago to spend more than two percent going forward. It’s essential that Europe takes greater responsibility for its own defense against Russia as the U.S. inevitably pivots to the east to contain a rising China. Thanks to Putin’s historic blunder, that’s now — finally — in motion.

And maybe thanks to Biden too in part. The White House stepping back and treating Europe as an equal or even leading partner in the western response has helped create an unusual sense of international unity. This isn’t a case of Europe being dragged along in solidarity with the U.S. on a mission it doesn’t fully support, like the war in Iraq. This is the entire western world mobilizing as equals in defense of the sovereignty of a European nation, one that’s a neighbor for those on the continent. Jonathan Last credits Biden with a job well done in this case:

Since the invasion, Biden has been a full partner with our European allies. He has not pushed them into decisions. He recognized that having a united front was more important than any particular aspect of the response. And after only four days Europe came to the conclusion—on its own—that it would do everything the American foreign policy establishment had wanted. Biden understood that these countries needed to come to the decision to fight back on their own, and not be publicly cajoled into it…

Biden also understood that the EU and NATO are actually very powerful allies and that when they work in concert with the United States, we represent a significant geopolitical force.

At home, by not being publicly domineering, Biden has made it much harder for Republicans to polarize public opinion over Ukraine. Because Joe Biden has not allowed Ukraine to become an issue about Joe Biden. This should make the continued prosecution of Russia more tenable in the short and medium term.

Biden has done all of this—a hawk’s dream response—without escalating the conflict or pushing the West closer to kinetic warfare with Russia.


I’m not so sure about that last part:

Also, it’s an open question whether Putin might have proceeded to invade Ukraine if not for Biden’s fiasco in Afghanistan last summer, signaling U.S. haplessness in an international crisis. But even so, given the president’s abysmal track record on foreign policy, Biden’s handling of Ukraine so far has been a pleasant surprise. NATO is unified, U.S. allies are invigorated, and Russia is humiliated, deprived to some degree of blaming its troubles on an American scapegoat. Not a bad outcome so far. Let’s hope it doesn’t end with Putin blowing up the world.

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