President Biden’s commitment to support Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia is suddenly colliding with his push to avoid a direct confrontation with Moscow.
The president’s reported dressing down of top military and intelligence officials for leaks that boasted of how US intelligence helped Ukraine kill top Russian generals and sink a battleship underscores the tensions — and the fraying of the administration’s messaging.
“The president was displeased with the leaks. His view was that it was an overstatement of our role, an inaccurate statement and also an understatement of the Ukrainians’ role and their relationship, and he did not feel that they were constructive,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday.
Psaki did not confirm the details of Biden’s remarks. Thomas Friedman in a column in The New York Times reported that the president had called the director of national intelligence, the director of the CIA and the secretary of Defense to warn them that such “loose talk” had to stop immediately “before we end up in an unintended war with Russia.”
The administration has long taken steps to cast US support for Ukraine as separate from a direct conflict with Moscow — even when the president himself has stepped out of line.
Biden has often stepped outside the boundaries of his official talking points — calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal who must surrender power. But his staff were quick to walk back those comments.
Hawkish supporters of Ukraine who have criticized the US for holding back from delivering decisive, lethal military assistance have aided the narrative that the US is taking steps to stop short of direct conflict with Moscow.
But that stance is viewed as increasingly untenable as the administration has doubled-down on its support by sending larger and longer-range weaponry and requesting Congress authorize $33 billion in additional assistance to Ukraine.
Administration officials have shifted their rhetoric to more full-throated support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s stated goals, that Russia must be pushed back to its positions before the Feb. 24 invasion.
“The end state should be determined by the Ukrainians, as a sovereign independent country, we’ll back that, we’ll continue to back that however they choose to do it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month after meeting face-to-face with Zelensky in Kyiv.
The secretary also sought to clarify remarks from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the time that the US objective was to see “Russia weakened,” a statement that drew scrutiny as escalating rhetoric against Moscow.
Blinken said it is important that the US strategy is “making sure, in various ways, that Russia does not have the effective means” to invade Ukraine again.
Foreign policy experts said the US is taking a risk by showing less caution of becoming embroiled in a drawn-out conflict with a nuclear-armed Moscow. They also said the US may be flexing given perceptions about Moscow’s own weaknesses.
“I think there is far greater risk tolerance for Russian escalation, and I think it comes back to the fact that the Russians have underperformed, and that has given us added confidence about how far we can push,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Parsi said it is a positive signal that the president has reportedly pulled back his officials from speaking too freely about how the US has helped weaken Russia’s assault, but he called for more clarity on the scope of the administration’s strategy.
“I do see a trajectory that I think is worrisome,” he added. “There needs to be a bit more of a realization about what these risks are and what we’re doing to minimize those risks.”
Eugene Finkel, associate professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, said Putin has long viewed the war in Ukraine as a proxy battle between Russia and the US and NATO.
“We’re not at the stage where rhetoric on its own can do more damage,” Finkel said, adding that speculation that Putin would pronounce new objectives in Ukraine or a widening of the war during his Victory Day speech in Moscow on Monday failed to materialize.
But Finkel said Biden’s signing of legislation on Monday that would allow the US to more quickly supply military aid to Ukraine “might obviously affect Russian attitudes.”
The risk of Putin using nuclear weapons in Ukraine is present but low, at least so far, said Shannon Bugos, senior policy analyst with the Arms Control Association.
Both sides have taken steps to maintain stability, including statements from US and NATO officials that the allies’ nuclear posture has not changed and Russia’s advanced warning to the US that it was testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last month.
Bugos added that Russia has not moved its mobile ICBMs, which would signal that the Kremlin was preparing an immediate nuclear strike.
An important concern is whether the US and Russia can revive the Strategic Stability Dialogue, a framework for both Washington and Moscow to set out clear communication to avoid a nuclear confrontation and engage on arms control issues.
The dialogue was suspended after Russia invaded Ukraine, and Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins said on April 4 that “we’re just not in a position where we can have those kind of discussions.”
Bugos said the administration has not laid out what it would take to resume those discussions.
“It was understandable the dialogue was paused but also at the same time, I can see the possibility of it being revived in the coming weeks or months, because there is that guiding principle of, they both do not want to start nuclear war,” she said.