Blinken warned that "difficult days" would come for Ukraine 1:28
The escalation of the psychological warfare between the United States and Russia over Ukraine is fast approaching a point where a peaceful exit from a crisis with real-world ramifications for Americans might be impossible.
President Joe Biden, backed by all the symbolic might of the Western alliance, is locked in a standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is using Ukraine as a hostage to try to force the US to renegotiate the agreed outcome of the Cold War.
Neither of them blink.
Doing so may be inconvenient, given the huge political bets they've both made.
Tension between Russia and Ukraine: what you should know
The standoff in Eastern Europe could feel like someone else's problem, as Americans grapple with a pandemic and high inflation, and fight their own political battles.
And Biden has already said he will not send US troops to the non-NATO Ukraine.
But the reality is that the world's two leading nuclear powers are facing off in their most tense test of wills since the fall of the Soviet Union.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine could trigger the biggest clash of regular conventional armies in Europe since World War II.
At stake for Americans is the credibility of the West, perceptions of US global power, and the possibility of secondary consequences hitting hard at home, for example, a rise in energy prices caused by the crisis.
US says Russia creates excuses to invade Ukraine 1:08
To try to get out of the abyss, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meet in Geneva this Friday. But the United States does not abandon its refusal to accept the concessions demanded by Putin that would seriously compromise NATO. And US threats of unprecedented punitive sanctions against Russia if it invades, along with efforts to offer Putin an off-ramp, have not worked. In fact, the Kiev government says that Russia has almost completed the build-up of forces that would allow a full-scale invasion.
The Kremlin strongman, who has 100,000 soldiers on Ukraine's borders, is keeping the world on edge with a game of high-powered poker.
That's exactly how Putin likes it, living to throw opponents off balance.
Some analysts believe that the Russian leader is bluffing and that he created the invasion threat to gain the same superpower status in talks with the US. Others see an attempt to destabilize Ukraine without an invasion or a nationalist play for popularity. at home.
But Putin may also sense weakness in the US and division in Europe, reasoning that if he ever wants to crush Ukraine's hopes of a pro-Western future, now is the time.
Russia has plans to 'further' increase force on Ukraine's borders, says Blinken
With the United States rejecting his demands and much of his prestige engulfed in the crisis, it seems unlikely that he will pack up and go home.
"The only thing I'm sure of is that that decision is totally, solely, completely, a Putin decision," Biden said during a White House news conference on Wednesday.
"Nobody else is going to make that decision; nobody else is going to affect that decision. He's making that decision."
Why Ukraine is so important to Putin
To understand that decision, you need to appreciate why Ukraine is so important to the Russian leader.
For the former KGB officer, the demise of the Soviet Union was a historic disaster.
He interpreted NATO's eastward expansion as the humiliation of a great civilization.
This explains why he has demanded concessions that Biden will never be able to accept, including the guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO and the demand for the withdrawal of Western troops and weapons from former Warsaw Pact states such as Poland and Romania. , which he sees as a threat to Russian security.
For the past decade, Putin has sought to recreate Russia's former sphere of influence over former Soviet states like Ukraine.
The scheme resulted in the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine's sovereign territory, in 2014. More recently, Putin backed the crackdown on political protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Given its own autocratic rule, it is also clear that a flourishing, prosperous, Western-oriented democracy in Ukraine is intolerable.
He could become a role model for Russians tired of their long rule, corruption and repression.
Does Russia have an unwillingness to reduce tension with Ukraine?
Biden's news conference will be remembered for a blunder in which he suggested the full weight of sanctions against Russia would not be imposed if Putin planned only a "minor incursion," a statement the president backed down on Thursday.
But it also featured a candid exposition from Biden about Putin's motives.
The president speculated that the Russian leader was fighting to avenge history and for a role in the 21st century for Russia.
“The Berlin Wall fell, the empire was lost, nearby neighbors disappeared, etc.
The Soviet Union was divided,” Biden said, guessing at Putin's worldview.
The President of Ukraine, after Biden's sayings: "There are no minor incursions or small nations"
"But think what he has," the president continued.
"He has eight time zones, a fiery tundra that won't naturally refreeze, a situation where he has a lot of oil and gas, but he's trying to find his place in the world between China and the West."
Another component of Putin's Russian restoration project is to tarnish the prestige of the West and especially the United States, a secondary goal of the Ukraine gambit.
That's also where his efforts to meddle in the election come into play.
While there are arguments as to whether his intervention for Donald Trump and against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was decisive in 2016, it unleashed destructive political forces within the US. The candidate he supported, and who genuflected before him as president, he now leads an assault on American democracy that coincides with Putin's goals.
And Biden is weakened at home during the Ukraine standoff because Trump made sure that millions of citizens see him as an illegitimate president.
Putin could never have expected such an outcome.
Putin's challenges help explain Biden's approach to the crisis.
He spent weeks trying to unite Western allies, which Putin is trying to divide, on a sanctions package that would effectively cut off Russia from the Western economy.
This is why Biden's comments on Wednesday were so damaging, because he basically admitted that the West was not on the same page.
But he was also telling the truth.
French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, this week called for a European channel for Putin, offering a split with the US that the Russian leader can exploit.
In addition to promising sanctions that would sever many of Russia's ties to the developed world, Biden appears to be playing a risky mind game with Putin as he deals with his solitary decision.
He painted a picture of a protracted and bloody insurgency in Ukraine at a time when Washington is considering an effort to arm the Kiev government as it did the Afghan mujahideen who drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Biden asks Putin to reduce tensions with Ukraine 5:17
"You can go in and over time, with great loss and economic loss, go in and occupy Ukraine. But how many years? One? Three? Five? Ten? How much is that going to cost? How much is that going to cost? "It's real. It's consistent," Biden said Wednesday.The chances of a quagmire in Ukraine should weigh on Putin, given his sensitivity to political opposition and the large number of recruits in the Russian military who could begin to return home in body bags It could also portend a more limited incursion of special and irregular forces and intelligence assets.
One of the more curious aspects of the US approach to the Ukraine crisis has been the American alarmist rhetoric about an imminent invasion and the leaking of intelligence reports on the Russian build-up. It's hard to say whether the administration is providing itself with political cover to show that it wouldn't be caught off guard if Russian tanks crossed the border. Washington could also be emphasizing the threat to coerce the Europeans into threats of sanctions. For example, the US has long been at odds with Germany over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline built to transport Russian gas to Western Europe. The new government in Berlin has now signaled that it would stop the flow of gas if Russia invades Ukraine. But nevertheless,At times it seems that the United States has almost been goading Putin with its statements about a possible invasion, including those by Biden on Wednesday. Such a tactic could increase the pressure on the Russian leader, but it is a big gamble.
Republicans pounce on Biden
But Putin is not the only one under great political pressure.
Biden is too.
A Russian invasion would present a serious challenge to Europe, which still relies on the US as its guarantor of security, creating a foreign policy headache for a presidency already reeling from crises.
World politics would be rocked by an ostracized Russia even more determined to thwart Washington's goals.
Biden may have to rush troops to bolster NATO allies in the Baltic to deter further Russian expansionism.
And a new European confrontation would distract the US from its main strategic struggle for decades to come: the global challenge posed by China.
Furthermore, the principles underpinning American leadership of a community of free nations would be shattered if a strongman can destroy a smaller democracy without consequence.
China and Taiwan, especially, will be attentive to the response of the United States.
How far would the US go to protect Ukraine from Russia 2:08
The crisis also has far-reaching domestic implications.
If Putin invades now, Biden will look weak.
He has already given the impression of constantly catching up with Putin's rhythm.
His summit with the Russian leader in Geneva last year will be hailed by critics as appeasement.
His plight would be a gift to Republicans who cast him as confused and bumbling ahead of this year's midterms and the 2024 presidential election.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a taste of those attacks Thursday, describing Biden's comments about a possible "minor incursion" by Russia as "strange and devastating."
"Why is our president speculating as a passive observer on the sidelines? He is not an expert. He is not Putin's psychoanalyst. He is the president of the United States," the Kentucky Republican said.
His dismissive criticism emphasized how Biden, like Putin, cannot afford to lose the test of wills that will unfold in the tense days ahead.
Joe BidenRussiaUkraineVladimir Putin