Hoover Institution

As Putin Redraws the Map of Europe, Biden Strategy Continues to Fall Short

Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on February 23, 2024, in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on February 23, 2024, in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

When the Biden Administration took office in January 2021, the commentariat breathed a sigh of relief that “the adults were back in charge.”  Many welcomed the new team’s assurances that they would “restore the U.S. place in the world,” repair frayed alliances, and deliver results on the most important threats and challenges of our time. Think tanks held conferences on administration Grand Strategy, messaging that U.S. foreign policy would henceforth be much more successful than that of its predecessor, especially in Europe.  This was particularly evident regarding the most important threat to U.S. interests in Europe in decades: Putin’s war against Ukraine.

Obama 2.0 Framework Projected Weakness 

In its first year, the administration’s approach to Putin’s war was largely a continuation of President Obama’s policy:  some criticism of the war, but continued openness to cooperation with Moscow; supply of some of the weapons Kyiv wanted, but not much more; underwhelming application of sanctions and other punitive measures; and acquiescence to Berlin’s priorities vis a vis Russia as illustrated by the green light to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. 

This approach reflected a deep-seated unwillingness by Biden officials responsible for Russia policy, many of whom had served in the Obama administrations, to confront Putin.  They repeatedly overestimated and seriously misjudged how Putin would react to robust U.S. support for Kyiv, exhibiting a fear of escalation that proved unfounded time and again and continues to this day.  Repeated incorrect predictions of how Putin would respond self-deterred the administration from taking robust actions that would have inflicted much more serious damage on the invaders and possibly changed the dynamics of the war. 

This intellectual framework, combined with a lackluster June 2021 Geneva summit they pushed for with Putin, a minimal response to his July 2021 screed “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” the disastrous August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, the President’s January 2022 comment on the massive Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s borders that “it’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion,” projected weakness.  It emboldened Putin to conclude that he could overturn the post-1989/91 European security order, redraw borders, tear up major treaties and agreements, flaunt bedrock principles like the territorial integrity of sovereign states, and succeed in his neo-colonial project to reclaim territories Moscow once dominated and that he views as the Russkiy Mir or “Novorossiya.”

Two years after the full-scale invasion, the administration’s strategy risks failure.  Its basic framework -- the National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy – issued some nine months after Putin’s reinvasion of Ukraine, was full of updated Obama-era progressive internationalism that did not capture the nature of the problem and the urgency of the times.  The President’s speeches, such as his February 2021 address at the State Department, two in Warsaw in March 2022 and February 2023, a visit to Kyiv in February 2023, and his October 2023 address to the nation on aid to Ukraine and Israel, contain lofty language but reflected discomfort with a Ukrainian victory.  Indeed, not until December 2023 did we hear the President say he wants Ukraine to win.  The approach was flawed from the outset and implementation continues to fall short. 

As Putin presses on with his revanchist and zero-sum policy of erasing Ukraine from the map and rebuilding as much of the former USSR as possible, it is not enough to stress traditional Democratic policy planks.  Putting diplomacy at the center of U.S. foreign policy, strengthening democracy against autocracy, combating climate change as the “existential challenge of our time” and “greatest shared problem,” and creating an “inclusive world,” have little relevance to this war.  More multilateralism, tending alliances, building coalitions, and the new concept of “integrated deterrence” are fine for normal times, but not for the challenges Putin represents, not to mention other larger problems like the Chinese Communist Party.  

Inadequate Response

The administration correctly warned the world for months about Putin’s preparations for war and has provided extensive support for Ukraine since February 2022.  The NSS signaled intent to constrain Russia.  Biden has worked closely and productively with allies to apply unprecedented sanctions against Moscow and via the Ramstein Group has mobilized major military assistance for Kyiv.  The total approach, however, has not reflected the magnitude of the challenge.  If the war has such important implications for U.S. interests in Europe and beyond, as the administration correctly says, its policy over two years of “drip, drip” support is too little too late and not good enough. 

From the outset, the administration declined to provide critical forms of military assistance or waited until well into the second year of the war to change its mind (Abrams and F-16s).  It has offered weak explanations as to why it cannot provide key weapons systems and then, after long delays, provided less capable versions (ATACMS), and declined to transfer the most capable ones.  It has not used all the tools in its toolbox and not been clear about U.S. goals, changing its language from supporting Kyiv for “as long as it takes,” to “ensuring that Ukraine continues to succeed…and that Russia continues to fail,” to continuing support for “as long as we can.”  Even now the administration has not spelled out the end state.

This policy has provided enough support to keep Ukraine from losing but not enough to end the war on its terms.  It gave Putin’s forces months and months to strengthen their defenses, which has led to increased Ukrainian losses, an unsatisfactory 2023 counteroffensive, and a questioning by some of support for Kyiv in the United States and elsewhere.  For an issue supposedly so central to its foreign policy in Europe, the administration has not been “all in,” increasing the risk that Ukraine will not prevail, which will have major negative implications for U.S. interests in Europe and beyond. 

The President has spoken regularly about the need to support Ukraine against Russian aggression, but only once – some 18 months after Putin launched his full-scale invasion – did he address the nation from the Oval Office to build buy-in for his policy, suggesting he does not really want to own it.  For three years, he resolutely rejected strong and growing calls, not only by Republicans but by more and more in his own party, to fix the wide-open Southern border – now perhaps the most important issue nationwide for American voters, even if it is not, strictly speaking, related to the war -- thus providing them with an excuse to withhold support for Kyiv. 

The administration has portrayed itself as the valiant saviors of Ukraine and tried to paint Republican opponents as entirely responsible for any negative developments, even as many strongly oppose Putin and support Kyiv.  This glosses over much weakness in the Obama / Biden approach to Russia over the years and legitimate issues Republicans have over the President’s continued refusal to seriously address their priorities.

Europe’s Response Also Insufficient

U.S. allies in Europe have largely recognized the threat Putin poses and provided major weapons systems and financial resources to Kyiv.  The European Commission has committed to providing more financial and humanitarian assistance to Kyiv than all forms of assistance by the United States.  Countries near Russia have been exceptionally supportive in terms of aid as a percentage of GDP, with the Baltic states, Norway, and Denmark at the top of the rankings at more than 1.6%.  Poland has been extremely engaged, as were the former Slovak government and others. 

While European leaders deserve recognition that 29 European countries devote a higher percentage of GDP for Ukraine aid than does the United States (0.33%), the strict GDP metric seriously undervalues the extraordinary role U.S. military assistance has played in enabling Kyiv to beat back the Russian onslaught.  Indeed, Ukraine would have already lost the war without it. 

Many prosperous NATO and EU member states, however, are still failing to pull their full weight, especially those geographically furthest from the war.  Not all are “all in,” with Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and Canada seriously underperforming.  The UK and France, which have provided critical military and other support and recently concluded bilateral security agreements with Kyiv, as well as the Netherlands could do much more. 

The war exposed significant shortages in equipment and ammunition stocks across the NATO alliance, but most member states have been slow in reactivating their defense industrial bases (DIB) to backfill supplies provided and to build much needed additional capacity.  Why?  A lack of political will.  The pattern of behavior suggests many allies are still unwilling to prioritize defense over social and Green Deal programs and to help Kyiv defend itself -- and the European security order they say is under such threat.  

Germany has improved much since its extraordinarily weak early steps, such as a former Defense Minister’s offer of 5,000 helmets prior to Chancellor Scholz’s landmark February 27, 2022, Zeitenwende speech announcing a turning point in Berlin’s longstanding Russia-first policy.  Berlin has since then substantially ramped up its support and is now second to the United States in value of assistance provided.  It has prioritized much needed economic support but has also provided critical PATRIOT, Iris-T6, and Gepard anti-aircraft systems and Marder tanks and recently signed a similar defense pact with Kyiv, as did the UK and France.  It also recently announced it would, for the first time since 1992, spend more than two percent of GDP on defense -- 2.01 to be exact, which some German experts say uses accounting tricks to reach that number. 

Meanwhile, German politicians in all mainstream parties, including in Scholz’s own coalition but particularly in the CDU, continue to charge Chancellor Scholz with pursuing a hesitant, even minimalist, strategy.  He will not say Ukraine must win and steadfastly refuses to provide the Taurus cruise missile -- calling the idea “strange” at the recent Munich Security Conference – and his coalition voted down a proposal twice to provide it.  He justifies this refusal in part by stressing how closely he is linked up with Biden policy, which has been not to provide long range ATACMS, underscoring the negative effect Administration policy is having in Germany.  He also refuses to provide larger numbers of Leopard 2 tanks and other major weapons systems.  This seriously undermines his exhortations to EU allies to provide more support and raises questions about how far he wants to take his Zeitenwende policy. 

Burden Sharing

European allies’ mixed – many would say poor -- record in responding to Putin’s provocations over the last 15-20 years has kept the burden sharing issue on the front burner and contributed to a reduction of support for Ukraine and NATO among Republicans, most of whom have historically been the most pro-NATO, most Kremlin-skeptical, and the most favorably disposed toward states formerly dominated by Moscow.  This record has reinforced calls for allies to shoulder more of the costs of their own defense and to end “free riding” once and for all.  

Many European leaders have responded directly to developments in the United States, calling on Republicans in Congress to approve more support for Ukraine, even criticizing them publicly.  Others have a more sophisticated understanding of the issue, with Dutch PM Rutte, for example, recently calling on counterparts to “stop whining, nagging and complaining… We have to do what is necessary… because we want to do this.”  He, however, is the exception and most fixate on the Republicans, oblivious to how hypocritical their concern about American spending on European security sounds.  

For decades, American leaders have been calling on allies to meet the two percent target, most recently to fulfill their 2014 Wales Pledge while currently – 10 years later -- only 11 of 31 NATO member states are doing so and only 18 will do so by the end of 2024.  The two percent figure focuses more on a number, when the issue is to rebuild real capability, which remains underwhelming for most allies.  European leaders do not seem to understand how their own underspending over decades has solidified skepticism in parts of the U.S. political spectrum about who should spend how much on European security and encouraged the very isolationist sentiment they now criticize.

The administration has shown little sign of pressing allies for more capabilities, overlooked decades of low spending and weakness vis a vis Moscow, and now tries to pin all the responsibility on the Republicans for flagging support in parts of the party for Kyiv.  It is essential that Ukraine win and Russia lose.  NATO and alliance relationships are extremely important and do not need more recrimination given the urgency of the issue.  The Biden approach is the wrong way to bridge domestic differences over how to maintain security and stability in Europe -- a critical U.S. national interest.  Skeptical Republicans should consider the negative consequences for U.S. interests if Putin’s war ends on his terms and approve further investments fast to ensure he loses.

Europe as a Critical Ally

Our European allies currently treat the United States as a critical ally, even if there is growing anxiety about domestic political developments and always economic competition.  Talk of “strategic autonomy” has dwindled over the last year as weaknesses in European military capabilities became painfully obvious.  However, the disagreement in Congress over funding for Ukraine and the prospect of a Trump return to the White House in 2025 has significantly increased European anxiety about the transatlantic relationship, even generating warnings that the United States could become a “threat.”  The progress of the war and the possibility of a less collaborative relationship has accelerated European calls for much more defense spending and even “inoculation” against developments in the United States.  Some politicians are reviving calls for a European Army.    

It is positive that European leaders are finally focusing on strengthening their own defense capabilities, even if some consider it a hedge against a “worst case scenario.”  Administration echoing of these messages, as Vice President Harris recently did at the Munich Security Conference, may be politically expedient but are not productive.  The transatlantic relationship does not need more partisanship; leaders notice who is saying what.  For their part, European leaders should avoid actions that undermine U.S. interest in Europe as an ally.  Calls to divert defense spending away from all NATO member states for narrow mercantile reasons will go over like a lead balloon and not produce the best weapons systems.  All increases in European capabilities should be assigned to NATO or transferred to Ukraine. 

Washington is fortunate to have many strong allies, friends, and partners in Europe.  Their leaders should change their messaging from potential “threats” emanating from the United States to the need to make up for decades of underspending on their own defense because it is the right thing to do and to emphasize their interest in collaborating closely with any U.S. administration on the many threats and challenges the transatlantic community faces and can only resolve together. 

The Administration’s continuation of Obama’s “Western Europe First” policy, prioritizing “Old” vs “New” Europe,” focuses too much on the EU, Berlin, and Paris.  This treats the countries on the Eastern Flank of NATO as auxiliary players, despite their enormous contributions to the defense of Europe and accurate warnings about Putin.  Among America’s global allies, friends, and partners, they are among the best.  It took Putin’s reinvasion to jolt the administration into realizing the importance of critical allies like Poland, which it had kept at arm’s length over differences over domestic politics, but which had warned about Putin for years, has shown exceptional support for Ukraine, and is spending some 4% of GDP on defense.  To his credit, Biden twice traveled to Warsaw in one year, but Baltic and Central European leaders say they continue to be treated differently.  The administration must get out of its traditional Western Europe mindset and behave as though Europe does not end at Berlin.  The administration should support a leader from an Eastern Flank country as the next NATO Secretary General.  

Putin’s War Beyond Europe

Putin’s war has kept the transatlantic relationship at the center of U.S. foreign policy at a time when American policymakers have been focusing more on the larger threat the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) poses to U.S. interests, the Global West, and the global order.  The war has distracted policymakers and diverted military and other resources needed to deal with the long-term CCP threat.  Putin’s war requires much senior-level attention, consumes major resources, and sows division domestically and with our allies.  All of this benefits the CCP and other U.S. adversaries who will exploit these factors to their fullest. 

If Putin wins his war, U.S. interests in Europe and beyond will suffer for years to come.  In Europe, he could well take such an outcome as an opportunity to continue redrawing the map, starting with the frozen conflicts in Moldova and Georgia.  CCP leaders are watching U.S. actions closely and will draw conclusions regarding Taiwan and their efforts to shape an alternative world order.  The mullahs in Iran and their proxies will be emboldened to destabilize and sow chaos across the Middle East.  Pyongyang will feel freer to act on the Korean peninsula.  Dictators, autocrats, and fence-sitters will accommodate themselves to new realities.  A Putin victory could prompt questions about the extent to which the administration’s approach contributed to “losing Ukraine.” 

An important part of the U.S. policy debate has been about whether Washington has the military and other means to handle serious threats in both Europe and Asia, with “China First” advocates the most skeptical.  For now, the view that the United States can “walk and chew gum at the same time” has prevailed, but the administration has been slow to fix weaknesses in the DIB.  Iranian proxy attacks against Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East are draining U.S. military stocks that must urgently be increased to restore deterrence that the administration allowed to atrophy.  If the administration does not speed up its DIB efforts, the United States will have difficulty dealing with conflicts in more than one theater at once.  Allies face this reality even more starkly. 

The administration’s strategy is not meeting the challenge that Putin’s war represents.  Having correctly recognized its geopolitical importance, a different approach that ensures a positive outcome is needed.  A good place to start is by doing everything it can to implement an updated version of President Reagan’s comment about the United States and the Soviet Union: “Ukraine wins and Russia loses.”

Read in the Hoover Institution.