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With Putin, Biden Should Channel His Inner Realist

A contest of ideas is hobbling U.S. policy in the standoff over Ukraine.

By , a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Biden and Putin at U.S.-Russian summit
Biden and Putin at U.S.-Russian summit
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets U.S. President Joe Biden before their summit meeting in Geneva on June 16, 2021. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

On the surface, Americans have sounded remarkably unified during the monthslong showdown that Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated with the West. Most U.S. politicians, policymakers, and commentators blame Putin for threatening aggression in Ukraine and favor a serious response should he follow through. Just about everyone also recognizes that war against Russia—a great power and nuclear peer—cannot be an option.

Look closer, however, and a contest of ideas is underway, both within U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration and outside of it. Familiar camps are taking unusual positions and pulling Biden in opposing directions. On one side are liberal internationalists, who often emphasize soft power and multilateral diplomacy but are now yearning for hard punishments to save Ukraine from falling under Russia’s sway. On the other side of the U.S. debate are the realists, who are known for prescribing just that: power to balance power. In this case though, it’s the realists who think no balance is possible in Ukraine—given Russia’s advantages. They favor diplomatic compromise between Washington and Moscow without even the threat of force.

Caught in the middle is Biden. He is showing pragmatic, realist instincts in wanting negotiations to succeed and war to be averted, but he or his advisers do not appear to be following these instincts to their logical conclusions. With the standoff threatening to turn into a major conflict in Europe, it’s time to be decisive.

On the surface, Americans have sounded remarkably unified during the monthslong showdown that Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated with the West. Most U.S. politicians, policymakers, and commentators blame Putin for threatening aggression in Ukraine and favor a serious response should he follow through. Just about everyone also recognizes that war against Russia—a great power and nuclear peer—cannot be an option.

Look closer, however, and a contest of ideas is underway, both within U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration and outside of it. Familiar camps are taking unusual positions and pulling Biden in opposing directions. On one side are liberal internationalists, who often emphasize soft power and multilateral diplomacy but are now yearning for hard punishments to save Ukraine from falling under Russia’s sway. On the other side of the U.S. debate are the realists, who are known for prescribing just that: power to balance power. In this case though, it’s the realists who think no balance is possible in Ukraine—given Russia’s advantages. They favor diplomatic compromise between Washington and Moscow without even the threat of force.

Caught in the middle is Biden. He is showing pragmatic, realist instincts in wanting negotiations to succeed and war to be averted, but he or his advisers do not appear to be following these instincts to their logical conclusions. With the standoff threatening to turn into a major conflict in Europe, it’s time to be decisive.


Liberal internationalism can mean many things, but it typically holds that states should establish rules and norms to govern international relations and avoid war. When a state breaks the rules, liberal internationalists grow conflicted: Should the rest of the world accommodate the violator’s concerns or use coercion to punish transgression? In the face of Putin’s threats, liberal internationalists prominent in the U.S. policy conversation are vacillating between these two stances but are increasingly inclined toward the latter. They are portraying Russia as a rogue regime—except that hardly anyone wishes to accept the full implications of facing an all-out aggressor that can be contained only by military force.

Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, follows this train of thought. “Promising an end to NATO enlargement or withdrawing forces from the east will not stop Putin,” he writes. Whatever is motivating Putin to be aggressive—Daalder says it’s Russia’s intolerance of its neighbors’ independence, some stress Putin’s fear of democracy, and others point elsewhere—liberal internationalists suggest that Putin’s Russia may be immutably aggressive, bent on dominating Ukraine and pushing further no matter what. If so, diplomacy stands little chance of preventing war. Even if diplomacy was to succeed for a while, Putin could hardly be trusted to uphold any agreement he made. Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul hopes Putin’s successor will be more reasonable, allowing a rules-based order to be restored—but whether or when such a figure will arrive remains unknown.

In the current crisis, moreover, some internationalists see enormous stakes at play. At a minimum, Putin is threatening what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls “core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend—including Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances.” Others go further, fearing a new Russian invasion would upend Europe’s security, even though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and sow disorder everywhere. In this vein, retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, former military head of NATO, claims a Russian takeover of Ukraine would “set the international system back decades.” Evelyn Farkas, a former U.S. Defense Department official, believes that Russian gains in Ukraine could give China a free hand to invade Taiwan. If the world’s democracies then prove toothless, she writes, “the rules-based international order will collapse.”

If the enemy is implacable and the stakes are truly so high, the solution seems clear: Contain Russia by presenting it with coercive power sufficient to deter or deny its aims in Ukraine. Yet the use of force in Ukraine is off the table, as Biden stated early in the crisis. It would mean a ruinous great-power war. Nor will Ukraine receive the protection of NATO membership in the foreseeable future. For good reason, then, liberal internationalists who say Putin must be stopped shrink from the one measure that could create the balance of power they suspect they need: a U.S. or European commitment to fight in Ukraine’s defense. Instead, they are hoping to provide Kyiv “with all the weapons and capabilities it needs to defend itself,” as Daalder puts it.

The problem is that no conceivable amount of Western military support is likely to allow Ukraine to defeat a determined Russian offensive. Ukrainian forces are trained and equipped to fight separatists in the east, not Russia’s world-class military. To the New York Times, Stavridis spoke of aiding a Ukrainian insurgency on a scale that would “make our efforts in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union look puny by comparison,” but his tough talk envisages only tactics of desperation. Travel down this path, and the Biden administration will find itself making symbolic shows of support for Ukraine through belated weapons deliveries and blistering rhetoric. That would not stop a war but could make it slower and deadlier.


Although the administration is currently rushing weapons shipments to Kyiv, Biden has not pretended to look for a true counterweight to Russian power in Ukraine. Instead, he has adopted a pragmatic, largely realist view of the crisis. From the outset, realists have recognized that Russia has greater interests in Ukraine and more resolve to fight for them than the United States and its allies ever will. Rather than attempt in vain to balance Russia on the battlefield, they want the United States to play a different game: Prevent an invasion through diplomacy and compromise, with the aim of reaching a modus vivendi.

Within the administration, it is Biden, himself, who has done the most to articulate a realist perspective. In a recent press conference, he frankly admitted that Russia’s military possesses “overwhelming superiority” in Ukraine. Far from depicting his Russian counterpart as irrational or obstinate, Biden called Putin an “informed individual” who has yet to make up his mind about an invasion and will base his decision on the short- and long-term consequences for Russia. Biden aims to shape those incentives through carrots and sticks. He laid out a choice for Putin: Move into Ukraine and face a potential quagmire, new economic sanctions, and increased NATO deployments in Eastern Europe; or make a deal in which at least some of Russia’s demands can be met. “You bite your nose off to spite your face,” Biden said of Russian behavior. Yes, he was reasoning with Putin—but not out of trust. Biden simply seeks to test whether the interests of their two countries might be able to align just enough to avoid a war.

However, it remains to be seen not only if Russia will make a deal but also if Biden is sufficiently committed to a realist approach and willing to spend the political capital to make a deal possible. Thus far, his administration appears unwilling to negotiate one of Russia’s main objectives: foreclosing NATO membership for Ukraine and other former Soviet republics beyond the three Baltic states already in the alliance. Washington has stood firm on the liberal-internationalist principle that NATO’s door should remain open to Ukraine. This could prove to be a self-undermining stance over a norm that is superficial and, in this case, empty.

Ukraine, as realist voices outside the administration point out, has a right merely to apply to join NATO. Existing members have every right to say no. Indeed, NATO has consistently declined to provide Ukraine with a membership action plan that would put it on a path to enter the alliance, despite muddying the waters by announcing in 2008 that Ukraine would one day join. It would be extraordinary if diplomacy failed because NATO refused to make clear that it would not do what it does not wish to do under any foreseeable circumstances. Even if the formal, permanent ban demanded by Moscow goes too far, Biden has ample room to surpass his recent statement that Ukraine is “not very likely” to join NATO in the “near term.” The moment has come, if it has not already passed, for Biden to apply his realist instincts more fully.


Fundamental principles are at stake in Ukraine: the right of states to be sovereign and independent and the obligation of states to resolve disputes peacefully. Those are the principles to put front and center before the world. But states can support international principles in different ways. Wielding coercive power as their self-appointed enforcer is only one of these.

Another is to set an example, pursue limited and legitimate interests, and nurture international conditions that will sustain the rules to the extent possible. Taking such a course could allow Biden to translate his realist inclinations into coherent policy while advancing a version of internationalism that no longer relies on U.S. dominance. After all, if the United States and Russia can find a diplomatic path forward, they would likely agree to strengthen arms control measures and revive bilateral and multilateral dialogues. They could also potentially break the deadlock over Ukraine’s separatist conflict. Such achievements would benefit almost everyone, not just the United States. They could even begin to throw into reverse the decadeslong and increasingly dangerous descent into zero-sum rivalry between Russia and the West.

None of this will become possible unless Biden embraces his inner realist. In the worst-case scenario—a massive Russian assault on Ukraine—Biden’s realism will remain essential to prevent the conflict from escalating. His liberal-internationalist critics will deem their worst suspicions of Russia to be confirmed, regardless of whether the United States had ever made an adequate offer in diplomatic negotiations. Against them, Biden will have to argue, forcefully, that events in Ukraine will not unravel the European or global order and create a vital U.S. interest where none has ever existed.

And if Russia backs down instead? Expect many liberal internationalists to claim vindication too. To them, Putin’s months of threats, unjust even if never acted on, are proof that Russia is an aggressor. Some may take Russian de-escalation as evidence that a tougher line would work even better. Members of U.S. Congress could seek to punish Russia in various ways, including by stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from becoming operational. Biden will need to take them on and insist it was his own realist approach that was truly vindicated by events. He will have to highlight the folly of punishing Moscow further, a blunder that would make Russia more likely to launch invasions in the future by giving it less to lose.

The future remains open, Biden might then say; even the United States’ adversaries may make choices based on how it acts toward them. But if Biden wants to reach the more peaceful future he seeks, he will have to be more determined to go down a realist path through serious diplomacy now.

Stephen Wertheim is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. Twitter: @stephenwertheim

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