Biden Is Still Worried About Poking the Russian Bear

“If that’s our attitude, we’re never going to win a war again, ever,” said one U.S. source familiar with the debate.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with US President Joe Biden prior to their meeting at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva on June 16, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with US President Joe Biden prior to their meeting at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva on June 16, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with US President Joe Biden prior to their meeting at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva on June 16, 2021. Denis Balibouse/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is more than 100 days old, and despite providing enough U.S. military aid during that time to nearly double Kyiv’s defense budget, the Biden administration remains concerned about provoking Russia into a wider war, a stance that has frustrated many in Washington and Eastern Europe. 

Even after U.S. President Joe Biden signed off on providing the long-range High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to Ukraine last week, the U.S. administration faced criticism from NATO allies and Capitol Hill that the aid was too little, too late. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had been publicly beseeching Biden to send longer-range munitions, both publicly and privately, for almost two months. 

It’s a back-and-forth debate within the administration that has come to characterize U.S. military aid deliveries to Ukraine for more than a year. Defenders of the Biden administration’s caution believe it is a prudent approach to dealing with the wounded but still nuclear-armed Russian bear that could lash out and widen the conflict. And Russia could still frustrate U.S. aims in a number of arenas, from the Iran nuclear deal to accords over OPEC oil production or even cyberspace.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is more than 100 days old, and despite providing enough U.S. military aid during that time to nearly double Kyiv’s defense budget, the Biden administration remains concerned about provoking Russia into a wider war, a stance that has frustrated many in Washington and Eastern Europe. 

Even after U.S. President Joe Biden signed off on providing the long-range High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to Ukraine last week, the U.S. administration faced criticism from NATO allies and Capitol Hill that the aid was too little, too late. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had been publicly beseeching Biden to send longer-range munitions, both publicly and privately, for almost two months. 

It’s a back-and-forth debate within the administration that has come to characterize U.S. military aid deliveries to Ukraine for more than a year. Defenders of the Biden administration’s caution believe it is a prudent approach to dealing with the wounded but still nuclear-armed Russian bear that could lash out and widen the conflict. And Russia could still frustrate U.S. aims in a number of arenas, from the Iran nuclear deal to accords over OPEC oil production or even cyberspace.

The Biden administration has sent more than $4.6 billion in military aid since the invasion began—more than any previous U.S. administration. But caution has caused frustration in some corners of the U.S. government and beyond, where officials worry that questions are delaying top-grade U.S. and NATO weapons from getting to the battlefield to help Ukrainians push back a determined Russian assault.

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin began to build up troops on Ukraine’s borders last year, U.S. officials have been raising concerns behind closed doors about providing weapons or assistance that could be seen as escalatory. Last year, the Biden administration briefly held off on providing Javelin anti-tank missiles twice—in June and December 2021— before sending the weapons and once considered canceling the U.S. Army’s largest training exercise in Europe, fearing that Russia could see the moves as escalatory. Up until just before the Russian invasion, most of the Javelins provided by the United States and Western countries since 2017 were kept under lock and key in storage facilities in western Ukraine, far away from the front lines.

And the pattern kept up after Putin ordered troops over the border on Feb. 24 after months of saber-rattling. In the first several days of Russia’s invasion, when U.S. intelligence reports worried that the Kremlin’s advance could topple Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in a matter of days, a heated debate broke out within the Biden administration about the legality of arming the Ukrainian resistance, with officials on the U.S. National Security Council warning that Moscow could call out Washington as a co-combatant. The Biden administration also approved sending Stinger anti-aircraft missiles after a heated internal debate just days into the conflict.

Ukrainian officials are worried that the Biden administration’s fear of poking the Russian bear is continuing to hold back weapons that they need to win the war. In March, the United States rejected a Polish proposal to provide Ukraine with MiG-29 fighter jets through an U.S. military base in Germany, with U.S. officials publicly calling the proposal “not tenable” before airing worries that Russia could see the move as a provocation. Even though Ukraine was able to get 20 MiG-29 fighters flying again with the help of European allies, Kyiv has seen further requests for U.S.-made F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fall on deaf ears. 

Most recently, the United States held back on providing so-called Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), a guided munition that can hit targets more than 180 miles away, despite weeks of cajoling at multiple levels by Ukrainian officials behind closed doors, including repeated promises that they wouldn’t use the long-range weapons to target Russian soil, which some in the Biden administration fear could expand the conflict.

“I think the overarching idea that they’re using to make decisions is to avoid conflict with Russia,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the trans-Atlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security. The Biden administration has proven increasingly willing to provide Ukraine with more sophisticated and powerful weaponry as the conflict has progressed and the Ukrainian armed forces have proven to be highly effective and resourceful. 

“The so-called red lines, or what the United States has seen as escalatory, have been moving. It puts us in a little bit of a dangerous position where I don’t think either side really knows that the red line of the other is,” said Kendall-Taylor, who briefly served as Russia director on the U.S. National Security Council in the Biden administration.

The back and forth—which seems to come up with every new weapons system that the U.S. Defense Department has provided—has left officials in Zelensky’s camp struggling to grasp the United States’ logic. “I’m not sure how this calculus works because I think it’s more of a media thing rather than the objective truth,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to the Zelensky administration. “Because if we want to target Russia, we can do it from 20 miles or 30 miles. We could just get them to the contact line.” 

Another Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about ongoing weapons transfers, said Ukraine wants more precision weapons to strike at Russian command and control posts that have been set up in occupied towns and intermingled with the population to prevent killing their own people. “If you cut off the head, it could [create] panic” within the ranks of Russian troops, the official added. “We want to save our infrastructure. We want to save our population.”

But most diplomatic talks between the United States and Russia, including nuclear arms control, are on the shelf—for now. Some believe the Biden administration has continued to go out of its way not to poke Russia rather than focusing on what Ukraine needs on the battlefield. Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the United States, said in a statement that the risk of Ukraine using U.S.-provided weapons to strike at Russian cities is “unacceptable and intolerable” to the Kremlin. 

The Biden administration has debated over whether or not to take Putin and his team at their word for seeming red lines set out by the Kremlin. The top U.S. commander in Europe, Gen. Tod Wolters, told Foreign Policy in late May that Russia had made efforts to target supplies of Western weapons into Ukraine but had not been successful. The Russian Foreign Ministry has made vague threats about retaliation in cyberspace, saying “there will be no winners in a direct cyber clash of states.”

The Biden administration sent shorter-range rockets to Ukraine this week out of fear that longer-range weapons might be trained on Russian soil. But some who tracked the back-and-forth fight over the system came away frustrated by the Biden administration’s seeming unwillingness to take the Ukrainians at their word. “It’s bullshit,” said one U.S. source familiar with the debate over the system. “The Ukrainians already said they wouldn’t do that. This concern is made up.” 

The debate has begun to take on an East-versus-West feel, with Eastern European countries pushing hard to arm themselves and Ukraine for the Russian threat, and Western European countries pushing for a potential off-ramp with Putin. Speaking to reporters over the weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron courted controversy when he said the West “must not humiliate Russia.” 

“If that’s our attitude, we’re never going to win a war again, ever,” said one U.S. source familiar with the debate. “The worst possible thing we could do right now would be a premature cease-fire to let Russia consolidate its gains, regenerate new forces, and then just continue at a time of its choosing. Ukraine can win. We just need to give them the decisive support they need to get it done.” 

But National Security Council officials insisted on a call with experts detailed to Foreign Policy that the United States is not attempting to dictate Zelensky’s priorities for a diplomatic endgame. Since Biden’s stated position has been to avoid getting the United States involved in a war with Russia, the officials insisted they are measuring every decision to provide weapons against whether it tips the balance toward conflict between Moscow and the West while simultaneously ensuring that Russia isn’t able to conduct similar invasions in the future. Some officials indicate that the United States is not limiting assistance but providing upgraded gear, such as artillery, as the battlefield changes. 

But some in Washington and Kyiv believe fear of escalation with Russia is essentially self-defeating, limiting the United States from sending Ukraine the highest caliber of weapons that could actually help win the war instead of a protracted stalemate with a better-equipped Russian military. One Ukrainian official told Foreign Policy that with 200 ATACMS, the long-range rockets, Ukraine “can kill every single battalion commander, regimental commander, army commander for the Russian invasion force in a week, especially having the drones to find them.” 

“We are deterring ourselves,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe who is now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank. “We have somehow convinced ourselves that if you ever end up in any situation with American versus Russian, it’s going to be World War III—the last scene of Dr. Strangelove with all the nuclear explosions. It’s not what’s going to happen. The last thing the Russians want is a conflict with NATO.”

While Hodges acknowledged that Biden has “immense pressure” on him over risk assessments of a wider war with Russia, he said there has been no evidence so far that Moscow would approve a massive escalation, such as a nuclear strike, over the provision of a single weapons system, such as multiple rocket launchers. 

Although Ukraine is only getting four multiple rocket launcher systems and 48 rockets in the first batch of deliveries, which will come after U.S. training outside of the country, according to the Ukrainian military official, it could set the table for deliveries of more advanced systems. Ukraine is in talks with the Pentagon to acquire about a half-dozen Gray Eagle drones armed with hellfire missiles, one of the U.S. military’s signature weapons in the hunt for terrorists in the past decade. (Reuters first reported on the possible deliveries last week.) And the British government has also announced that it will provide multiple rocket launch systems to Ukraine. 

Yet the fear of poking Russia is still real in some corners in Washington—and long held. Hodges said fear of provoking Russia inside of Washington dates back nearly a decade to back-and-forth arguments about arming the Ukrainians during the Obama administration. When the United States first provided the AN/TPQ-36 radar to Ukraine in 2015, it was programmed so it could not identify a point of origin for a weapons’ launch if it was inside Russia, Hodges said. 

“Here we are more than three months into this and we’re just now finally coming to the point of, ‘OK, let’s give them [multiple launch rocket systems] with 80 kilometer-range weapons,’” Hodges said. “Holy shit. Can you imagine if we had done that like two months ago?”

Amy Mackinnon contributed to this report.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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