President Joe Biden’s trip to mark the anniversary of the war in Ukraine is highlighting an even more grave challenge – a new era of simultaneous and sometimes intertwined US confrontations with nuclear rivals Russia and China.
Biden’s dramatic visit to Kyiv Monday amid wailing air raid sirens and his soaring speech in Warsaw a day later reinforced the West’s remarkable support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russia and directly repudiated President Vladimir Putin.
But Putin issued his riposte in an annual address, framing the war in Ukraine as a wider existential battle against the West. After Biden vowed the US will be with Ukraine for as long as it takes, Putin’s speech underlined just how long that may be, raising the possibility of more years of war that will stretch the commitment of Western governments and populations to the cause.
China is meanwhile injecting its own strategic play into this widening great power brouhaha. It sent its top diplomat Wang Yi – his ears ringing with US warnings not to send Russia arms to use in Ukraine – to Moscow for high-level talks, even as a Sino-American spy balloon feud simmers.
This week’s developments do not mean that the future national security threats to the US from Beijing and Moscow are the same. The war in Ukraine has often exposed Russian weakness while worries about China’s rising power will preoccupy Washington for much of this century. And the two US foes are not locked in a formal alliance against the US, even if both see ways that they can advance their own aspirations to harm American interests and power by working together.
But this moment finds the United States negotiating worsening foreign policy crises at the same time – with its former Cold War adversaries in the Kremlin and its belligerent new superpower rival led by Xi Jinping. Both these rivals are openly challenging the international rule of law and rejecting norms that have underpinned the international system for decades.
The idea of a global contest between democracies and autocracies seemed theoretical and intangible when Biden voiced it while running for president. Now it is all too real.
And this new and complicated foreign policy picture is not just a problem for American diplomats. Rising challenges abroad as well, as the depletion of US and Western weapons stocks as arms are sent to Ukraine, pose questions about military capacity and whether current defense spending is sufficient. Key Republicans meanwhile are accusing Biden of snubbing voters facing economic and other problems, even as he tries to position Democrats as the protectors of working Americans as the 2024 campaign dawns.
In terms of presidential stagecraft, Biden overshadowed Putin this week, with his daring overnight train journey into Kyiv and speech in the Polish capital, a location chosen for its role on NATO’s frontline. Putin’s address to the Russian parliament was a staider affair, sprinkled with his now familiar nuclear threats and conspiracy theories about the West.
Biden often seemed to be talking directly to the Russian leader, trying to expose him to Russians, Europeans and Americans as a tyrant responsible for disastrous blunders and inhumanity in Ukraine a year after his invasion. He listed strategic consequences of the invasion that drew Kyiv closer to the West and strengthened NATO – exactly the opposite of Putin’s war aims. He mocked the former KGB colonel over how his aggression has led to one Scandinavian state whose national sovereignty was once dominated by the Soviet Union but now wants to join the western alliance: “He thought he’d get the Finlandization of NATO, instead he got the NATOization of Finland … and Sweden.”
And Biden vowed, “President Putin’s craven lust for land and power will fail, and the Ukrainian people’s love for their country will prevail,” he added.
“Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia.”
That may be the case. But Putin made clear in his speech that there was no prospect of the war ending soon. In telling Russians the conflict was critical to their own nation’s existence and part of an effort by the West to attack Russia, he set the stage for months more bloodshed and narrowed even further already distant avenues for some kind of face-saving exit if Russia does not prevail.
“I want to repeat: It was they who unleashed the war,” Putin said. “And we used and continue to use force to stop it.”
In photos: Biden visits Ukraine and Poland
To Western ears, Putin seems to be living in an alternative reality. And Biden contradicted his claims of Western imperialism, saying, “I speak once more to the people of Russia. The United States and the nations of Europe do not seek to control or destroy Russia. The West was not plotting to attack Russia, as Putin said today.”
But dismissing Putin’s conspiratorial claims and sense that the West is engaged in a long campaign to topple him would be a mistake. While conventional victory may be beyond Russia, Putin may be able to live with a long grinding war that inflicts devastation on more Ukrainian cities, kills more Ukrainians, ends up costing Western governments billions and gradually hikes pressures on leaders in the US and Europe to pull back.
The Russian leader will likely be watching rising opposition to Biden’s involvement in the war among conservatives in the US. On Monday, for instance, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hinted – on the very day that Biden was standing with Ukrainians in Kyiv – that the future of Ukraine would not be priority should he win the White House.
“The fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all that, and steamrolling, that has not even come close to happening,” DeSantis said on Fox. “I think they have shown themselves to be a third-rate military power.”
Comments by DeSantis and other Republicans like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has warned against a “blank check” to Kyiv, show that while Biden can promise the US is with Kyiv for “as long as it takes,” he cannot guarantee it. The 2024 election may be as crucial for Ukraine as it is for the United States.
Biden’s trip also demonstrated that the estrangement between the US and Russia – a factor that will shape global politics for years – is almost complete.
Putin, for example, announced Tuesday that Russia would suspend participation in the New START nuclear treaty with the United States. It was not clear what practical impact this would have since Moscow has stopped fully implementing the deal.
Given that its economy is struggling, and its conventional forces are under extreme pressure, Russia also lacks resources to ignite a new nuclear arms race with Washington. But the collapse of one of the last building blocks of a post-Cold War thaw between Russia and the US exemplifies the almost total lack of communication between the rivals.
The Biden administration’s accusation last week that Russia has committed crimes against humanity ensures there will be no return to normality between Washington and Moscow even if the Ukraine war ends.
Any time the top two nuclear powers are not talking is dangerous — one reason why US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday Washington was willing to discuss the nuclear situation with Russia no matter what else was going on.
Even as it confronts Russia in Ukraine, the US is seeking to dampen its latest crisis with China – over what Washington says was a Chinese spy balloon that wafted over the continental US earlier this month. The two showdowns came closer to a linkage this week as the US warned China not to supply Russia with arms that it could use in the war in Ukraine and as Wang headed to Moscow.
Russia and China agreed on a friendship with “no limits” before Russia’s invasion last year, playing into long term US fears of a united front between Moscow and Beijing. The Chinese foreign ministry bristled that Washington, which has sent a stream of high-tech weaponry into Ukraine, was in no position to lecture China on the issue.
Any effort by China to supply arms for the Ukraine war would not shift the strategic balance of the battlefield – but it would be a grave and hostile new front for the US-China rivalry.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that such a step would cross a US red line but did not specify what consequences could result.
There is no public evidence yet that China, while offering rhetorical support for Russia over Ukraine, has supplied lethal arms for the conflict. And the idea of a formal alliance against Washington by Russia and China still seems unlikely – given the power imbalance between Beijing and Moscow in China’s favor.
China, which has its own economic problems, may be unwilling to risk US sanctions that could result from sending arms to Moscow. But Beijing may also have an interest in the war being prolonged in the belief that it could distract the US and its military resources from Biden’s growing efforts to respond to China’s dominance in Asia.
A long-dragging conflict could also drive divides between the US and Europe – further playing into China’s foreign policy goals. And it could further incite political dissent in Washington, weakening Biden’s capacity to fulfill his foreign policy goals on the global stage.
So, there are many reasons why China – which has long seen the war in Ukraine through the prism of its rivalry with the US – may not be in a hurry to see the war in Ukraine end.
That’s yet another nettlesome foreign policy problem that Biden must confront.