Why Biden wrote about the Russia-Ukraine war for the New York Times

President Joe Biden wrote an op-ed for The New York Times on Tuesday attempting to clearly outline what the US is — and isn’t — willing to do in this stage of supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion. At a time when critics from various quarters of the political spectrum have questioned whether some of the president’s rhetoric and aid packages to Ukraine have been reckless, the essay provides some overdue clarity and signals of constraint from the notoriously gaffe-prone president. But experts say Biden’s piece still leaves some major questions unanswered regarding the US role in supporting Ukraine.

In the op-ed, Biden emphasizes the point that the US is helping Ukraine to protect it from Russia. “America’s goal is straightforward: We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with the means to determine and defend itself against further aggression,” Biden wrote.

Biden rules out a number of scenarios, including NATO attacking Russia without being attacked first, the US seeking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ouster or “encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.”

“We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia,” Biden wrote.

The statements were a clear attempt to clarify the administration’s goals after various controversial bits of rhetoric from the White House muddied the waters in recent months. For example, in March Biden bewildered antiwar critics when he refused to walk back a statement that Putin “cannot remain in power.” In April, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US’s goal is to “see Russia weakened,” stating with remarkable candor that the US saw Ukraine as an opportunity to wage a proxy war against an adversary and generally deplete its resources.

While Biden’s massive $40 billion aid package to Ukraine in May received bipartisan support, a notable number of Republicans dissented, arguing that it was wasteful spending or not in the US’s national interests to invest so heavily in a foreign war. Eleven Republican senators voted against it, as did 57 House Republicans.

There have been growing signs of impatience and concern even within liberal establishment institutions. Consider a pair of columns last month in The New York Times: Thomas Friedman, a liberal foreign policy hawk, argued that the increasing scope of US assistance to Ukraine — which includes intelligence sharing that helped target Russian generals — shows that the US was “edging toward a direct war” with Russia. And conservative writer Christopher Caldwell wrote there this week that “the United States is trying to maintain the fiction that arming one’s allies is not the same thing as participating in combat.”

Biden’s piece is an attempt at a reset, an attempt at assuring critics that mission creep is not at play and that the US remains wary of direct confrontation with Moscow. Yet at the same time, the op-ed is far from a paean to dovishness.

In the essay Biden announces that he will be sending a new package of more advanced rocket systems and munitions that will allow Ukraine to “to more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield in Ukraine.” These new mobile rocket launchers will be outfitted with rockets that don’t allow the launchers to hit their maximum range, but they still have a longer range than anything the US has sent to Ukraine so far.

Experts say the new weapons system is a sign that Biden is striking a middle ground between those who want to give Ukraine the biggest weapons possible and those who believe that going overboard with support could trigger an escalatory spiral with Moscow.

“What the United States wants to do is to provide Ukraine with the ability to fight back there along the line of contact in the Donbas, slow Russia’s advance and deny the Russians the ability to take all the Donbas, which is clearly an important objective” for Russia, George Beebe, a former director of Russia analysis at the CIA, told me. “But not to allow the Ukrainians what you might call a ‘strategic capability’ to strike at strategic targets deep in Russian territory, and, in so doing, clearly escalate the war, and potentially provoke further escalation on Russia’s part.”

Despite Biden’s attempt at clarity, some big questions remain unanswered. Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, told me that the op-ed doesn’t address the critical question of where the US stands on how far it will support Ukraine in its quest to recover lost territory. Since the war began, Russia has expanded its control of Ukraine’s Donbas region from roughly one-third of the region to two-thirds of it. (Prior to the invasion, Russia had already effectively controlled some Donbas territory by backing separatist rebels there for close to a decade.)

“Does US support extend to fighting Russia to a stalemate? Does it extend to rolling them back to the prewar lines? Does it extend to Crimea from 2014?” Ashford said, referring in her last question to the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014, but which many Western analysts consider a lost cause for Ukraine since it has effectively been integrated into the Russian state.

While Russia’s military operation fared extremely poorly in the opening months of the war, Moscow is now focused on an effort to control and potentially annex more of the eastern region of the country. In recent weeks it has made significant gains, and analysts have pointed out that it’s possible Moscow is committed to a long slog. That’s why the US’s position on Ukraine’s territorial goals is so crucial: How long and how far will the US go in participating as a belligerent in a risky theater of war?

Biden’s op-ed provided more clarity about the US’s goals, and clarity is tremendously important when facing off against a nuclear power. But the nature of US aid to Ukraine and the complexities posed by a protracted conflict leave many pressing questions up in the air.

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