Foreign Policy

Brief #108 

Biden and the Conflict in Ukraine

By Will Solomon

April 15,2021 


The last several weeks have seen a significant escalation of tensions in Eastern Ukraine, a focal point of confrontation between the United States/NATO, and Russia. It has been reported that Russia has amassed troops on the Ukrainian border, with some estimates suggesting as many as 40,000 are currently stationed there. Russia has publicly claimed their troop movements are due to NATO provocations. Much of Eastern Ukraine, a predominately Russian-speaking region, has been effectively controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

In response, the European Union, United States, and NATO have assured Ukraine of support. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but the US has supplied weapons to the country, and NATO has been involved with training of Ukrainian military units.

Because Eastern Ukraine has become a focal point for antagonism between Russia and the West, the conflict conveys both immense symbolic importance, and potentially, were it to escalate, the alarming prospect of more severe military confrontation.



The situation in Ukraine is complex and difficult to understand without knowledge of the long and complex history of the region. The history extends a long way, but of particular relevance was a deal apparently broached in 1990, during German reunification negotiations, that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe. This agreement was fairly quickly abrogated by NATO, as numerous former Warsaw Pact countries were brought into the organization. While Ukraine is not presently a NATO member, membership has been a prospect for over a decade. Popular support for joining has evidently grown in recent years, and many segments of Ukrainian leadership clearly desire membership.

Historically and presently, major geopolitical rivalries have acknowledged spheres of influence and the maintenance of delicate balances of power. Ukraine has a particularly close historical relationship with Russia, and so the prospect of further NATO encroachment on the Russian border is understandably seen as a threat to the Putin regime. This is not to suggest Russian movement in Ukraine is justified, but to recognize the conflict exists within a complex set of international relationships, and that NATO and the US have some role in creating the current situation. (Notably, for these and other reasons, at the start of the present conflict in 2014, President Obama chose not to supply Ukraine directly with lethal weapons, so as not to exacerbate the conflict in that way—a policy rescinded by the Trump administration).

It might also be acknowledged that the development (and Western fostering) of Ukrainian nationalism, in opposition to Russia, has some ugly and volatile undercurrents. One has been the rise of an anti-Russian far right in Ukraine, symbolized by groups like the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion. While hardly indicative of all opposition to Russia within Ukraine, such hardliners are increasingly legitimized by aggressive Western military support.

While many observers oppose Putin’s tactics, the fact remains that military confrontation between Russia and NATO could quickly spiral into catastrophe, and that  the induction of Ukraine into NATO—are going to fuel a budding US/Russia confrontation. Again, despite American and Western opinions of Putin, Russia maintains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, in a world in which nuclear regulatory agreements are increasingly coming apart, and nuclear modernization and even re-armament are proceeding dangerously.

Biden has generally taken a hard line towards Russia, both through his campaign and early presidency. Just last month, he controversially referred to Putin as a “killer” in an interview, prompting the Russians to recall their ambassador. This said, recent reports suggest Biden has made some diplomatic overture to Putin in the hopes of holding a summit on issues of joint interest: “The Kremlin said in its account of the call that Biden told Putin he wanted to normalize relations and to cooperate on arms control, Iran’s nuclear program, Afghanistan and climate change.” If true, this diplomatic rapprochement will presumably involve discussions around Ukraine, and will hopefully be a first step towards de-escalation in the region.

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