Why Biden Wanted Americans to Know Exactly What Putin Was Planning

Why Biden Wanted Americans to Know Exactly What Putin Was Planning

President Joe Biden was right. His administration issued public warnings in January that Russia was moving large numbers of troops into position for a possible invasion of Ukraine. In the past few weeks, as diplomacy faltered and intelligence reports showed preparations for an attack escalating, the president has been even more explicit, declaring clearly and repeatedly that Russian president Vladimir Putin had decided to violently seize Ukrainian territory.

Now, with tanks rolling and bombs falling, just as predicted, Biden very much wishes he’d been wrong. There is no second-guessing among administration insiders, however, that the president chose the correct strategy in speaking bluntly and often about Putin’s intentions. They believe that calling out Russian false flag tactics slowed down the attack’s timeline. The messaging, combined with attempts to find a diplomatic solution, also placed blame squarely and completely where it belongs—on Putin’s shoulders. Harsher actions, like imposing sanctions before an invasion, would have given the Russian leader an excuse to shift responsibility. 

Biden’s public statements were also intended to aid American efforts to forge a unified front with European allies—a task in rebuilding trust that was made tougher because it followed four years of blustery Trump administration divisiveness toward NATO. “In many instances we downgraded the intelligence rating to enable us to share it with our allies and partners, to make sure everyone’s got the same understanding of the facts on the ground,” a senior administration official says. “So that was the strategy we adopted from the beginning, because we believed we will be much stronger if it isn’t just the U.S. responding. And it was important to do that not just behind the scenes, but in what we were saying publicly. On December 7, for instance, the president talked with Putin, and then Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, went to the podium right afterwards and laid out specific parts of the call. It’s about returning government to foreign policy driven by national interests, what’s best for the American people, as opposed to our leaders’ personal interests.”

Biden’s priority was trying to head off bloodshed in Ukraine. He was, of course, also weighing his words and actions with a domestic audience in mind. The president’s team is understandably loath to talk U.S. politics in the middle of an unpredictable international crisis. Yet the two components are necessarily intertwined: Confronting Russian aggression is somewhat easier if Biden’s moves have solid American public support behind them. “Definitely,” the senior adviser says. “It’s important for the American people to understand exactly the actions the administration is taking and the challenges we face.” And the president is well aware he is not operating in a vacuum, with the likes of Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio and Fox News claiming Biden’s “weakness” has somehow invited Putin to seize Ukraine. 

Just how much the broader American public cares about what’s happening in Ukraine is subject to more debate within Biden’s camp. One view—parallel to how Biden approached his 2020 campaign—is that while the war is inarguably an enormous human tragedy, the attention Ukraine is drawing in Beltway and media circles is considerably higher than it is across the rest of the country. A second perspective is that Americans care plenty—but those concerns don’t merely take conventional shapes. “People certainly get that this important. They care,” a Biden adviser says. “But the reporting isn’t just about where missiles are landing. There’s a connection being made about what this means for global inflation and the stock market going down. And after what everyone has been through the past two years, it just adds to the pain everyone is dealing with, the mental fatigue. This contributes to a feeling of being stuck in the mud, regardless of whether people agree or disagree with the president’s actions.”

With the military option for Ukraine’s defense off the table, the president has been left with rhetorical and financial plays. On Thursday afternoon, Biden reinforced the themes he’s been laying out for weeks. “Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences,” the president said at the White House while announcing new freezes of Russian economic assets. “America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.”

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