The Ukraine crisis is at a precarious point. U.S. and NATO officials expect that in the next several weeks, Vladimir Putin will decide whether to unleash the massive firepower he has amassed around Ukraine’s borders against his neighbor, or whether to roll back the threat.
“The only person who can tell you what Putin will decide is Putin,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “We are at a fork in the road. We are prepared either way. All we can do is try to affect his calculus.” Multiple senior U.S. officials with whom I spoke said they feel that it is “much more likely than not that Putin pulls the trigger on some kind of aggression.”
The U.S. and its allies are closely monitoring the leading indicators of Russian action. One such indicator is recent reports that the Russian military is moving supplies of blood that may be used to aid wounded troops closer to the Ukraine border. Another is on-going “training exercises” familiarizing the Russian military with the conditions in which they may be fighting. But, notes one senior State Department official, “It’s certainly within Putin’s modus operandi to make you think you’ve passed the point of no return and then he hits the return button.”
Why amass such a significant force on Ukraine’s borders if not to use it?
Blinken said, “[Putin] may think he is creating leverage. But he would be wrong.” Perhaps, U.S. analysts speculate, he might simply be seeking to put pressure on the Ukraine government in order to weaken or collapse it. Another analysis suggests he is seeking leverage—not for negotiations on NATO’s size that he knows are impossible—but for other discussions regarding weapons or energy or other issues on which the West is willing to engage.
Blinken commented, “If this was about a matter of so-called principle—a Russian belief, for example, that Ukraine can never be allowed to become part of the West and must remain beholden to Moscow—then we have an unresolvable difference. But if this is not about a principle but is practical—if it is about weapons systems, for example—then we can talk about that on a reciprocal basis.”
“What I’ve seen from President Putin over many years,” Blinken continued, “is that he is very interested in optionality—in gauging responses and then acting.”
One senior State Department official with whom I spoke described Putin as being “Like someone at a blackjack table who is playing multiple hands at the same time. The outcome of each hand influences how he plays the others. It may be strong tactically, but it is questionable strategically.”
“There may be another dynamic in play,” said the senior State Department official, “Putin has certainly not delivered effectively for his people at home. Hard to see how this current situation meets the needs and aspirations of the Russian people. But autocrats need distractions if they are not delivering at home. Even then, at some point you exhaust that option. And I believe we are getting close on that front too.”
U.S. officials note that prior to Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, European views of Russia were as high as 50 percent positive in places like France and Germany. But more recently, positive views of Russia have fallen dramatically. In Eastern Europe, views of Russia have not exceeded 30 percent since the seizure of Crimea in 2014.
At the same time, while Putin may have counted on a divided NATO and weakened U.S. leadership, he has not only encountered the opposite during this crisis, he has, in Blinken’s mind, “miscalculated.”
NATO has come together in a way it has seldom done since the end of the Cold War. What’s remarkable is the extent to which President Putin has precipitated what he seeks to prevent: growing antipathy in Ukraine for Russia, increasing support in Ukraine for joining NATO, the alliance’s reinforcement of its eastern flank, and more defense spending from previously reluctant allies. Throughout, the U.S. has played a central leadership role.
“What you are seeing now,” stated the Secretary of State, “is the product of a very deliberate and sustained effort. We have had, I believe, more meetings, calls and video engagements with our allies on this than anything I can think of in recent memory.” European diplomats confirmed this, calling the level and depth of internal NATO consultations, “unprecedented.”
Blinken emphasized that everything that has been undertaken by the allies in terms of the engagement with the Russians, including the recent one-on-one call and subsequent meeting between French President Macron and Putin, has been done in a carefully coordinated way. This has included close coordination with President Zelensky and the leaders in Ukraine. U.S. officials with whom I spoke postulated that Zelensky’s rationale for downplaying the crisis was a desire to avoid panic, not just among the population of Ukraine but in the markets. Recognizing these concerns is why, says Blinken, both the EU and the US have been actively working to prepare economic as well as military aid packages for Kyiv.
But while much attention has, for understandable reasons, been devoted to coverage of the current crisis and all its permutations, it’s the longer term implications and how they fit with an emerging view of a changing international order that is even more important. And while long-term strategy may not be Putin’s forte (he’s the blackjack player betting on a resurgence of Russian power that will never come), it is something at the forefront of the minds of Biden’s foreign policy and national security team.
“Our current efforts,” said Blinken, “are producing immediate and lasting benefits. We are leaving no diplomatic stone unturned. We are producing a unified response. And the results are greater solidarity.
That will lead to NATO having a clearer sense of purpose for years to come. At our next NATO summit, we hope to complete the update of our strategic concept. The last time it was updated was 2010. Russia was, at that time, considered a strategic partner. No longer—not because of anything NATO has done. Exclusively because of steps Putin has taken in the interim.”
But the ramifications extend further still. China is watching closely to see how the U.S. and Western allies respond to the Russian threat, in part because it echoes what could happen should China decide to invade Taiwan. (Something that one U.S. national security official told me was something the Chinese were gaming out in conjunction with Russia.)
Blinken spoke to the Chinese foreign minister directly on these issues: “I made the case that the very principles China tries to espouse about state sovereignty and territorial integrity are being violated by Russia. This, from our perspective, is about something bigger than Ukraine. This goes to the most basic principles of international relations that were established and agreed to in the wake of World War II.”
China, like Russia, has seen the Biden administration actively seek to translate its own principles into action. Biden, Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and their team are advocates of a strong international order, of alliances and multilateral institutions grounded in common values and the rule of law.
Blinken began his US government career at State in 1993, two years after the fall of the Soviet Union—in the post-Cold War period. During this time, virtually all international institutions have been largely adrift, many weakening, as the rationales on which they were established weakened or disappeared altogether (from containing the Soviet Union to promoting a geopolitical order that has been upset by the rise of China and other emerging powers and the faltering of some traditional powers).
The period since 1991 has been marked by a search for meaning and gradual obsolescence of many of the key alliances on which US power was built. Call it “the new world order” or “the new world disorder,” entities like NATO went through an identity crisis and the absence of comparable entities to address emerging challenges from China to climate also created challenges to the smooth functioning of the global community.
For U.S. foreign policy officials, that brief period of post-Cold War euphoria was marked by the hope for a benign Russia, economics-first international priorities, and the intoxicating fantasy of being the world’s sole superpower. The 9/11 attacks produced a shock to that system and led to both security priorities built around the vastly overstated threat of terrorism and the perversion of the hyperpower concept into unilateralism steeped in the idea that international law was something for other, lesser, nations but that we could play by our own rules.
The Barack Obama era came largely in reaction to the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters of the George W. Bush administration, which resulted in lofty ambitions that were often compromised by a surfeit of caution and a priority placed on not doing “stupid shit.” After that, of course, came Donald Trump—who actively sought to weaken virtually all the international institutions and ideals the U.S. had sought to build up for the prior 75 years.
Throughout all this, diplomacy as a centerpiece of foreign policy faded—whether it was shunted aside under Bill Clinton by the pre-eminence of the Treasury Department, or whether it was subordinated to security issues during the GWOT (global war on terror).
Secretaries of State during this time ranged from the nearly invisible to the ineffective to (in the last administration) the dangerous. None rose to the highest standards of the office—whether they be those of effectiveness as in the case of James Baker III, or sheer force of intellect and personality as in the case of Henry Kissinger, or in the case the creativity that gave us the foundations of the international system in the years following World War II, in the cases of George C. Marshall or Dean Acheson.
If you read about that period, whether in books like Acheson’s autobiography Present at the Creation or Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’ The Wise Men, one is struck by an era in which diplomats were brainy, patriotic, and content to work quietly out of the spotlight. They were also immensely creative, pragmatic, and dedicated to the proposition that active diplomacy was essential if the world was to avoid the horrific consequences of resolving its great problems by force.
More than any of his recent predecessors, Blinken is a throwback to this prior era. Yes, his elite background—New York private school, Harvard, co-editor of the Crimson, Columbia Law School—echoes the establishment of that earlier era. But the parallels are stronger still when looking at the years he spent working within the system, mastering the theories and practice of diplomacy and national security, and at his views on the importance of having a rules-based international order.
Further, like his predecessors, Blinken had the virtue of timing, of coming along at a moment when the system not only needed change, but our allies were as ready for it as much as we were.
The result has been, even in just one year, both the efforts to rebuild NATO’s cohesion from within (an effort that began before Putin’s troop build up surrounding Ukraine) and those to create a real security architecture for the Asia-Pacific where one was lacking. It has seen the U.S. not only recommit to joining or seeing to join institutions or agreements the Trump Administration left (the Paris Accords, the World Health Organization, the JCPOA with Iran) but work to strengthen those multilateral efforts.
It has also seen a recommitment by the president of the United States to place diplomacy squarely atop the list of his international tools. That commitment and the concomitant effort to reset U.S. priorities to meet the challenges of this era were also manifest in the Biden decision to exit America’s longest war, in Afghanistan.
Blinken and colleagues like Sullivan, who bring similar thinking, background, experience, and set of priorities to the job, are quietly doing what the Putins and the Trumps could not. They are managing the problems of the moment while keeping their eye on the need to address core structural issues that will be essential to mastering the problems of tomorrow. They are also reintroducing concepts that have become alien to the top-level practice of U.S. foreign policy in recent years, qualities one EU diplomat called, “refreshing and, in a way, revolutionary.”
Perhaps most revolutionary among these is what Blinken described in one of his first speeches as Secretary as a balance of “confidence and humility.” This means approaching partnerships not by dictating but by listening, by not imposing views, as manifest in the slogan that has defined the Ukraine diplomatic push, “nothing about us without us.”
It remains early in the tenure of this administration. But this quiet approach combined with clear beliefs, a coherent worldview, and an eye on the strategic needs of the U.S. may well have finally brought us to that “Present at the Creation 2.0” moment the system has needed, the most constructive reset since the end of the Cold War and one that echoes the building of the international order that was begun by those “wise men” back in the days following the Second World War.
Blinken, who has just completed his first year as America’s chief diplomat, described the current situation and thinking about them by saying, “We have a traditional set of problems, some of which have reemerged that include great power rivalries, efforts to prevent conflict and make peace and other things in the traditional wheelhouse of the State Department. At the same time, it is imperative that we address a host of new challenges—pandemics, climate, the impact of emerging technologies. We are trying to ensure that we have the structure and strategies necessary to address these both internally at State and via international institutions. There, we are trying to build a variable geometry of coalitions to deal with current and emerging realities—some via existing institutions, some via new groupings like the Quad or AUKUS in the Pacific. The basic idea at the heart of all these efforts is, however, the same. We know we can only effectively deal with the challenges we face by working with others. And where the US has better ability than others to mobilize groups and undertake actions, revitalize alliances or create new ones, we will work to do that.
“Whether in the end,” Blinken concluded, “these efforts resemble the beautiful geometry of the post-World War II architecture or the end result is more shape-shifting and modern, we must acknowledge we are better off working within such institutions and alliances to deal with the challenges and threats we face.”