Biden’s Russia policy is going better than planned. Success remains painfully hopeless.

Putin’s ability to withstand international pressure and the vice-like economic sanctions that have been imposed on his country, at least for now, has left Biden and his allies limited leverage. The President has repeatedly stressed that he is not prepared to risk a confrontation with Russia that would escalate into World War III, despite culminating his four days in Europe with the most defiant and aggressive speech on Russia by an American President since Ronald Reagan of the war ended the cold war.

“Don’t even think about entering an inch of NATO territory,” said Biden, standing in front of a palace in Warsaw.

But then days of carefully choreographed messages were undone, and Biden deviated from the script to end his speech with an unplanned and dramatic escalation of rhetoric.

“For God’s sake, this man can’t stay in power,” Biden said of Putin.

Although the president has in recent days called the Russian leader a “butcher” and a war criminal, the seeming embrace of regime change stunned veteran foreign policy observers. White House officials rushed to say Biden was not making any new American policy after that team spent weeks carefully avoiding such a statement.

But the moment — those nine little words — turned the journey on its head and threatened to upset the careful balance that Biden had attempted to condemn Putin without provoking him. Putin, a former KGB officer, has long feared the United States would try to depose him, and hearing those words from an American president could prompt him, officials fear, to widen or end the conflict fight back to preserve his energy.

The initial reaction from the Kremlin was predictably harsh, with spokesman Dimitry Peskov telling reporters, “This is not Biden’s business. The President of Russia is elected by Russians.”

Even before Biden made those remarks, the war appeared poised to enter a new phase as it entered its second month — one in which an ending seemed increasingly difficult to imagine.

A senior Russian commander signaled on Friday that Moscow was trimming down its targets, saying that the military would focus on “the complete liberation of Donbass” — the south-eastern region home to a Kremlin-backed separatist insurgency — and that the Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv, were merely a red herring to weaken opposition forces so they could no longer defend contested separatist territory.

At first glance, this claim was nonsense. Russian forces had attempted to capture Kyiv within the first hours of the war, only to be held up by a combination of their own tactical errors, equipment failures and surprisingly brave resistance from the Ukrainian military. A war that many in the Kremlin thought could last only days had turned into a terrible mess in which Russian forces took extraordinary casualties.

But the notion of the Kremlin curtailing its war aim was met with skepticism from Biden officials, who suggested it could be a distraction while Russia continued its assault elsewhere. Some military analysts believe that Putin will soon withdraw some ground troops – to avoid further casualties that could politically damage him at home – and instead embark on a protracted, long-range bombing campaign to destroy Ukrainian cities.

Indeed, the day after the Kremlin announced a possible narrowing of its mission, Russian missiles fell on the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, far from the center of the conflict and just 45 miles from Poland, where Biden spent Saturday. A senior White House official likened it to a “warning shot across the bow.”

Were Moscow’s professed new plan to materialize, it would still leave Biden in a bind. If the Kremlin were content to claim only Separatist territory, it would be a humiliating end to a full-scale invasion aimed at restoring all of Ukraine to what Putin considers its rightful homeland: part of Russia. But the West would almost certainly refuse to recognize this as a legitimate solution to the conflict. Moreover, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has stated outright that he is not ready to give up any territory to end the war.

Biden himself has to weigh up domestic political considerations in view of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. His poll ratings have not improved since the conflict began. But he has garnered high praise at home — even from some Republicans — for his handling of the crisis.

On the first leg of his trip, Biden announced that the US would take in more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees amid the growing humanitarian crisis. He then gave a face to the promise by visiting a camp of exiles who had fled to Poland. Once he picked up and smiled at a little girl. The president also urged NATO to send more troops to countries bordering Russia and paid a visit to thank — and share pizza with — a division of American troops.

He has secured more than $2 billion in military and security aid to Ukraine. Along with the rest of the West, he has also imposed a crippling series of sanctions that have reduced Russia’s economy to rubble, while warning Moscow’s friends – namely China – about the consequences of supporting Putin’s war would. But a much raucous effort announced in Brussels this week to help Europe reduce its reliance on Russian energy – a trade that helps power Moscow’s war machine – was seen as having little immediate impact on the crisis.

The war posed an unexpected test of one of the central premises of Biden’s presidencies: that the world’s democracies had to prove not only that they could govern effectively, but that they could also serve as a bulwark for emerging autocracies. Biden has cemented allies rocked by Donald Trump’s four tumultuous years, even as many European capitals are quietly wondering if his foreign policy is simply an aberration before Trump or someone like him regains power.

Despite Biden reviving alliances and delivering a stern warning to Putin, the end of the war seemed no nearer when Air Force One took off from Warsaw back to Washington on Saturday night. A short time later, the air raid sirens wailed again in Lemberg. Biden’s Russia policy is going better than planned. Success remains painfully hopeless.

Fry Electronics Team

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