Russia’s recent but short-lived insurrection has presented President Joe Biden with a particularly challenging dilemma that has perplexed his predecessors over the past few decades on how to navigate the complex relationship with Vladimir Putin effectively. Since the era of President Bill Clinton, each successive U.S. commander-in-chief has attempted to engage with the former KGB officer, who was motivated by his country’s decline after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Many sought to reset U.S.-Russia relations in some capacity, yet all could not prevent the deterioration of ties between these two formidable nuclear powers.
Former President George W. Bush famously claimed to have glimpsed into Putin’s soul, only to witness the invasion of Georgia under his leadership. Obama initially viewed the Russian leader as a partner in their shared objective to mitigate the risk of nuclear catastrophe, but Putin’s subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014 shattered that illusion. As for Donald Trump, he adopted a deferential stance towards Putin, an autocratic figure who happened to be a U.S. adversary. Trump’s admiration for Putin often appeared to outweigh any inclination to criticize him.
The recent but short-lived insurrection in Russia has presented President Joe Biden with his most daunting dilemma, surpassing the conundrums that perplexed the last five U.S. presidents in their approach to Vladimir Putin.#Russia #Putin #Biden2024 #Biden #Ukraine #JoeBiden pic.twitter.com/pADFDvX2fF
— News Live (@NewsLiveFree) July 3, 2023
Biden’s Response to Putin’s Actions and the Consequences for Ukraine
President Biden, who experienced the height of the U.S.-Soviet standoff as a senator in Washington in the 1970s and 1980s, possessed a more realistic understanding of Putin than many others. However, even he attempted to thaw the icy relations by engaging in a summit with the Russian president in Geneva in 2021.
However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shifted Biden’s approach, leading him to bolster the NATO alliance and provide an extraordinary flow of arms and ammunition to ensure Ukraine’s survival. This Western support has enabled Ukraine to resist the invading forces and transformed the conflict into a protracted struggle, increasing political pressure on Putin. These conditions on the battlefield likely played a role in the recent rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the mercenary group known as the Wagner Group.
On Monday, Putin appeared defiant on camera, emphasizing that he could have easily quashed the uprising if the leader of the Wagner Group had not chosen to halt the march on Moscow, agreeing to an ostensible exile in Belarus.
It was widely acknowledged beyond Russia that the recent standoff posed the gravest challenge to Putin’s control during his time in power, and it could represent a significant crack in his authority, signaling the beginning of its end. This places President Biden in a unique position that none of his predecessors, who grappled with Putin, had to confront—the possibility that he is navigating the endgame of this modern-day czar while also facing the unsettling prospect of instability within a nuclear superpower, carrying potential global ramifications.
Maintaining a Delicate Balance: Biden’s Approach to the Russian Crisis
Amid the tumultuous events that unfolded in Russia over the weekend, the United States and its allies were resolute in categorizing the abortive confrontation between Putin and Prigozhin as an internal matter for Russia. President Biden took deliberate steps to dismiss such claims in response to Moscow’s propaganda offensive on Monday, insinuating possible Western intelligence involvement in the coup attempt. He emphasized his consultations with Western leaders to ensure a measured approach, stating unequivocally, “We gave Putin no excuse to blame the West or NATO. We clarified that we were uninvolved and had no connection to these events.”
On Monday, CNN reported that the United States had advanced knowledge of Prigozhin’s intentions, but this information was shared selectively with senior officials and key allies, including the British. This revelation underscores the notion that the U.S. has been obtaining high-quality, accurate intelligence from within Russia, which likely fuels Putin’s growing sense of unease and reinforces his entrenched mentality.
President Biden’s remarks also highlight the paradoxical nature of his strategy toward Putin. While providing substantial military aid to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to bolster Ukraine’s defense and survival, Biden simultaneously stresses that the U.S. is not directly confronting Russia. His objective is to avert a dangerous escalation between NATO and Russian forces, which could potentially lead to a catastrophic world war-like scenario.
Expanding Red Lines and Geopolitical Maneuvering
The Ukraine conflict’s boundaries have continuously expanded, surpassing previous expectations. The influx of ammunition, heavy artillery, Patriot anti-missile systems, and tanks into Ukraine would have been unimaginable when Putin ordered the crossing of troops over the border in February of the previous year.
Nonetheless, President Biden’s assertion that the United States had no involvement in the recent weekend rebellion is highly likely to be accurate. The U.S. has no vested interest in a clash between a warlord like Prigozhin, whose mercenaries have been implicated in a range of atrocities in Ukraine and Syria, and a Russian leader who faces an international arrest warrant for war crimes.
Moscow’s claims of Western complicity in the uprising are perceived as a tactic to divert attention from internal divisions threatening Putin’s power grip. These assertions are intended to rally Russians against an external adversary. Putin has consistently framed the war in Ukraine as a battle against what he perceives as Western attempts to deny Russia its rightful place as a global power. However, this narrative distracts from the fact that he dispatched his troops into Ukraine, violating international law and triggering a conflict that has exposed the supposedly formidable Russian army as ill-equipped and poorly led, a mere shadow of the once mighty Red Army that sustained the Soviet Empire.
Western Governments Seize Political Opportunity Amidst Putin’s Power Struggles
Western countries, while cautious not to display overt triumphalism during Prigozhin’s rebellion, are now strategically leveraging the situation to exert political pressure on Putin within Russia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, appearing on American Sunday talk shows, emphasized that the United States had no involvement in the uprising but highlighted the cracks in Putin’s authority. European leaders echoed this sentiment on Monday.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly described Prigozhin’s rebellion as an unprecedented challenge to President Putin’s control, pointing out the emergence of fractures in Russian support for the ongoing war. European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell echoed similar sentiments after extensive consultations among top officials within the Western alliance. Borrell stated that the events exposed cracks in Russia’s military might and acknowledged the destabilizing impact on the country’s political system.