The Crisis Quadrangle

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Considerations on the role of the Biden government in the war in Ukraine

Everything took place under the strictest secrecy. On Saturday night, after a visit to the National Museum of American History, the couple had dinner at a discreet restaurant known for the excellence of its Italian cuisine. The following morning, Casa Banca informed the press that the president would remain retired and would not be seen again that day. At that moment, however, he was already crossing the Atlantic aboard the Air Force plane that he had stealthily taken during the night, in the company of three advisors, a reporter and a photographer, as well as a few secret agents, duly armed and understandably tense.

Landing at Rzeszów–Jasionka Airport, Poland, at 19:57 pm local time, the President of the United States rode incognito in a column of cars to the Przemyśl Główny railway station, where he took a night train for a ten-hour journey that would take him to his destination, the capital of a country in a state of war.[1]

It could have been a script for an action movie, but it was a real piece of extraordinary political marketing, prepared at length with a view to producing well-defined effects.

The final sequence begins on the night of February 19, 2023. The morning of the next day, Joe Biden spectacularly appears alongside Volodymyr Zelensky at the Mariinsky Palace, in Kiev, to commemorate the achievements of the host countrymen, at the end of the first year of a war that many thought was destined to end in weeks. On the occasion, the American president gave a quick speech, in which he announced a new aid package (military and financial), praised the heroism of the Ukrainian people and reiterated the unwavering commitment of the United States to their struggle, the object of which is not any particular interest, but a universal good: freedom.

"You and all Ukrainians, Mr. President, remind the world every single day what the meaning of the word “courage” is […] You remind us that freedom is priceless; it's worth fighting for, for as long as it takes. And that's how long we're going to be with you, Mr. President: for as long as it takes".[2]

It wasn't just words, beautiful but innocuous. In addition to symbolic gestures and unprecedented economic sanctions applied to Russia by the Western bloc under his leadership, the United States was generous in material and financial aid to the country. The reader can form an idea of ​​its importance by simply skimming the table below.

Committed amount of aid to Ukraine in the first year of the war (24/1/2022-24/2/2023). In billions of euros:

 Financial helpmilitary aidTotal
European Union. members and institutions35,5819,661,93
multilateral organizations   
European Bank for Reconstruction2,7800,002,78
World Bank6,9100,006,91
Source: Adapted from Ukraine Support Tracker, Kiel Working Paper no. 2218, Kiel Institute for the World Economy, 4/4/2023.

The United States alone accounted for more than half of the total aid provided to Ukraine, and nearly three-quarters of military aid, in the first year of the conflict. Even if his political role as leader of the Western coalition is disregarded, it is no exaggeration to say that, without the support of the United States, the war, as we are witnessing it, would not have existed.

As we have seen it. It is worth emphasizing the condition, because the war could very well have taken another course – in the absence of American support, certainly, but also if it had fully met the demands of the Zelensky government.

Indeed, in the whirlwind of events, the memory of the fact may have been erased, but already in early March, 2022, Volodymyr Zelensky demanded that the “league of freedom” establish a no-fly zone over Ukrainian territory and supply of F-16 fighters with instructors to train their pilots, as Ukrainian aviation was destroyed by Russian missiles. Given the critical state of the situation, he also requested that MIGS and Zukoys be sent immediately to Ukraine by Poland and other countries of the former Warsaw Pact.[3]

It's in the papers. At the time of writing these planes – long obsolete but familiar to Ukrainian pilots to handle – are being supplied by Poland, apparently by its own decision, unquestioned by the United States. But this is more than a year after Volodymyr Zelensky's desperate request. At the time, the Biden government rejected the no-fly zone proposal and vetoed the transfer of old Soviet fighter jets to Ukraine.

The caution is understandable. In the case of the no-fly zone, the attempt to impose it would inevitably entail a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, in an escalation that could end in a nuclear conflict. The justification for the interdiction imposed on the supply of combat aircraft is less obvious, but it fits in with the same practical rule that has prevented, until today, the delivery of long-range missiles (such as the ATACMS, with a range of more than 300 kilometers) by the risk of its use against targets located in Russian territory.

Joe Biden enunciated this rule very clearly in an important article published in The New York Times in May of last year: “We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia. […]. So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces. We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia".[4]

Quite sensible, this line of conduct seems not to be in line with signs given by American authorities in favor of the maximalist objective insistently voiced by the Ukrainian leadership, of defeating Russia and regaining control over the entirety of the Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.

It wasn't always like this. A month after the start of the fighting, in the context of peace negotiations mediated by Turkey, Volodymyr Zelensky declared himself willing to discuss Ukraine's neutrality in a future peace agreement and to establish a compromise on the status of the Dombass region, discarding the idea of ​​taking back by force all the territories occupied by Russia, as this would mean triggering “a third world war”.[5]

It would not fit here to speculate about the reasons for such a huge change, but the statements made by the Secretary of Defense of the United States, Lloyd Austin, in the following month, after a quick visit to Zelensky, in Kiev, in the company of his colleague, Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine. So it has already lost a lot of military capability. And a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see they do not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability".

It was an apparent broadening of the Biden administration's goals in the war, which seemed reinforced by the addition made by his cabinet colleague: “We don't know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene".[6]

Resumed the following day by himself and by the then Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, at the press conference held during the closing of the Ukraine Defense Advisory Group, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Austin's statements strongly resonated for suggesting a significant repositioning of the Biden government in the face of war.[7]

The article published by Joe Biden, by invitation, in New York Times can be understood as an attempt to put order in the house, reaffirming the original orientation of his government. But, on this hypothesis, it is doubtful that it was at all successful. Because the disparity between the definition of the fundamental nature of the conflict and the relative moderation in the provision of means to face it continues to be glaring. In this context, the possibility of a negotiated peace, as Brazilian diplomacy intends, is out of sight. What is looming on the horizon is a prolonged and exhausting war, which can take different forms, but where the eventual ceasefire will be nothing more than a temporary armistice.[8]

Some voices in the American security community began to work with scenarios of this type, suggesting policies for the Western bloc to position itself in the most advantageous way.[9] Others have been alerting to the risks of escalation implied in such a situation, involving nuclear powers with such unequal resources and interests in the conflict. The most emphatic among them is perhaps that of John Mearsheimer, probably the most prominent representative today of the realist school of International Relations.

The paths that could lead to catastrophe are many and varied (a small accident, such as the collision between two fighter planes, triggering an upward spiral; a Russian attack on training camps that results in the death of a large number of American instructors; the Russian decision bombing the territory of a NATO member country to interrupt the flow of war material supplied to Ukraine, for example), but it is the logic of the situation described by Mearsheimer that is fundamentally of interest to the present study.

In his words, “since the war began, both Moscow and Washington have raised their ambitions significantly, and both are now deeply committed to winning the war and achieving formidable political objectives. […] this means that the United States might join the fighting either if it is desperate to win or to prevent Ukraine from losing, while Russia might use nuclear weapons if it is desperate to win or faces imminent defeat, which would be likely if US forces were drawn into the fighting. … The maximalist thinking that now prevails in both Washington and Moscow gives each side even more reason to win on the battlefield so that it can dictate the terms of the eventual peace. In effect, the absence of a possible diplomatic solution provides an added incentive for both sides to climb up the escalation ladder. What lies further up the rungs could be something truly catastrophic: a level of death and destruction exceeding that of World War II".[10]

Paths that may lead, not that will lead to catastrophe. It is important to point out the difference, because Mearsheimer's argument is conditional. The logic he exposes is premised on the maximalist redefinition of war objectives by the two contenders. But nothing guarantees that these will remain unchanged over time. Just as the changing situation on the ground led to the expansion of said objectives, a series of easily imaginable occurrences – an escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Strait, or the growth of opposition to his war policy, in times of a presidential election, by example – may induce the Biden government to reposition.

I will not discuss the probability, greater or lesser, of such a change, nor the gloomy outcome that is outlined on the horizon in the hypothesis of continuity in the posture now adopted by the protagonists. Instead, I propose, in this article, to reflect on two intertwined issues: the ambivalence of American conduct in the face of conflict; and the role attributed to the clash with Russia over Ukraine in the overall US global strategy.

Before entering the analysis, however, I must say a quick word about some aspects implied in the discussion that will follow.

The first concerns the relationship between war and the particular interests of companies and economic sectors. The gains from war for some of them are obvious. Consider, for example, the war industry. The United States is the largest arms producer in the world. By transferring billions of dollars in old weapons accumulated in its stockpiles to Ukraine, the US government fills the portfolio of companies in the sector with new orders.

The United States is also a major producer of oil and liquefied gas. Since the revolution of fracking, at the beginning of the present century, became self-sufficient and started to generate large exportable balances of gas. The problem that made it difficult to obtain a larger share of the market was the price of the commodity and the infrastructure required for its importation. The sanctions applied to Russia resulted in the disruption of Russian oil and gas supply lines to Europe, immediately making both products more expensive and opening up a huge market that American firms gladly began to occupy.

None of this is in question, but to explain the outbreak of the conflict and the conduct of the American government in its course by the weight of the economic interests favored with it would be to mistake the effect for the cause. Between the realization that identifiable groups gain from a given policy and the proposition that it was adopted with the aim of benefiting them, the distance is very large. The analyst who establishes a direct connection between them makes a somersault in the dark and, as usually happens in such cases, collapses.

More complex and more convincing are the arguments that point to the geoeconomic and geopolitical effects of the conflict. The most obvious and most commented among them is the increased subordination of Europe to the political-ideological direction of the United States.

The aforementioned close alignment is eloquently illustrated by Germany's silence in the face of the terrorist attack on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines built, against tenacious opposition by the United States, with Russian and German capital, to meet industry and household gas demand. German. Despite being a victim of criminal aggression, translated into an ecological disaster and billionaire damages, Germany has not shown any interest in the proposal presented by China and Russia for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the circumstances and authorship of the act, which received the Brazil's favorable vote in the UN Security Council. As logic and available information point to “inconvenient” suspects, the case will remain under secret investigation – by German agencies and “friendly” countries, even though they are admittedly satisfied with the results of the attack.

These and other facts reinforce the argument of those, like Michel Hudson, who see Europe (in particular Germany) as the main target of the war in Ukraine. “The country suffering the most “collateral damage” in this global fracture – writes this author – is Germany. As Europe's most advanced industrial economy, German steel, chemicals, machinery, automotives and other consumer goods are the most highly dependent on imports of Russian gas, oil and metals from aluminum to titanium and palladium. Yet despite two Nord Stream pipelines built to provide Germany with low-priced energy, Germany has been told to cut itself off from Russian gas and de-industrialize. This means the end of its economic preeminence. The key to GDP growth in Germany, as in other countries, is energy consumption per worker. These anti-Russian sanctions make today's New Cold War inherently anti-German".[11]

The quotation marks at the beginning of the paragraph are marks of irony because, in Hudson's view, the damage incurred by German industry has nothing to do with collateral, rather it corresponds to the greater objective pursued by the United States in the crisis. Indeed, so the argument goes, keeping Europe in its sphere of influence is key to being a superpower. And Europe threatens to tear itself apart by intensifying its economic ties with China and Russia.

"At issue is how long the United States can block its allies from taking advantage of China's economic growth. Will Germany, France and other NATO countries seek prosperity for themselves instead of letting the US dollar standard and trade preferences siphon off their economic surplus?".[12]

Again, we can admit that – intentional or not – the effects of the sanctions pointed out by the author are real and empirically verifiable. And we can also accompany him in his analysis of the strategic objective of the United States of keeping Europe in the position of tailgate. But none of this allows us to understand why both things would have been pursued in precisely this way: a war that has barely reached its first anniversary and is already the most destructive ever fought on European soil since the end of the Second World War.

The path taken in this article is another. He starts from the assumption that the key to understanding the conduct of the Biden administration in the war must be sought in the historically built relations between the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War.

In making this statement I am not disregarding the national and regional dimensions of the conflict. However, Russian military intervention in Ukraine emerges as a result of a congenitally internationalized political crisis. Or rather, a cycle of crises that would have a different outcome if it were articulated in a different way with the interests and policies of the great powers – in particular the two mentioned above.

The war in Ukraine involves a complexly intertwined set of determinations. But what drives the Biden administration's policy in the conflict is the US-Russia antagonism.

*Sebastião Velasco and Cruz He is a professor at the Department of Political Science at Unicamp and at the San Tiago Dantas Graduate Program in International Relations, UNESP/UNICAMP/PUC-SP. INCT-INEU Coordinator.

Originally published on the US Political Observatory website (OPEU).


[1] Information contained in this brief account is excerpted from Baer, ​​Peter & Shear, Michael D., “Biden's Surreal and Secretive Journey Into a War Zone”, The New York Times, 20/2/2023, and Samuels, Brett, “How President Biden's secretive trip to Ukraine came together”, The Hill, 20/2/2023.

[2] White House, Remarks by President Biden and President Zelenskyy of Ukraine in Joint Statement, 20/2/2023.

[3] Cordes, Nancy et al., “Zelensky calls for fighter plans in Zoom call with Congress”, CBS News, 5/3/2022.

[4] “President Biden: What America Will and Will Not Do in Ukraine.” The New York Times, 31/5/2022.

[5] “Zelensky says Ukraine prepared to discuss neutrality in peace talks”, BBC NEWS, 28/3/2022; “Ukraine ready to discuss adopting neutral status in Russia peace deal, Zelenskiy says”, Reuters, 28/3/2022.

[6] “Austin says US wants to see Russia's military capabilities weakened”, CNN, 25/4/2022.

[7] Cf. Forgey, Quint, “Austin: US believes Ukraine 'can win' war against Russia”, Politico, 26/4/2022; Borgerin, Julian,“Pentagon chief's Russia remarks show shift in US's declared aims in Ukraine”, The Guardian, 25/4/2022.

[8] I concluded that this would be the most likely outcome of the conflict the first time I reflected on the topic, for the reasons I explained in my participation in the program Geopolitical and Geoeconomic Conflicts: What Future to Expect?, organized by the AMSUR Institute, YouTube, 21/3/2022.

[9] Cf. Daalder, Ivo H. & Goldgeier, James, “The Long War in Ukraine. The West needs to plan for a protracted conflict with Russia”, Foreign Affairs, 9/1/2023.

[10] Mearsheimer, John J. “Playing with Fire in Ukraine. The underappreciated risks of catastrophic escalation”, Foreign Affairs, 17/8/2022.

[11] Hudson, Michael, “Germany's position in America's New World Order”, Michael Hudson on Finance, Real Estate and the Power of Neoliberalism, 2/11/2022.

[12] Hudson, Michael, “America's real adversaries are its European and other allies”, Ibid, 8/2/2022.

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