When the President of the United States writes an opinion piece in The New York Times, he is talking to Americans, but, as he is aware as he is writing it, he is also talking to Putin. Officials in Russia will be analyzing the short text, decoding the messages.
What message is Biden sending? And why now?
Part of the opinion piece is written for the US audience and will be dismissed by the Russian analysts. The war rallying cry that "The free world and many other nations, led by the United States, rallied to Ukraine’s side" ignores the reality that most of the world – free or otherwise – has not rallied to support the US in sanctioning Russia or arming Ukraine. Much of the free world has not fallen in step behind the US, and much of the unfree world that hasn’t would love to be free if the US would stop supporting its monarchs and dictators.
Also for American consumption is Biden’s "straightforward" goal to see a democratic Ukraine. This goal conveniently divides the world into free democracies and unfree autocracies. But, though Americans are forever fed the myth of the US as the spreader and defender of democracy, Russian analysts know that the US supports governments that support them whether they are democracies or autocracies. They also know that the US only supports Ukrainian democracy when it elects a pro-US leader. In 2014 it supported a coup that killed Ukrainian democracy by taking out a leader that wasn’t unequivocally and completely pro-Western. They also know that the US only supports Russian democracy when it elects a pro-US leader. In 1996, the US interfered in the Russian election to make sure that Boris Yeltsin – whose approval rating in Russia was around 6% but who was pro-US – won. In Russia, this election is often seen as the event that put Russian democracy in its grave.
The insistence that the illegal and aggressive war is also "unprovoked" is also meant for US audiences as is the telling of his meeting with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Biden’s declaration that "No person of conscience could be unmoved" by their plight is very true, but Syrian and other refugees of US wars might ask why people of conscience can be unmoved by theirs.
For Putin, Biden may be signaling the knowledge that, eventually, there will have to be diplomacy and negotiations. He quotes Zelensky, saying that "ultimately this war ‘will only definitively end through diplomacy’." If this is a signal, it is a change in signals to Russia because, up until now, the US has been hindering diplomacy more than engaging in it.
But if it is a signal, it is also a warning that those negotiations are not coming any time soon, that they are not coming until the "significant amount of weaponry and ammunition" the US has sent to Ukraine allows it to be "in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table." Former Ambassador Chas Freeman told me that Biden’s opinion piece also has a third audience. He says that Biden was answering "critics like Henry Kissinger, who had suggested, quite realistically, that Ukraine would have to compromise on territorial issues." Biden insisted that he "will not pressure the Ukrainian government – in private or public – to make any territorial concessions." Consistent with this insistence is the lethal list of weapons Biden promises he will continue to provide Ukraine, "including Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger antiaircraft missiles, powerful artillery and precision rocket systems, radars, unmanned aerial vehicles, MI-17 helicopters and ammunition."
But, Biden seems also to be trying to calm or reassure Putin by claiming both that "We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia" and that "the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow."
Why send these reassuring messages now for what may be the first time?
The reassurances might be strategically necessary now because, despite Biden’s assurance that "We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia," NATO must be seen by Russia to be escalating the war. In April, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov had already said that “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war." And in May, the speaker of the Russian Duma said that “The US is taking part in the military operations in Ukraine. Today, Washington is basically coordinating and engineering military operations, thus directly participating in the military actions against our country.” Since then, the US has piled on another $40 billion in aid.
In his opinion piece, Biden announced the provision of "more advanced rocket systems." These High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems have a range of 50 miles and, despite Biden’s claim that "We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders," these missiles seem to have the capacity to do just that. Lavrov has cautioned the US that the provision of these advanced rocket systems would be a "serious step towards unacceptable escalation."
On May 28, the US announced that Denmark will send Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Ukraine that could be used against Russia’s Black Sea fleet. And now, Reuters reports that the US is planning "to sell Ukraine four MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones that can be armed with Hellfire missiles." Like the advanced missile systems, the drones, which can fly for "up to 30 or more hours," seem to contradict Biden’s assurance that the US is not enabling Ukraine to strike inside Russia.
On June 1, US Cyber Command’s top general revealed that the US has conducted "offensive" cyber operations to help Ukraine. NATO has suggested before that cyberattacks "might be regarded as war." And NATO officials have said that a Russian cyberattack on a NATO member could trigger the Article 5 collective defense clause.
Biden’s assurance to his Russian audience that "We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia," may have been canceled out by his promise to his American audience that Russia must "pay a heavy price for its actions." With the US on the cyber offensive and escalating the provision of weapons to include missiles and drones that can strike inside Russian territory, the US may fear that they could trigger a Russian perception of "unacceptable escalation." The Biden administration may have felt the strategic need to paint a different perception and attempt to convince Russia otherwise.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.