Is Biden Leading From Behind on Ukraine?

In 2011, a White House official described President Obama’s foreign policy approach to Libya as “leading from behind.” It was an approach that did not go well, and soon the U.S. was acting as the rebel’s air force over the skies of Libya in a war that ended in disaster.

In recent weeks, several of America’s partners have passed the U.S. on what arms they are willing to provide Ukraine and where Ukraine can fire those weapons. Is Biden using the “lead from behind” approach to Ukraine? Not quite. He’s more likely pushing from behind.

France is passing the U.S. by sending instructors to train Ukrainian troops on Ukrainian territory. The U.S. has ruled out a similar move for now. General Charles Brown, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “Right now, there are no plans to bring U.S. trainers into Ukraine. Once this conflict is over and we’re in a better place, then I would suspect we would be able to bring trainers back in.” But Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, has made public “France’s initiative to send instructors to Ukraine to train Ukrainian servicemen.”

Reuters reports that three diplomatic sources said, “The arrangements are very advanced and we could expect something next week,” adding that an announcement could be made during Zelensky’s upcoming visit to Paris.

And France may not be in the lead. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas says, “There are countries who are training soldiers on the ground already.”

And it is not just with troops, but also with restrictions on weapons that America’s partners are passing it. Though the U.S. is now permitting Ukraine to use U.S. weapons to shoot at Russian troops massing just across the border in Russia, they are not yet permitting Ukraine to use American long-range missiles to strike deeper into Russian territory.

But Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen went even further, explaining that Ukraine is “welcome to use what we have donated to Ukraine, also outside of Ukraine – that is, on Russian targets – if it is within international law.”

Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Melanie Joly, has now revealed that Canada has placed no restrictions on how weapons and equipment it sends to Ukraine are used. She also suggested that Canada supports allowing Ukraine to use Western weapons to hit inside Russia. “We believe,” she said, “that we need to be forward-leaning on this question.”

Macron stated that France agrees with its NATO partners. “We think that we should allow them to neutralize military sites where missiles are fired, from where… Ukraine is attacked,” he said, adding that “we should not allow them to touch other targets in Russia, and obviously civilian capacities.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed that all members of the alliance needed to follow the leads of Paris. “The time has come for allies to consider whether they should lift some of the restrictions they have put on the use of weapons they have donated to Ukraine.” He continued, “Especially now when a lot of the fighting is going on in Kharkiv, close to the border, to deny Ukraine the possibility of using these weapons against legitimate military targets on Russian territory makes it very hard for them to defend themselves.”

The U.K. may be the country that has gone the furthest. On May 2, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said that “Ukraine has that right” to use British long-range weapons to strike targets inside Russia. “Just as Russia is striking inside Ukraine,” he said, “you can quite understand why Ukraine feels the need to make sure it’s defending itself.”

Perhaps most provocatively and most outpacing the United States, the Netherlands and Denmark have not only promised to send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine but also  promised to send them free of territorial restrictions. Dutch Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins Slot said on May 31 that the Netherlands will not restrict its F-16 jets to Ukrainian airspace: “If you have the right to self-defense, there are no borders for the use of weapons… This is a general principle.” The previous day, Danish Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said that, though Ukraine would not have “carte blanche… to use the F-16 to make arbitrary attacks into Russia,” it would have permission to “weaken the aggressor by taking military installations out onto Russian territory.”

Does this suggest that America is leading from behind, being left behind, or something else? The aggressiveness of America’s partners is likely less an independent policy than a policy that is consistent with American goals. It is extremely unlikely that Canada and Europe would chart such a bold path if the U.S. strongly opposed it.

Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasian Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggested to me that “the Europeans are testing the water.” Lieven says that his sense is that “the US is happy enough for some of the Europeans to get some way ahead of the pack, so as to test Russia’s responses without (as yet) directly involving the US. If Russia fails to respond,” he believes, “that will embolden the Biden administration to follow suit.”

It makes sense that the U.S. would use Europe to test Russia’s red lines out of self-interest and because it is likely less dangerously provocative. The U.S. crossing a Russian red line may be perceived more seriously by Russia than if Canada or a European country crossed the same red line. It is far less clear why Europe would allow itself to be so used. Testing the waters, if it proves to be too provocative, could bring a response down on Europe.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has warned that British targets “on Ukraine’s territory and beyond its borders” could be hit should Ukraine fire British long-range missiles into Russian territory as Cameron has said is permitted. On May 28, Putin warned, “This constant escalation can lead to serious consequences.” He asked, “If these serious consequences occur in Europe, how will the United States behave, bearing in mind our parity in the field of strategic weapons? It’s hard to say—do they want a global conflict?” In case the U.S. and Europe weren’t listening, on June 3, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said, “I would like to caution American officials against miscalculations which may have fatal consequences. For some unknown reason, they underestimate the seriousness of the rebuff they may receive.” He urged them to treat Putin’s “very significant warning… with the utmost seriousness.”

And the danger may come not only from long-range missiles but also from troops on the ground. Lieven told me that he expects “the Russians to do everything they can to locate and kill French trainers in Ukraine, in the hope of deterring others from following suit.”

Several of America’s partners have passed the U.S. in the testing of Russian red lines. It is unlikely that the U.S. will be left behind by a newly independent Europe, and it is more likely that the European moves are consistent with the U.S. strategy. It may be clear how the U.S. hopes to benefit from leading from behind; it is less clear how Europe hopes to benefit by being out in front.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at