A week of diplomacy by U.S. President Joe Biden failed to defuse tensions between Russia and Ukraine, but has maintained unity with European allies against Moscow as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to expose cracks, foreign policy analysts say.
After former U.S. President Donald Trump publicly disparaged NATO and left Europe questioning Washington's commitment to the alliance, analysts said Putin appeared to be testing Biden's declaration that America is back on the world stage.
He is probably counting on divisions in the West, said former U.S. diplomat Daniel Fried, who worked on the response to Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014, on behalf of Putin. He is going to keep pushing and things could get worse. It would be much worse if we caved this week. Russia did not walk out of meetings with the US and European nations this week, but the talks ended with U.S. officials warning that the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine remains high, with no sign that Moscow will return some 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border to their barracks.
Russia denies it plans to attack Ukraine but says it could take unspecified military action unless its demands — including a promise by the NATO alliance never to admit Ukraine — are met.
Biden took office in January 2021, calling for predictable ties with Russia and playing down Moscow's global influence.
There has been a systematic underestimation in Washington of Russia's ability to disrupt things, according to Tom Schwartz, professor of history, political science and European studies at Vanderbilt University.
Putin flexed his muscles and moved troops and military hardware close to Russia's border with Ukraine over the past year and spurred increased U.S. diplomacy with Moscow.
Putin would not let himself be depriorised by Washington, said Schwartz, adding that the Russian leader was trying to demonstrate that the American-led international order is really fragile now. It was a testing moment. Biden's bid to rebuild U.S. leadership globally was hindered by a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August, which prompted the European Union to consider ways to become more independent of the U.S. military.
When asked if the Biden administration was facing any kind of Trump hangover among NATO allies, a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no lack of unity or confidence among NATO allies. We are all in this together, and they have responded very well to the administration approach, which is certainly nothing about Europe, without Europe, nothing about NATO, without NATO, the official said.
Biden has had some lingering doubts about America's reliability as a partner. The pendulum of U.S. politics is worrying, according to leaders from the Group of Seven advanced economies, NATO and the European Union.
During his time in office, Trump threatened to withdraw from NATO and accused Europeans of contributing too little to their defense.
Although Biden pledged to continue giving military aid to Ukraine and to boost support for Russia if Russia invades, Washington's response has been almost entirely diplomatic, and the West is not in a position to defend Ukraine militarily.
The U.S. has threatened to deter Russian invasion, by imposing export controls and measures targeting Russia's financial system.
U.S. officials spent weeks trying to make sure Europe would match Washington's planned sanctions response, but there has been no clear agreement on what specific sanctions will be leveled.
While the EU imposed sanctions on Russia when it annexed Ukraine's Crimea in 2014, the bloc has shown divisions over how to deal with Moscow, which accounts for one-third of EU gas imports.
The United States said Moscow's behavior towards Ukraine will play a crucial role in the fate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is meant to transport natural gas from Russia to Germany. Germany has warned against a link between the pipeline and Russian tensions.
Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said that the Europeans would be united behind serious sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion.
If it is something short of invasion, one has to remember that America does not depend on Russia for gas, but Europe does, Lieven said.