President Biden wrapped up his extraordinary European tour, including NATO, EU and G7 summits plus a tour of refugee inundated Poland, with a powerful Warsaw speech – aimed at being on historical par with those of Kennedy and Reagan in Berlin – where he, controversially, added a particular punch to the prepared manuscript: “For God´s sake, this man cannot remain in power!”, referring to president Vladimir Putin, an unmistakable hint at regime change aims. White House and State officials, apparently taken by surprise, immediately backpedaled: no, no, there has been no policy change on regime change, Biden meant only “cannot be allowed to rule in other countries”, or so. Period.

But regardless of gaffe or intent, Biden´s wordings represent a profoundly challenging dilemma, that of deterrence and the strategy of red lines: how to elaborate on policy aims facing an aggression and an aggressor?

Attempts by US/NATO to deter Putin´s Russia from following through on its physically apparent but verbally evasive threats to invade neighboring Ukraine were a clear and present failure. And so was the adjusted policy of deterrence against continued aggression, with further enhanced sanctions, further efforts to reassure Eastern NATO allies by substantial reinforcements, further efforts at keeping the Alliance together and broadly seeking Russia´s international isolation, and with defense materiel and humanitarian support for the Ukrainian defense effort. This Western Plan B did not deter team Putin from switching to its Plan B: a war of attrition, World War II style, with ruined cities, suffering and fleeing citizens and massive losses, not least by the aggressor side.

So, facing the Western powers before the Brussels Biden-led summits, the big questions were: Now what else can we do in order to

  • further enhance NATO deterrence against any (“even an inch”) Russian attack against any NATO member;
  • further expand kinds and degrees of punishment of Russia through expanded sanctions;
  • further develop NATO defense materiel support for Ukraine´s defense, while

making every effort to keep the Alliance together, to expand as much as possible the circle of protesting global powers, and to stick firmly to the line concerning abstention from any actions that could escalate the situation and cause direct military confrontation with Russia. Hence, no to president Zelinsky´s hardening demands for more direct involvement, e g through no-fly zones and/or delivery of Polish Mig 39s, and the like. Too dangerous, too risky to bring about an escalation to “World War III”.

This tall policy order, involving considerable dilemma choices, formed the background to Biden´s controversial statement. For it raises to the fore the question of possible end state and some kind – if there is one – of political/diplomatic settlement of the crisis.

The way things stand after the Brussels summits we may conclude that, for now, the US/NATO response sticks to Plan B, or Plan B “Plus”, i.e., with more of the same, basically: more arms to be delivered to Ukraine, a mixture of “lethal” and “non-lethal”, “defensive” weapons, mainly anti-tank and anti-air, more “devastating” sanctions against the Russian economy, and more efforts to boost defense capabilities of Eastern flank NATO countries, in combination with strong verbal warnings and announced enhanced preparedness against any Russian chemical or other WMD threats. But still no readiness to take steps which might lead to direct military confrontation with Russia. And still no operational Western readiness to seriously challenge Europe´s problematic dependence on Russian oil and gas deliveries.

The hope here is that this will suffice, for now, to deter both Putin´s Plan B and Plan C, the latter being defined, so far, as Putin´ ignoring of the Western red lines defined – aggression against NATO territory (“even an inch”) and recourse to concrete threats to or actual use of chemical or nuclear (or other WMD) weapons. Or perhaps massive cyber-attacks.

As for Putin´s Plan B, which replaced the Plan A consisting (unrealistically, as we saw) of a quick Blitzkrieg against Kiev and some southern cities – banking on a quick Ukranian surrender, this plan apparently is still ongoing, even if going demonstrably badly, in spite of its brutal onslaught on cities and civilians. Some optimists now express hope that perhaps a combination of war fatigue on both sides, in view of military and civilian losses incurred, the impact on Western sanctions, and gradual supplies of Western armaments could pave the way for a negotiated compromise agreement, initially on a ceasefire and humanitarian corridors, perhaps. Zelinsky has hinted as much, for what it is worth in Moscow.

As the war rages on, and as the Kremlin sends contradictory signals, such as talking about a reorientation towards Donbass and hitting Lviv with missiles, it is of course to be expected that there will be a lot of international talk about mediation and diplomatic “solutions”. Erdogan and Bennet et al keep offering their services. Seeing the suffering of the Ukrainian citizens, and the millions of Ukrainians fleeing into Poland and other exposed East European countries, it is only natural for the international community to cry out: The war must stop!!!.

But there is, it seems, no easy way out of the situation caused by Putin´s catastrophic choice, especially if the architect himself feels cornered by the tremendous global/Western degree of unity mobilized in defiance of his aggression, and by Biden´s talk about  the “butcher” deserving regime change and by Charles Michel´s talk about the need to “defeat” him. And by the official US label of “war criminal” stamped on him. And, in addition, how can there be compromise settlement if any compromise risks rewarding aggression/the aggressor?

So, in view of this, it would seem that in the current duel, or chicken race, or action-reaction dynamics, between Biden-led Western Plan B “plus”, with its mix of deterrence, reassurance and punishment, and Putin´s Plan B (plus threats of a Plan C), the best or only hope for “the West”, for now, lies in encouraging, hailing and materially supporting Ukraine in its struggle, on behalf of the Transatlantic world, hoping for Kiev to somehow prevail, in the end. The alternative, to actively engage militarily on the side of Ukraine, as demanded by Zelinsky, requires drawing new and dangerous red lines in the sand.

Whether this policy line will be tenable as the next dangerous weeks pass will obviously depend on how Putin´s war in Ukraine develops. And on whether and when Belarus will choose to, or be forced to, enter the scene of military action.

By way of conclusion, it could be said that the tense and dangerous situation now prevailing in Europe depends on two main factors: the long-term and far-reaching demands Putin formulated towards the entire West at the inception of the current crisis and, on the other hand, the way we now have a kind of stalemate between contradictory and irreconcilable red lines: Biden´s red lines as above (NATO territory inviolability, chemicals/nuclear) versus Putin´s red lines as regards nuclear (and/or chemical) threats in case of “existential threats” against Russia, defined by Russia, or Putin. rather.

This means serious challenges to European stability, both structurally long-term and operationally here and now.

The author is ambassador, holds a  Phd and is a fellow of RSAWS.


[1] This article is earlier published in Consilium International.