An especially egregious sin that a foreign policy team can commit is to send inconsistent signals to a potential adversary about a prominent issue. From its earliest days, Joe Biden’s administration has been guilty of that sin with respect to Washington’s Taiwan policy; the president’s advisers have found themselves “clarifying” (i.e., walking back) Biden’s more impetuous statements about the nature and extent of the U.S. commitment to the island’s security and de facto independence. An even greater number of mixed messages have been coming out of the administration regarding policy toward Ukraine in recent months. The potential adverse consequences of such diplomatic ineptitude about Ukraine appear to be even more imminent and alarming than those that might result from the administration’s mishandling of the Taiwan issue.
In his April 2 telephone call with Ukraine’s president Volodymr Zelensky, President Biden expressed Washington’s “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas.” At a September 1 meeting in the Oval Office, Zelensky received similar expressions of U.S. backing from the president.
The president, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and other officials have made similar statements on several more occasions. On December 2, Blinken again insisted that Washington’s commitment to Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” is “unwavering,” and he explicitly warned Moscow against continuing the buildup of Russian military forces near the border with its neighbor.
Such pledges of support at least implied that U.S. military assistance would be forthcoming in the event of a crisis. U.S. officials also continued to express support for adding Ukraine to NATO, a step that would create an obligation under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty for the United States and all other NATO members to come to Ukraine’s defense if it became a victim of aggression.
However, Russian leaders have provided clear warnings on multiple occasions over the years that making Ukraine a U.S. defense client or a member of NATO would cross a red line that threatened Russia’s vital security interests. Concern about Western intentions led to a Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders in April and an even larger deployment in late 2021 and early 2022. Then in December, the Kremlin demanded a series of security guarantees from the United States and NATO. Two of the key demands were that Ukraine never becomes a NATO member and that the Alliance pull back its forces from other areas in Eastern Europe.
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