Escalation management and Biden’s strategy for Ukraine

In this video I discuss Joe Biden's strategy for the war Ukraine. On the one hand, the American president is one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine, and the United States has provided crucial military support to enable Ukraine to fight the war. On the other hand, the Americans have also he hesitated to give Ukraine the most powerful weapon systems or allowing them to hit Russian territory.

Many people have been confused about the American line which can be difficult to understand if you assume the goal is to help Ukraine to victory as fast as possible. But Joe Biden is concerned about potential escalation of the war, and escalation management is a higher priority than victory. In the video I explain what types of escalation that are in play, and how Joe Biden is trying to manage the different threats.


One of the noticeable things you'll see if you follow the war in Ukraine over time is the mood swings, then Russia's winning, then they're losing, then they're winning again, then they're doomed. Right now, the pendulum is swinging towards the Russia being doomed side of things. A few months ago, the story was very different. It was that Russia had momentum and that the Ukrainian defenses were about to collapse. But then the Americans approved the assistance package and Ukraine has been allowed to use Western weapons to strike on Russian territory. And when you look at the front lines, then the Russian momentum is gone.

So there is a growing optimism among those who support Ukraine. But I want to caution against getting too carried away by that optimism. In fact, I think that if there are too many stories in the media that say that Ukraine is winning, then that might be counterproductive because in the Western camp, there is not consensus about what victory is supposed to look like. And most notably, Ukraine is obviously fighting for victory. But if we judge by past performance, then the Biden administration is mostly concerned about escalation management. And if things suddenly start going really well for Ukraine, then they might start withholding some of that support because they will get concerned that a Russian defeat can lead to escalation. So in this video, I want to explain this concept of escalation management and what it is that the Biden administration is trying to do. So let's talk about it.

The Ukrainian vision of victory is pretty easy to understand. It consists of two things. First, they want to liberate all their land. They want to throw the Russians out. And then secondly, they want Russia to lose the war so badly that they will learn the lesson. They will never again try to invade Ukraine. And then there are some discussions in Ukraine about whether or not both of these goals are realistic and attainable. What could Ukrainian victory look like if it's not possible to liberate all the territory? Is it possible to give the Russians this painful experience of defeat if they actually get to keep some of the territory that they have taken? Or in that case, will the Russians just interpret that as a limited kind of victory? So those are discussions that are going on about the shape of what a Ukrainian victory can look like. But the essential idea is pretty simple. It is to liberate the territory and to cause the Russians a painful defeat.

The American perspective, as it has been carried out by the Biden administration, it's a bit more complicated. For them, the primary goal is escalation management. The most important goal is to isolate the war so that it only happens in Ukraine. And then after that, they would also like to help Ukraine win the war. But the most important thing is that the war does not spread to other countries. And this means that in some cases, the Ukrainian and the American goals, they will be aligned and they will sort of work in the same direction. And then in other cases, it will mean that there is less alignment, that the Ukrainians want one thing and the Biden administration will want something else. Because the Ukrainians will tend to be quite aggressive about trying to achieve victory as fast as possible. And the Americans will typically prefer to err on the side of caution. So that's why we have had all these discussions about red lines and every time a new weapon system has been delivered to Ukraine. It's happened with a lot of delay and in much smaller quantities than the Ukrainians would have wanted. And I think this situation is going to continue.

Right now, there is growing optimism on the side of those who support Ukraine because things are starting to go better for Ukraine on the battlefield. And that will obviously mean that people will start talking about whether Ukraine can actually start retaking the initiative and begin pushing the Russians back. And I think that when we look at the situation on the battlefield, then that actually confirms the notion that if Ukraine gets the right equipment, then they can actually deliver the military results. But ironically, if things start to go really well for Ukraine, then we might see the Biden administration starting to scale down some of that military assistance because there is a concern that too much Ukrainian success can actually lead to escalation.

So this concept of escalation is very important if we want to understand what it is that the Biden administration is trying to achieve and what it is that they're concerned about. And I think we can think about it in terms of three different types of escalation that the Biden administration is trying to balance. First, the American president has very clearly stated that he has an understanding that if Russia wins the war in Ukraine, then they will continue their aggression into other countries in Europe. And that just means that a Russian victory will mean that Russia gets emboldened. They will get access to more resources that they can then use for more aggression into Europe. And the soldiers that Russia will use for that aggression into Europe will be the Ukrainians that will be mobilized into the Russian army. So Biden has this understanding that if Russia wins, then that will lead to escalation. And that's why Russia can never be allowed to win the war in Ukraine.

The second type of escalation that we're talking about is that type of escalation where it's about red lines. So that's if we cross this line or that red line, then that will cause Russia to retaliate against NATO. I think by now there is a kind of general understanding that this kind of escalation in connection with red lines, it's not really an issue. Russia might do things against Europe and NATO. They can do sabotage and hybrid attacks, but they're going to do that if they think it will benefit them. And if they think it will benefit them, then they're going to do that no matter what. And if they think that doing so will hurt them, then they're not going to do it. And they're not going to do it even if we cross some red line and they would like to take revenge, but they're not going to hurt themselves in the process of taking revenge. So that type of escalation is not actually connected to specific decisions that the West is making about what kind of military aid we give to Ukraine. So it's a question of general deterrence so that the Russians won't think that they can benefit from attacking NATO. But it's not really, you know, there's a lot of talk in the media about this kind of escalation that is connected to red lines, but in reality, it's not a big concern. At this time, the Biden administration, they understand that there is not a whole lot that Russia can do when the Western countries make these decisions about changing policies or crossing red lines.

The last type of escalation that the Americans are trying to balance is it's a little different. It's the risk that things can start to suddenly spin out of control if the Putin regime starts falling apart. So there is in the American government a very strong conviction that this is an unwinnable war for Russia and that if the war continues long enough, then that is going to lead to a collapse of the Russian state. And there is also a strong concern that a transformation of power in Russia is not going to be a peaceful process, but it might be a much more violent thing where Putin is desperately fighting to keep the power and ultimately for his life. So essentially, it's nuclear weapons that the Americans are afraid of. As long as the war is happening just inside Ukraine and it's about winning in Ukraine, then there are limits to what Putin will do. I've made a video about why it's unlikely that Putin will use nuclear weapons to win the war in Ukraine, so you can see that if you want. But once we're talking about keeping the power in Russia, then there are no limits to what Putin will do, like none at all. He will do absolutely anything to keep the power in Russia because to him, that is the most important goal in the world.

So this belief is very strong in the Biden administration that if the war continues long enough, then it is going to lead to a collapse in Russia and they are very concerned that it is going to lead to escalation. So these are the three types of escalation that the Biden administration is trying to balance in the war in Ukraine. As I said, number two is not really a concern. So that is the type of escalation that they talk a lot about in the media, but in reality, it is the other two types that are most concerning for the Biden administration.

So on the one hand, there is this concern that if Russia wins the war in Ukraine, then that is going to lead to a bigger war in Europe. So Russia can under no circumstances be allowed to win and the Biden administration wants to continue supporting Ukraine to make sure that that never happens. So far, the American and the Ukrainian interests are aligned. They both want the United States to support Ukraine. But on the other hand, the Americans are concerned about what will happen if and when the Russian state collapses as a result of the war, because they believe that will be an extremely dangerous situation. And that is why we end up in this paradoxical situation that the Americans want to support Ukraine because under no circumstances can Russia be allowed to win. But at the same time, the Americans are deeply uncomfortable with the Ukrainian vision of victory because they believe that it might lead to dangerous instability in Russia.

So this type of balancing act has basically been Joe Biden's strategy for Ukraine until now in the war. And I don't really see anything that indicates that that is changing. So I think the most likely thing that we're going to see is that the Americans will continue that policy. And that means that the United States is going to provide a lot of support for Ukraine, but that they're not interested in actually giving Ukraine all the things that they need to really get momentum against the Russians.

Right now, we're coming from a period where the American aid was blocked in Congress and the Russians got the momentum and there was a real fear that the Ukrainian defenses could collapse. So when the Biden administration got the chance, they made some very big decisions about how to boost the Ukrainians in the short term. But I think it's a mistake to assume that this is a new policy where suddenly the Americans have the same vision of victory as the Ukrainians do. And I don't think that this massive support is necessarily going to continue. It's more likely that if the Ukrainians start to get real momentum, then we might see the Americans scale down the assistance. And then we're again going to get all these discussions about why is the West providing too low quantities of weapons to Ukraine? So like why don't they get enough ATACMS missiles when we can clearly see that they are very effective and the Ukrainians are very good at using them and so forth. Because that is the balancing act that the Biden administration is trying to make.

And that also means that the end state that the Biden administration envisions for the war is a negotiated solution because they definitely don't want Russia to win the war. And they're concerned that something dangerous might happen if the Ukrainians win the war. So the solution has to be that neither side wins the war and that there has to be some kind of compromise. I think this was quite clear in an interview that Joe Biden gave to Time magazine last week.

This interview, it got a lot of attention because Biden essentially said that he's not currently supportive of the idea that Ukraine will join NATO. And that was not particularly well received in Ukraine. But Biden was asked what in his mind is the endgame? What does the endgame look like in Ukraine? And his answer was twofold. So on the one hand, he reiterated this idea that Russia can never, ever be allowed to occupy Ukraine. But then on the other hand, he said that the endgame in Ukraine does not necessarily mean that Ukraine is a member of NATO. So what he's trying to do here is to make it clear that Russia can't win the war, but that the Ukraine, because the United States is going to continue supporting Ukraine and they will make sure that that doesn't happen. So Russia can't win. But on the other hand, he keeps the door open for negotiations with Putin because he understands how important that question of NATO membership is if they want to make some kind of deal with the Russians.

I want to finish off by saying that I think there are some very serious problems with this American policy. It's basically built on an assumption that Russia is going to collapse if the war continues long enough. So it's a story about inevitable Russian decline. But it's also based on an assumption that the Russians see the situation the same way, that they also share this understanding that the war is undermining their own country and that therefore the Russians will find an interest in finding a negotiated solution.

So it's a very weak assumption. And quite on the contrary, I think in Russia, there is actually a very strong belief that time is on their side and that eventually the West is going to get tired of helping Ukraine and then they will win the war. And there is in Russia, a very strong belief in Western decline. So in general, they believe that the West, the long-term trend is that the West is in decline. So both in Russia and in America, there is a strong belief that time is on their side and that the other side is in decline. So even if the Biden administration could somehow persuade Putin to negotiate, then there is absolutely no chance that he's ever going to accept a deal that ensures that Russia can never occupy Ukraine. Because in Putin's mind, it might be the case that they can't occupy Ukraine right now, but since the West is in decline anyways, they should be able to occupy Ukraine in the future.

The Ukrainians understand this and they fundamentally believe that the Americans are wrong. They don't think that Biden's approach is going to work and that it's going to lead to lasting peace. So the Ukrainians understand how dependent they are on the Americans to fight this war, but they also believe that the Biden administration doesn't really understand what it will take to end the war. So they're going to continue pushing the boundaries in the direction that they think is the right one.

So the Biden administration's approach has some pretty tough odds, we can say, because neither side in the war really believes that they have a good point. But nevertheless, I think it's important to understand where it is that the Biden administration is coming from when they prioritize escalation management so highly. And I also think it's important to acknowledge that there are, that these concerns are real, like these threats do exist, these types of escalation might happen, but I think it would probably be better to find some other ways to address those concerns than trying to micromanage the war in Ukraine in a direction that basically both Russia and Ukraine believe is out of touch with reality.

Okay, I will end it here. If you found the video helpful or informative, then please give it a like and also remember you can subscribe to the channel and click the bell icon to get notifications when I upload new videos. If you want to support the channel, you can do that by subscribing to my newsletter on Thank you very much for watching, and I will see you again next time.