Biden’s strategy of benign neglect in Eastern Europe

US President Joe Biden is very familiar with both Poland and Ukraine. His decades of service as a United States senator and his eight years as vice president under Barack Obama taught him that the two countries are among America’s most devoted friends and allies. Yet he waited until 2 April—just as Russian troops were once again massing on Ukraine’s eastern border—to call Ukraine’s president, and he still hasn’t spoken to his Polish counterpart.

Biden’s relative silence seems to speak of a policy of ‘benign neglect’, a term coined by Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was a domestic policy adviser to US President Richard Nixon. But whereas Moynihan wanted Nixon to avoid becoming entangled in America’s racial issues, Biden’s decision to keep Poland and Ukraine at a distance may seem surprising. Although Poland is sliding from liberal democracy into populist dictatorship, Ukraine is desperately trying to consolidate its democracy despite constant Russian meddling and threats.

Moreover, even Poland’s illiberal government still tries to position the country as if it were America’s 51st state, with the US embassy in Warsaw playing a role similar to that of the Soviet embassy before 1989. During Donald Trump’s presidency, a mere phone call or tweet from US Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher was enough to make Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party suspend its plans to shut down critical media outlets like the private television network TVN24.

Ukraine, still at war with Russia and heavily reliant on US support (preferably in the form of military equipment or sanctions against Russia), is in a very different position. US support has indeed helped, not least by halting the progress of ‘little green men’ (Russian soldiers without insignia) in the eastern Donbas region after they had claimed some 7% of Ukraine’s national territory back in 2014.

As a result, Russia’s strategy of aggression hasn’t paid off. Its occupation of Crimea and the Donbas—both economically devastated and cut off from the global economy—has come at a massive cost to its budget. More to the point, Russia has squandered centuries of goodwill among Ukrainians, who are now united around their national sovereignty.

Without Ukraine, Russia cannot be considered a global power—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal in annexing Crimea and invading the Donbas in 2014. At home, Putin’s approval ratings, which had been flagging, soared above 80% following that invasion. But those gains were only temporary.

If Russia were to conquer Ukraine now, Poland would be next in line. For 250 of the past 300 years, Poland was also part of the Russian Empire. The independence that Poland and Ukraine achieved with America’s victory in the Cold War thus remains a lasting testament to US primacy.

And yet, while Biden’s election victory was met with euphoria in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky had to wait two months for a call. (The official reaction in Poland to Biden’s election was more muted: after kowtowing to Trump for four years, Polish President Andrzej Duda was among the last foreign leaders to congratulate Biden.)

Biden’s coolness towards the two countries shouldn’t be interpreted as a change in US policy towards the region. After all, he has repeatedly stated—including in a conversation with Putin—that the US will never recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Rather, Biden slow-rolled his call to Zelensky precisely because he knows Ukraine so well.

Biden understands that Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms are the key to its survival as an independent democratic country. Without these reforms, Ukraine’s oligarchs—some with close Kremlin ties—can simply steal financial and even military aid to the country. Through a show of benign neglect, Biden sought to motivate Zelensky to act against the oligarchs on his own.

So far, the strategy appears to be working. In February, Zelensky approved a decision by Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council to shut down three Russian-language TV channels linked to the oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk. In addition to being one of the leaders of the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform—For Life, Medvedchuk is so close to Putin that he lists him as godfather to one of his daughters. More important, Zelensky also moved against Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch who had bankrolled Zelensky’s earlier career as a comedian playing a Ukrainian president on TV.

These moves triggered a series of violent incidents on the informal ‘border’ between Donbas and the rest of Ukraine, killing more than 20 Ukrainian soldiers since the start of the year. With Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border threatening the security of both Ukraine and Poland, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed that anyone inciting a new war in the Donbas will bring about Ukraine’s destruction.

But it is unlikely that Russia’s ostentatious troop movements are preparation for an actual invasion. Rather, with his popularity nose-diving in the run-up to Duma (legislative) elections this September, Putin is resorting to his old bag of dirty tricks. Indeed, the situation on the ground amounts to a proxy war over Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms, which both strengthen Ukrainian civil and political society and threaten Russian interests, including by offering an example of cleaner government to Russians themselves. The prospect of a ‘Maidan in Red Square’—a Ukraine-style democratic revolution in Moscow—haunts Putin.

Meanwhile, Duda has yet to hear from Biden. Unlike in Ukraine, America’s benign neglect of Poland has not persuaded that country’s populist rulers to suspend their war on democracy. Instead, the Polish government seems to have decided that maintaining good relations with the US would require too many concessions, threatening PiS’s position at a time when its pandemic policies have dented its popular support (Poland has become a world leader in Covid-19 infections and deaths as a proportion of its population).

Under PiS, Poland’s foreign policy is ultimately a function of domestic policy. As public support for PiS declines, more and more Poles may begin to realise why even their US patron is keeping its distance.