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Biden and his team believe Russia’s war in Ukraine could define his presidency

By Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins, CNN

More than a week into Russia’s war in Ukraine, President Joe Biden and his team at the White House are settling in for what many of them believe will become one of the defining backdrops to his presidency: A grinding war in Europe led by an increasingly unsound combatant.

Officials told CNN they believe the coming hours and days could be potentially the bloodiest so far, with intensifying violence directed toward civilians as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his advance toward the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. The Kremlin leader is frustrated by a slower than expected start — initially believing Kyiv could fall in as little as 72 hours, according to US assessments.

Shipments of American weapons — including Javelin and Stinger missiles that can debilitate tanks and aircraft, respectively — have arrived as part of the $350 million package Biden signed last week, an expedited attempt to bolster Ukraine’s defenses.

Biden has dispatched Vice President Kamala Harris back to Europe to reassure US allies as the largest ground war on the continent since World War II presses on. Harris will visit Poland and Romania next week “to demonstrate the strength and unity of the NATO Alliance and US support for NATO’s eastern flank allies in the face of Russian aggression,” the White House said in a statement.

The prospect of more sanctions, including a ban on Russian oil imports to the United States, has gained traction among Democrats and Republicans alike and Biden continues to weigh the potential benefits.

And US officials are continuing to urgently examine Putin’s mindset and motivations as Western leaders who have met with him describe an isolated and altered man dead set on recomposing the old Soviet Union. In meetings among officials, concern has been raised about what Putin might do as he feels the squeeze of international condemnation.

“The days to come are likely to be worse, with more death, more suffering and more destruction, as the Russian armed forces bring in heavier weaponry and continue their attacks across the country,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday.

For Biden, the war has consumed what he once hoped would be a spring focused on traveling the country to deliver a revamped economic message. Top advisers view the current period as the most critical of his presidency, with nothing less than global stability in the balance. From the Oval Office, Situation Room and, in the early morning and late evening, the Treaty Room in his residence, Biden has sought to corral a united Western alliance against Russia’s aggression.

“The way to deal with autocracy — the way to deal with dictators — is a united, united front among our allies,” Biden told historian Heather Cox Richardson in an interview that was posted online Friday. “Now we’re united. And it’s going to be very difficult for the autocrats to succeed.”

That may have been an optimistic outlook, at least as far as Putin is concerned. Even Biden has voiced a belief that the Russian leader doesn’t intend to stop the war at Ukraine’s borders.

An international crisis replaces a health emergency

Just as the Covid-19 pandemic recedes as the issue that occupies the President’s days, the war in Ukraine has emerged as an hour-by-hour crisis, sending Biden and his team into the Situation Room nearly every day for secure video conferences and phone calls with other world leaders. Aides say the crisis in Ukraine looms over Biden’s schedule so much that while other issues have set times to be discussed, he receives near constant updates on the invasion from his national security team.

The first 12 minutes of his State of the Union address this week focused only on Ukraine. The scope of the administration’s response was also clear during a Cabinet meeting at the White House, as nearly every department or agency head sitting around the table was somehow involved in the US reaction to the war.

From his bunker in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has phoned the White House every few days — often at his request — from a secure satellite phone provided to him by the US government, always pressing for more assistance and greater punishment on Moscow.

Despite conversations with the US about contingency plans for leaving Ukraine and forming a government-in-exile somewhere in Europe, Zelensky has shown no signs he is willing to leave his besieged country.

In a Facebook address late Friday, Zelensky condemned NATO’s decision to rule out the implementation of a no-fly zone over the country — a decision Biden backs since it would put American forces in direct opposition to Russia. Putin said Saturday that the imposition of a no-fly zone would be “considered by us as participation in an armed conflict.”

“We believe that NATO countries have created a narrative that closing the skies over Ukraine would provoke Russia’s direct aggression against NATO,” Zelensky said. “This is the self-hypnosis of those who are weak, insecure inside, despite the fact they possess weapons many times stronger than we have.”

Zelensky’s pleas have put Biden in the difficult position of denying an embattled leader what he’s asking for, though the White House insists it is responding rapidly to every request it can accommodate.

When White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked Friday how Biden had “hardened himself” to watching atrocities unfold in Ukraine without sending US troops to help, she responded forcefully.

“We are not watching; the President is leading the world in responding to this,” she said. “However, he is not going to put US military men and women serving on the front lines of battle and Ukraine to fight Russia. That has never been his plan, never been his policy, and he has no intention of doing that.”

All eyes on Putin’s next moves

Multiple rounds of historically severe sanctions on Russian banks, oligarchs and industries have not yet led Putin to change course, even as they inflicted immediate damage on his country’s economy. As Russia becomes more isolated, and many of its residents leave, some American officials have wondered whether — and how — Putin will lash out.

“He’s attacking right now because he has a goal. And he’s not going to let up on this goal. He’s not [at] a point in time where he can show this kind of weakness, so he has to keep going,” said Beth Sanner, a former top intelligence official who is now a CNN national security contributor. “So, the question is does he feel confident enough — despite his claims of everything being on track. Clearly, that’s not the case — does he feel comfortable enough that he is on the right track that he just sticks with that, or is he feeling more and more cornered?”

“Some really big choices are coming on what to do on sanctions. Oil and gas sanctions could indeed lead to that backlash. It’s a dilemma at this point,” Sanner said.

Biden administration officials are actively considering banning imports of Russian crude oil, though they have yet to decide and are still assessing how such a move would impact the market.

“We are looking at options that we can take right now if we were to cut the US consumption of Russian energy, but what’s really most important is that we maintain a steady supply of global energy,” Cecilia Rouse, the chair of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters Friday.

The administration is now facing bipartisan pressure from lawmakers to act, which only increased after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she supported a full ban.

“I’m all for that. Ban it,” Pelosi said.

US officials have been cautious not to escalate tensions beyond where they already stand. When Putin ordered his nuclear forces into “special combat readiness” last weekend, Biden and his team chose not to follow suit, writing off the move as theatrics.

And after the US Embassy in Kyiv declared that Russia’s attack on a nuclear power plant a “war crime” — bypassing Biden’s stance that it was too early to make such a declaration — the State Department issued an urgent directive to other embassies not to amplify the statement.

“All — do not/not retweet Embassy Kyiv’s tweet on shelling of the facility being a possible war crime,” the message said. “If you have retweeted it — un-retweet it ASAP.”

Officials said privately the urgent message reflected a desire to follow the legal process when it comes to declaring something a war crime.

Biden believes Putin wants to re-establish the USSR

For Biden, the war in Ukraine is the culmination of a nearly five-decade career in foreign policy that placed a premium on trans-Atlantic ties, including eight years as the Obama administration’s frontman on Ukraine. Having once famously observed to Putin’s face that he believed he “had no soul,” Biden is now watching that claim play out in real time.

Putin’s frame of mind has increasingly become an urgent matter for US intelligence and national security officials, according to people familiar with the matter. Biden has been briefed by Russia experts on his team that the Russian leader is operating partly based on emotion and a warped view of history.

After a call with Putin this week, French President Emmanuel Macron came away believing the Russian leader was intent on seeing his invasion through.

“This conversation is unfortunately an occasion to hear that President Putin will continue military interventions and to go all the way,” a source at the Élysée said afterward.

Putin has isolated himself during the coronavirus pandemic, restricting the number of advisers he interacts with to a small group. And American officials believe his thinking has turned more extreme over that period, owing in part to the limited number of viewpoints reaching him.

Biden’s aides have refused to diagnose Putin’s frame of mind in public. But they have made plain they see his behavior as a shift.

“I’m not going to get into Putin’s mental state. What I am going to say is he has done something now that he hasn’t before, which is launched a completely unprovoked, unjustified invasion of Ukraine,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said on CNN this week.

While some American officials, along with others in Europe who have engaged directly with Putin, believe the Russian leader to have grown more mentally unbalanced in recent years, Biden has not endorsed that assessment in public or in private.

Instead, he has deemed Putin clear-eyed in his goal: “Trying to re-establish the Soviet Union, basically,” he said in an aside this week.

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