Civilians get instruction from a military instructor on how to use...

Civilians get instruction from a military instructor on how to use Molotov cocktails during a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Sunday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Sergei Supinsky

WASHINGTON — Days before stepping down as vice president in January 2017, Joe Biden addressed Ukrainian lawmakers during a sixth and final visit to Kyiv under the Obama administration, promising that if the fledgling democracy worked to root out corruption and remain a democratic society, their efforts would "keep the international community united behind you."

In the second year of Biden’s presidency, Ukraine is again at the forefront of his international agenda, as Russia’s massive buildup of troops along the Ukrainian border poses the latest foreign policy test for the president.

Biden, who faced criticism both at home and abroad for the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last year, is pushing for a diplomatic solution to keep Russian President Vladmir Putin from invading Ukraine, but has also started to deploy nearly 3,000 troops to the region to deter Putin.

Foreign policy analysts contend that Biden, as well as European allies, are trying to balance de-escalating tensions with Putin, while still asserting the power of the long-standing NATO security alliance that was formed by the United States and other European nations in 1949 to counter the rising power of the Soviet Union.

Biden "recognizes that Putin needs a way out, that we've gone far enough in this crisis," said Jeremi Suri, a global affairs professor at the University of Texas-Austin. "Biden recognizes that there's no reality where Putin just takes his soldiers and goes home and does nothing because then it's a huge loss for him … Biden is trying to give Putin an out and he's trying to understand the circumstances Putin is in with his own domestic issues. Biden does not want to give Putin anything, but he is happy for Putin to be able to pretend he got something."

Last week the first of 3,000 U.S. troops deployed by Biden to the region arrived in Poland and Germany, and the Pentagon has said American forces already stationed in Europe could eventually be repositioned to other NATO allies in Eastern Europe, all in a show of force aimed at getting Putin to abandon any plans to invade Ukraine. Putin has moved 100,000 Russian forces along the Ukraine border and deployed a host of equipment to the area.

"Biden took a more pro-Ukrainian, anti-Russian position during the Obama administration, and Putin certainly knows that," said Yoshiko Herrera, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who specializes in Russian politics.

A military instructor teaches civilians how to use Molotov cocktails...

A military instructor teaches civilians how to use Molotov cocktails during a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Sunday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Sergei Supinsky

Former President Barack Obama tapped Biden to serve as the administration’s point person on Ukraine following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Biden in his 2017 memoir described advocating to European allies that "we need to remain resolute and united in our support of Ukraine," because if the sovereign nation were to fall to Russia, the loss would "resonate well beyond Ukraine."

"Biden's previous work complicates Putin's calculations because he cannot be sure that Biden would take all military options off the table, and I don't think Biden has," said Herrera. "I think that lessens the likelihood of invasion because Putin, for all his flaws, is actually a careful and calculating dictator. He doesn’t act erratically."

Putin has "backed himself into a corner," Herrera said, noting that a war in Ukraine would be deeply unpopular among Russians already grappling with a shaky economy and reluctant to enter a conflict with mass casualties on both sides.

"I just think there's no way Putin actually wants an invasion of Ukraine … it wouldn’t be successful," Herrera said. "It might be successful in terms of rolling tanks in, but in terms of holding Ukraine, he would immediately face a serious insurgency."

Suri said negotiating a successful diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine is not only important for Biden back home in the United States, but also abroad, noting that several European allies were critical of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, arguing that they weren’t included in the exit plans.

"It's really important that he appears to be ordered, competent, coherent in what he's doing and working closely with allies," Suri said. "Afghanistan for many allies looked like the United States was picking up and leaving and not even working with our allies as we were moving out. So it's important for him to show that he's actually acting as a leader here."

With Democrats bracing for a rough midterm election season, Suri said Biden is looking for a diplomatic success to tout on the campaign trail.

"I think that what he's hoping is that this will be peacefully resolved and he will be able to take credit for that," Suri said.

Christopher Fettweis, a political-science professor at Tulane University who focuses on U.S. foreign relations, said Biden is ultimately looking to convey to Putin "that if his goal is to keep Ukraine out of the Western sphere of influence, and to have the United States and Western Europe not necessarily give [Russia] a united front, then defusing this crisis would help [Putin] attain that goal more than attacking Ukraine."

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