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Biden’s mission: Stand up for Ukraine

A new executive order on sanctions could be used to protest Russian troop build-up on the border.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks along a trench on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near Gorlivka, Donetsk region, on April 15.
A Ukrainian serviceman walks along a trench on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near Gorlivka, Donetsk region, on April 15.AFP via Getty Images

It was the second time Joe Biden chatted as president with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

This time, a summit meeting was offered up in a third country to be named later. As yet there’s been no word on whether Putin is interested.

The offer comes at a time when, once again, trouble is brewing on the Russia/Ukraine border. Russia has made no secret of its troop and naval movements in the region, and on one day last month four Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives in a conflict that has never really ended — the 2014 and 2020 Minsk agreements notwithstanding.


Biden and Putin have what you could call history — and not in a good way. It was during the Obama-Biden administration that Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and Russian-backed “separatists” claimed a large chunk of Eastern Ukraine while the international community engaged in a period of extensive pearl-clutching.

Surely letting down a nation at the moment it had begun to turn westward in its political leanings is not the kind of foreign policy faux pas Biden would want to repeat.

There is, of course, the likelihood that Biden’s executive order on sanctions against Russia issued Thursday is a well-timed shot across the bow of the territory-hungry Putin.

Meanwhile, there’s an abundance of diplomatic tough talk.

A readout of Biden’s call to Putin notes that the president “emphasized the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and voiced his “concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders.” He also called on Russia to de-escalate tensions.

“If Russia acts recklessly, or aggressively, there will be costs, there will be consequences,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday — days before this latest Biden overture.


But talk certainly didn’t stop Putin back in 2014.

Today Russia is being open and obvious about what experts are calling massive movements of troops and naval resources into Crimea and along the Ukraine border. In fact, videos of tanks being moved by train from Siberia and an airborne division headed for Crimea are popping up on TikTok.

A Russian-built bridge and rail link to Crimea, completed in 2019, has made the movement of those tanks and troops ever so much easier.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense has publicly acknowledged it sent more than 10 naval vessels from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, along Ukraine’s coast, for military “exercises.” They include landing craft and armed warships.

A Ukrainian military official estimated at least 85,000 Russian troops are now positioned anywhere from 6 to 25 miles from the Ukrainian border and in Crimea.

“I have real concerns about Russia’s actions on the borders of Ukraine,” Blinken said Sunday. “There are more Russian forces massed on those borders than at any time since 2014, when Russia first invaded.”

What Putin’s actual game here is still something of a mystery — Kremlin watchers these days are better at tracking troops than at getting inside the head of the former KGB agent.

Former president Bill Clinton, in a recent interview conducted by former ambassador Nicholas Burns under the auspices of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said it was always clear to him, even back in the ’90s, that Putin wanted to “go back to [the days of] Mother Russia.”


Recent legislation that allows Putin to remain as head of the Russian government until 2036 certainly would give him ample opportunity to work at that — that is, if the rest of the world turns its back — especially on Ukraine.

The last time open conflict broke out in the region, more than 13,000 were killed in the fighting, according to the United Nations.

Today Biden and our European allies are once again being tested. A diplomatic united front against Russian aggression is critical.

The US sanctions against Russia announced this week by the Biden administration — currently as punishment for Russian interference in the 2020 elections and for a cyberattack on nine federal agencies and about 100 private firms — are just a start.

The executive order is actually far more sweeping, creating a host of possible justifications for future sanctions, should Russia “pursue extraterritorial activities targeting dissidents or journalists; undermine security in countries and regions important to United States national security; and violate well-established principles of international law, including respect for the territorial integrity of states.”

But it should also be made clear that expedited military assistance — something more potent than the night-vision goggles and meals ready to eat offered up the last time — will be on the table in the event of open conflict.

Joe Biden is no foreign policy naif. Like Clinton, he knows too well how ruthless and ambitious Putin is. The new sanctions on Russia, and the pledge that more could follow, is the best evidence yet that abandoning Ukraine won’t be an option and that Russia’s bullying on the world stage won’t go unanswered.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.