Before January 22, the situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border appeared much the same as it had the year before: a Russian troop buildup forming to intimidate the Ukrainian side, stuck in a nearly decade-long war in its eastern Donbas region.
On January 22, President Joe Biden told the Russian government that invading Ukraine would not result in any meaningful consequences from America.
“I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it depends on what it does,” Biden mused during an extensive press conference that day. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.”
The events of the past 24 hours – what Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba described on Thursday as a “full-scale attack” on all of Ukraine by the Russian military, one Vladimir Putin announced in a speech on Monday in which he asserted Ukraine does not have a right to exist – is not a “minor incursion.” But Biden’s green light for the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, after months of blatant disrespect towards Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that included snubbing requests to meet and lifting key sanctions on Putin for no clear reason, sent a message that it was unlikely Russia would be face significant consequences for pursuing full colonization of Ukraine.
At press time, Putin announced that he had approved a request to aid the “governments” of Donetsk and Luhansk, the Ukrainian regions forming what is commonly known as the Donbas, in their war with the Ukrainian state. Putin recognized the Russian proxy entities operating in those regions as sovereign states on Monday, a move with no legitimacy in international law, but one that Putin has successfully used before – in 2008, when he recognized the Georgian separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as sovereign states, then invaded to secure his influence over them.
The explosions are being heard far from the Donbas, however. Mixed, unverifiable reports throughout the early morning hours of Thursday indicated that the Russians had attacked Mariupol, Kharkhiv, and the capital, Kyiv. Explosions interrupted journalists reporting from Kyiv. Zelensky apparently has enough reason to believe that the Russians will try to take major urban centers that he announced on Thursday he would give any Ukrainian willing to fight a free gun.
Prior to Thursday’s attack, Zelensky had loudly insisted to anyone who would listen that the situation on the Ukrainian border was no different than it was in 2021 and that the “panic” fueled by the Biden administration was making an invasion more likely.
“I mentioned this to President Biden … we need to stabilize the economy of our country because of those signals which say that tomorrow there will be war,” Zelensky told reporters during a press conference after Biden’s “minor incursion” blunder, “because these signals were sent by even leaders of the respected countries, sometimes they are not even using diplomatic language! They are saying, ‘Tomorrow is the war.’”
“This means panic on the market, panic in the financial sector … how much does it cost to our country?” Zelensky asked.
Some will interpret Zelensky’s public requests to the White House to stop terrifying his citizens – and his mockery of reports Russia would invade by declaring Politico‘s reported invasion day a public holiday – as misplaced optimism in light of the past 24 hours. Zelensky never denied, however, that his country was surrounded by Russian troops. He merely observed that the same thing happened last year, and no one in the international community seemed to care.
“I’m not saying that escalation is excluded, we have been talking about this for eight years now,” the Ukraine president said during the same press conference. “The escalation has already happened. Part of our territories are already occupied.”
Little on the ground in Donbas or the Russian side of the border was different enough from the situation in 2021 to prepare Zelensky to expect a full-scale invasion. Only two circumstances changed, and both were acts by the White House: between February 2021 and 2022, Biden lifted sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, a windfall for Russia that gave it a stranglehold over Germany’s natural gas supply. Then Biden announced he had no problem with a “minor” invasion of Ukraine.
The outrage largely absent from Zelensky’s public behavior in the past month was on full display when the Nord Stream 2 sanctions, set in place under President Donald Trump, fell. Biden announced in May that he would lift the sanctions to please the German government despite the tremendous leverage that it gave Putin.
“It was almost completed by the time I took office,” Biden shrugged. “And to go ahead and impose sanctions now would I think be counterproductive in terms of our European relations and I hope we can work on how they handle it from this point on.”
Zelensky told Axios in a phone tirade that he found out about the end of the sanctions from television reports – the White House did not bother to inform him – and that Biden had given him every signal that this would not happen.
“It still seems to me that Nord Stream 2 … we understand that this is a weapon, a real weapon, and I speak openly about it,” Zelensky explained at the time. “A weapon in the hands of the Russian Federation, and it is not very understandable, I feel, and definitely not expected, that the bullets to this weapon can possibly be provided by such a great country as the United States.”
Zelensky demanded a meeting with Biden before Biden spoke to Putin, but Biden ignored him. It would not be the last time. Biden spent months rejecting requests from Kyiv for the two to meet, promising an invite to Washington over the summer but only getting around to it in September. When they met, Biden spent much of the time rambling about “climate dialogue” at the expense of the more pressing issue, to Zelensky, of the eight-year-old Russian occupation of his country.
Biden snubbed Zelensky again more recently as the Ukrainian president urged Biden to come to Kyiv and shine a protective spotlight on that city.
“I am convinced that your arrival in Kyiv in the coming days, which are crucial for stabilizing the situation, will be a powerful signal and contribute to de-escalation,” Zelensky told Biden in one of their last phone calls before the latest invasion. The public knows about this invitation through the Ukrainian office of the presidency; the White House omitted it from its call readout and Biden ignored it entirely.
The “minor incursion” comment occurred about a month after Biden lobbied Congress to reject a Republican-led attempt to restore sanctions – a sign that the meeting with Zelensky in September did nothing to clarify to him the urgency of keeping money out of Putin’s coffers. Dismissing the possibility of America aiding an ally in the event of an invasion was the second game-changer that distinguished this year’s events from 2021.
Zelensky’s attempts at remaining calm and polite towards Biden – and western Europe, which largely financed the current invasion through projects like Nord Stream 2 – ended this weekend in a fiery speech in Munich. Zelensky told the leaders assembled at the Munich Security Conference that anything that happened to Ukrainian civilians would affect the “karma” of the West. He threatened to pursue nuclear weapons because the guarantors of the Budapest Memorandum, which stripped Ukraine of its Soviet-era weapons, had broken their promise.
“The rules that the world agreed on decades ago no longer work. They do not keep up with new threats,” Zelensky asserted. “The security system is slow. It falters again. Because of selfishness, self-confidence, irresponsibility of countries at the global level.”
“Stand with truth and international law. I’m not calling you by name as I don’t want some other countries to be ashamed. But it is their choice. Their karma. They have it on their conscience,” he warned.
At press time, Zelensky has not bothered to ask Biden for help. He announced on Thursday that any Ukrainian who wants a gun to fight the Russians can have it.