Critics say the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan emboldened the Russian leader, but former U.S. officials say past U.S. responses to Russian incursions were a bigger problem.



Early in his State of the Union address this week, President Biden made a point that is at the center of some deep soul-searching in Washington and whether he and past presidents underestimated Vladimir Putin.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Throughout our history, we've learned this lesson - when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos.

MARTINEZ: Those who faced Putin before say that's what's happening now, as the Russian military bears down on Ukraine's capital city. Here with more is White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

FRANCO ORDONEZ, BYLINE: President Biden spent two hours on a video call with Vladimir Putin in early December, as tens of thousands of Russian troops amassed along the Ukraine border.


BIDEN: There were no minced words. It was polite, but I made it very clear - if in fact he invades Ukraine, there will be severe consequences.

ORDONEZ: The Russian leader did not take heed. Instead, Putin sent more troops. He also moved blood supplies and medical tents, a critical sign that he was prepared for the casualties of war. Republican critics say the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was a signal to Putin that America was in retreat. But former U.S. officials say the real problem is how the United States and allies have handled Russian incursions since the mid-2000s.

HEATHER CONLEY: We have to completely rethink the cost calculation.

ORDONEZ: Heather Conley was a top official for Europe in the George W. Bush administration. She says sanctions in the past were filled with loopholes, and despite warning from allies in the region, the United States continued to underestimate Putin.

CONLEY: They had told us for the last 15 years that Russia was capable of doing exactly what it is doing in Ukraine. We continued to refuse to believe that was the case.

ORDONEZ: Biden understands that past going back to his days in the Senate. As vice president, he wrestled with Putin's 2014 annexation of Crimea. So did many of his top aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who each served with Biden in the Obama administration.

ANDREA KENDALL-TAYLOR: The fact that we are here again suggests that the costs of the past have not been significant enough for President Putin.

ORDONEZ: That's Andrea Kendall-Taylor. She's a former intelligence officer who advised the Biden team during its transition to the White House.

KENDALL-TAYLOR: That is a hard lesson that many folks in this administration learned during the Obama administration.

ORDONEZ: She says what they learned is reflected in the unprecedented level of sanctions that have since been imposed, largely cutting Russia off from the global economy. But that history also hasn't stopped questions about whether Biden failed to confront Putin soon enough.

SAMUEL CHARAP: The strategy seemed to be - we can have a stable and predictable relationship with Russia, but we are only going to talk to Russia about the things that we, the U.S., want to talk to Russia about.

ORDONEZ: Samuel Charap was a top adviser in the Obama administration. He says it's wrong to blame Biden for Putin's actions but questions whether the United States could have been more creative in meeting Putin closer to one of his key demands - that Ukraine not be admitted to NATO.

CHARAP: There is another case to be made that this war could be so catastrophic that trying to be creative, more so than we were before, was potentially warranted by the circumstances.

ORDONEZ: Senior administration officials say that President Biden has been clear that Ukraine is not going to be admitted anytime soon and that its apparent, especially now, that no amount of creativity was going to change Putin's plans.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News.

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