Joe Biden thought he would be remembered as the pandemic president, but finds himself commanding the arsenal of democracy in what could become the biggest military assault in Europe since the second world war.
The crisis escalated on Monday after Vladimir Putin recognised two breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine as independent entities, an apparent pretext for invasion.
“Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belonged to his neighbours?” Biden demanded in the east room. “This is a flagrant violation of international law, and it demands a firm response from the international community.”
But the response he delivered did not go as far as some in Washington would have liked, receiving a cautious welcome from Democrats and failing to satisfy Republicans who accuse Biden of appeasement. It was a shot across Putin’s bows but also the work of an administration keeping some of its powder dry.
The logic here is that sanctions lose their potency as a deterrent if they are imposed too quickly: if somebody has been punished for something they haven’t yet done, they might as well do it anyway. But with the window for diplomacy rapidly closing, it may soon be too late for deterrence to mean anything.