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Months before the Russian invasion, the White House started on a plan to unite allies

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Biden heads to Brussels next week for a summit with NATO allies. It's the latest sign of how carefully the White House is trying to coordinate its response to Russia. These last few months have been marked by intense diplomacy with allies, and that's led to a relatively united front against Russian aggression. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid reports on how that came to be.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: A year ago, in the spring of 2021, Russia began amassing troops and weapons along its border with Ukraine. A senior administration official described the situation to me as a, quote, "dress rehearsal for what the world is seeing now." It was around this time that Biden spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And I strongly urged him to refrain from any military action.

KHALID: At the time, Biden was working to rebuild relationships with traditional allies around the globe, but his focus was more firmly fixed on COVID and China. He wanted to maintain a stable and predictable relationship with Russia and met with Putin face to face last summer to reiterate that.

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BIDEN: The bottom line is, I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.

KHALID: He sounded optimistic, but within months, U.S. intelligence agencies began to see signs that pointed to a significant military incursion. And so last fall, they took the unusual step of sharing that intelligence privately with allies and publicly in the press.

LEE FEINSTEIN: That's a real departure from how this kind of thing has worked in the past.

KHALID: That's Lee Feinstein. He's the former ambassador to Poland.

FEINSTEIN: And I think it served to speed up some of the decisions of our allies to work together with the United States on strong sanctions.

KHALID: The White House believed the United States and Europe needed to be on the same page.

FEINSTEIN: Putin's strategy has been to anticipate that allies would not unite and also that countries were divided internally. I think the administration immediately understood that that was the strategy.

KHALID: Throughout the month of November, the U.S. stepped up its intelligence sharing with allies. By then, there was no confusion about what was happening on the ground, a Biden official said. The official spoke, on the condition of anonymity, to candidly describe behind-the-scenes conversations. The administration was already talking to allies about sanctions and export controls. Still, diplomacy was not dead. On December 7, Biden called Putin again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

KHALID: Biden also reached out to the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. He filled them in. Then, just before New Year's Eve, another call to Putin - the second time in a month. Biden warned he was ready to bolster the U.S. troop presence in Europe.

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BIDEN: We will have severe sanctions. We will increase our presence in Europe with our NATO allies.

KHALID: Then came the week of January 9. An official told me that was arguably the most intense week of diplomacy in the Biden presidency. National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the White House was working along two parallel tracks with allies.

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JAKE SULLIVAN: We're prepared to keep moving forward down the diplomatic path in good faith, and we're prepared to respond if Russia acts. And beyond that, all we can do is get ready, and we are ready.

KHALID: And the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, took the White House message to the world, speaking at the U.N. Security Council.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: The stakes go far beyond Ukraine. This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people.

KHALID: On February 24, that moment came.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's an air raid.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, that's an air raid.

KHALID: Putin launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine, and the Western world retaliated, sanctioning the largest banks in Russia and banning high-tech exports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I just spoke with the G-7 leaders this morning, and we're in full and total agreement. We will limit Russia's ability to do business in dollars, euros, pounds and yen.

KHALID: Experts say this consensus on sanctions has been one of the most important aspects of the war. Ben Haddad is with the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: I think what's really critical is how far we've gone on sanctions. These measures can only be effective if everyone's on board. That means the United States, the U.K., the European Union, also countries like Switzerland where you know that a lot of these assets might be hidden in banks.

KHALID: Haddad says the White House allowed Europeans to take the lead on some of these decisions, which he thinks is important because, ultimately, this is a war on the European continent. A case in point is how the White House handled the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany. Back in May of last year, the White House waived sanctions on the company. Keep in mind - this was after the Russian military dress rehearsal at Ukraine's border.

DANIEL FRIED: The Biden administration's basic view was, we don't want to burn up a lot of political capital with the Germans killing this pipeline. They need to do it themselves.

KHALID: Daniel Fried is the former assistant secretary of state for Europe. He says this tactical long game paid off for Biden.

FRIED: Germany looked at Putin's war and flipped. It killed Nord Stream 2. And it has joined the sanctions, and it is increasing its military's expenditures in a big way.

KHALID: But even friends disagree sometimes. At this point, most of the response to Russia to date had been highly choreographed and coordinated when a public disagreement broke out. The Poles had a plan to give Ukraine fighter jets. The Biden administration rejected it. And then Vice President Kamala Harris showed up in Warsaw as emotions were raw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: I want to be very clear - the United States and Poland are united in what we have done and are prepared to do to help Ukraine and the people of Ukraine, full stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: Harris then flew on to Romania.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: She reassured Ukraine's nervous neighbor that the United States' commitment to NATO was ironclad.

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HARRIS: We take seriously and are prepared to act on the words we speak when we say an attack against one is an attack against all.

KHALID: That same day back in Washington, Biden announced, in coordination with the G-7, an end to permanent normal trade relations. It was a move he had waited to make, despite pressure from fellow Democrats, and he tried to explain this to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I know I've occasionally frustrated you. But more important than us moving when we want to is making sure all of NATO is together - is together. They have different vulnerabilities than we do.

KHALID: Experts say the initial unity was a result of the sheer shock of seeing Russia launch a large-scale land war in Europe. The key question, though, is not whether there's unity at the outset of a war but whether that unity is sustained, especially when the really tough decisions come as the war drags on. Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTOINE DUFOUR'S "SPIRITUAL GROOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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