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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the East Room of the White House on Feb. 24.Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

Ground troops – out of the question. Contemplating a no-fly zone over Ukraine – far too late for that. Moral suasion – it produced nothing. Sanctions – they may bite but won’t prompt Russia to balk.

What’s an American President possessing the world’s most powerful military force and at the head of an alliance of 28 countries on the continent of Europe to do?

This is a vital question when a determined Russian President with nearly a million troops decides to have his way with a country possessing a military about a quarter that size and a fighter aircraft force a tenth the size of Russia’s?

“I can’t see anything that Biden can do in the near term,” Michael A. Hunzeker, a former Marine who is associate director of George Mason University’s Center for Security Policy Studies, said in an interview. “If the Russian effort bogs down it may create new opportunities for him to back an insurgency. But that is far in the future.”

Biden touts ‘first tranche’ of sanctions against Russia as toughest measures yet. How effective are they?

In remarks Thursday, Mr. Biden – already facing questions about his hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan – condemned Russia for “a brutal assault on the people of Ukraine” in “a premeditated attack.” He announced a new tranche of sanctions, once contemplated as a deterrent and now employed as a punishment, that would impose “severe costs on the Russian economy” including export controls, blocks on Russian bank assets and measures addressed to Russian elites.

“These are people who personally gain from the Kremlin’s policies and they should share in the pain,” said Mr. Biden, who argued, “Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear its consequences.” He pledged to “squeeze Russia’s access” to a panoply of economic assets and to cut off more than half of the country’s high-tech imports.

Even so, Washington’s frustration in this new global crisis is palpable. Its tools are limited, its influence even more so, as its outrage mounted Thursday after Russia’s air strikes battered Ukrainian targets, troops breached the Ukrainian border, and Vladimir Putin attacked what he called America’s “empire of lies.”

For Mr. Biden, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is particularly disorienting. As a long-time member, and then the chairman, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he operated within the Washington consensus that the status quo in a generally peaceful Europe was an inalterable foundation stone of the post-Cold War era.

Then, as vice-president to an inexperienced leader with scant foreign-policy involvement, Barack Obama, he became accustomed to a world where unpredictable closed societies were the principal threats to global stability and where ascendant China, not declining Russia, was the principal rival to American superiority on the world stage.

The consequence: While the movement of Russian military personnel into Ukraine was orchestrated, Washington’s contingency plans for aggression by a rogue leader were focused on North Korea and Iran, not on an established Eurasian country whose leaders since 1917 were reliably hostile but essentially rational.

The toolbox for offensives like the one Mr. Putin unleashed is all but empty.

“Short of any military solution for which the United States is not prepared to engage, there’s not much Biden can do,” said Mariana Budjeryn, a scholar at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center who holds a political science degree from the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the 500-year-old Ukrainian university that was prominent in Orange Revolution activities.

“He can deliver on his promise by slamming the full brunt of the sanctions he has promised,” she said. “He can basically disconnect Russia. Otherwise, he only can watch Ukrainians fighting it out and maybe supply them with intelligence and situational awareness.”

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany stepped forward Thursday and volunteered to co-ordinate sanctions with European Union and NATO countries, hoping “to make it clear to the Russian leadership that they will pay a bitter price for these aggressions.” And though Mr. Scholz vowed that it “will become clear that Putin made a serious mistake with his war,” the Russian President faces no obstacles in the early days of this conflict.

Indeed, Mr. Putin possesses the whip hand in this crisis – Russian forces established air superiority in the first 12 hours, with armed convoys and tanks moving relentlessly in the region – and is imposing his will with little resistance.

The result is what Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee was criticized for warning of Russian aggressiveness, described in a statement as “the first time in 80 years that a great power has moved to conquer a sovereign nation,” adding, “It is without justification, without provocation and without honour.”

Mr. Biden deployed additional American forces to Europe and said he initiated “preparations for additional moves” should they become necessary. He said his administration was “closely monitoring” energy supplies worldwide and said the United States would release additional oil from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which has supplies equivalent to about 1,000 days of net imports.

“His aggression cannot go unanswered,” Mr. Biden said. ”America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom.”

As Ukrainians huddled in hideouts and subway stations, there was worldwide condemnation of the Russian offensive. For the moment, Mr. Putin stands alone with arms and momentum while Mr. Biden heads a coalition of scores of countries with few options.

“Putin’s old playbook is to split the West – and it’s imperative to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Lee Feinstein, the founding leader of Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School or Global and International Studies and who, as American ambassador to Poland, negotiated the first agreement to establish a continuing U.S. military presence there.

“The priority now is to maintain solidarity with American allies and partners,” he said. “That is fundamental. So far, the administration has done a good job with that, but there’s little you can do to prevent a determined and aggrieved Putin from moving the way he did.”

Mr. Putin is losing the public-relations war on the airwaves; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the Russian people in a televised address that in conflict “you will see our faces not our backs.” But he is winning the air war and conflict on the ground in what the Russian President called a “special military operation” designed to end alleged “abuse and genocide” in Ukraine.

There is little Western appetite to challenge Mr. Putin on his very clear warning not to support resistance in Ukraine. “There is no way to fly that sort of stuff in,” said Mr. Hunzeker, the George Mason University scholar. “Nor is there a way to sneak it in overland. And it would have to come from NATO territory.”

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