“Putin wants us to make it a proxy war,” said Fiona Hill, a former Russia adviser to two presidents now at the Brookings Institution. “Putin is still telling people outside Europe this is just a repeat of the Cold War, nothing to look at here. This is not a proxy war. It’s a colonial land grab.”
Michael A. McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia now at Stanford University, said there was a difference between clandestinely helping Ukrainian forces target Russian forces and flaunting it. “Yes, Putin knows that we are providing intelligence to Ukraine,” he said. “But saying it out loud helps his public narrative that Russia is fighting the US and NATO in Ukraine, not just the Ukrainians. That doesn’t serve our interests.”
Angela Stent, the former national intelligence officer on Russia and the author of a book on American relations with Mr. Putin, said being too open about what the United States was doing in Ukraine could undermine efforts to turn China, India and other countries against Russia. “For global public opinion, it’s not a good idea,” she said. “They should do whatever they do, but not talk about it.”
Mr. McFaul said he also believed it undermined Ukrainians, making it look like they were dependent on the Americans, a concern that Mr. Biden was said to share his phone calls with his security officials, which were first reported by the Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman.
But others said the administration has been too cautious in letting Russia set the rules of the conflict — or rather Washington’s guesswork about what would push Russia into escalation. No one in Washington really knows the line that should not be crossed with Mr. Putin, and instead the United States has simply been making assumptions. “Are we having a conversation about red lines with ourselves?” asked Frederick W. Kagan, a military scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Because I rather think we are.”
The consequence, he added, is being too slow to provide what Ukraine really needs. “They’ve done amazingly well at making stuff happen in a relatively timely fashion,” Mr. Kagan said of the Biden administration. “But there does seem to be a certain brake on the timeliness of our support driven by this kind of parsing and self-negotiation that is a problem.”
The legislation that Mr. Biden signed on Monday reflected the historical echoes and reversals of the current war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the original Lend-Lease Act in 1941 to help the British fend off Nazi aggressors in World War II, and it was later expanded to help other allies — including the Soviet Union.