President Joe Biden is signaling a stiffened Western stance in the showdown with Russia, piling on pressure designed to deter Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine in a strategy that nevertheless risks quickening a dangerous cycle of escalation.
The White House pivot comes with Biden now under searing pressure from Republicans to show more strength in the confrontation and follows a week in which he was heavily criticized for hastily walked-back comments that played into the Russian leader’s hopes of dividing NATO.
Several Republicans accused the President of showing weakness and appeasing Putin in talk show appearances on Sunday. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck a jarring tone by describing the Kremlin strongman as a “very talented statesman” who knew how to use power. GOP critiques of Biden ignored the party’s tolerance of ex-President Donald Trump’s craven deference to the Russian leader and some came across as an attempt to use a national security crisis to damage Biden politically ahead of midterm elections in 2022 and the 2024 presidential election.
A series of moves, comments and signals from Washington and Europe over the weekend underscored the deepening peril of the situation at a time when there appears little meaningful diplomatic activity to stop its rapid deterioration.
The State Department said Sunday it was authorizing the departure of non-essential staff and family members from its embassy in Kyiv and warned that in the event of a Russian invasion its capacity to help Americans in the country would be limited. In another significant development, administration officials said the President had discussed options that include deploying between 1,000 and 5,000 troops plus aircraft and ships to US allies in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. And on CNN’s “State of the Union” earlier in the day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that if a single Russian unit entered Ukraine it “would trigger a swift, a severe and a united response” from the US and Europe.
Britain, meanwhile, warned that it had intelligence that Putin was trying to install a puppet leader in place of the democratically elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. And the head of Germany’s navy was forced to resign after comments sympathetic to Russia in a drama that suggested an effort to cover-up deep divisions within the West about how to handle Putin.
A potential US tactical shift
Until now, the US has concentrated on sketching the dire consequences, in the form of debilitating sanctions, that it says would effectively cut Russia off from the Western economy in the event of an invasion. But the latest tactical decisions darkened an already foreboding atmosphere after Biden said last week that he believed that the decision on whether to invade Ukraine was Putin’s dilemma alone. Talk of deploying troops also came across as a direct challenge to the Russian leader while at the same time being apparently designed to protect Biden’s political flank at home.
While the State Department said that it was acting out of an abundance of caution, drawing down embassy staffing is also a classic act of diplomatic symbolism that denotes a worsening crisis. Officials said any move to reinforce NATO flanks would be intended to “provide deterrence and reassurance to allies.” It was not immediately clear whether deployments would come before or after any Russian invasion of Ukraine. But even talking about such steps puts Putin on notice that the entire premise of his hostage hold on Ukraine — to force NATO to withdraw forces from ex-Soviet states — would backfire.
Yet the increasingly robust Western gambit is also a risk. It could convince Putin that he is right to warn that Russian security is threatened by the West. At the very least it could give him a propaganda pretext to invade Ukraine. And Biden must consider whether high-profile troop deployments before an invasion that the US says could come at any time could make it even harder for Putin to back down without securing a tangible payoff for his troop buildup.
The latest US signals came after Russia amassed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders and initiated a new deployment of forces to Belarus, further surrounding its former Soviet client state, and after the government in Kyiv said that Moscow would soon have enough forces for a full-scale invasion. But Biden’s latest steps will not satisfy Republicans who have demanded a much more aggressive US mobilization and are using the crisis to portray Biden as a feckless leader.
Top Republican: ‘Weakness invites aggression’
Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Sunday urged the White House to use sanctions against Russia before any invasion as requested by the government of Ukraine.
“If we don’t do something strong right now, I’m afraid that he’s going to invade Ukraine, which will have global ramifications here,” the Texas Republican said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
But Blinken rejected such an approach, warning that it would diminish the chances that concerns about consequences could influence Putin’s decision. “When it comes to sanctions, the purpose of those sanctions is to deter Russian aggression,” Blinken said on “State of the Union.” “And so, if they’re triggered now, you lose the deterrent effect.”
McCaul also laid into Biden over the administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, saying that it had convinced the Russian leader that the United States would not stand up for its interests.
“I think this all started … with Afghanistan, and the unconditional surrender to the Taliban when he saw weakness. Weakness invited aggression,” McCaul said on CBS. “We’re seen as weak right now … because of President Biden.” (The administration argues the evacuation from Afghanistan was a huge success, but the initial debacle shocked US allies, left some to question the US’ global commitment and helped hammer the President’s approval ratings). The administration counters GOP criticism by saying that an agreement the Trump administration reached with the Taliban gave it no choice but to leave the country.
Pompeo insisted on Fox that the previous administration had won Putin’s respect by being strong, the result being that he “didn’t use coercive activity to try to push back on NATO.” It’s true that some members of the Western alliance did increase military spending after Trump’s complaints about the US being ripped off by its allies — though perceptions of a rising Russian threat and his antipathy to the idea of defending allies also contributed. And the ex-President did allow lethal US aid to be sent to Ukraine, unlike former President Barack Obama. But his desire for Putin’s approval often seemed to undermine his own administration’s policy. His withdrawal from Syria, constant berating of NATO allies and denial of Russian election meddling advanced Putin’s foreign policy goals.
Pompeo: We should ‘respect’ Putin
But Pompeo also offered gushing praise of the Russian leader’s intellect that seemed tonally odd given that he’s a US adversary currently threatening an armed takeover of a democracy supported by Washington.
“We had respect for him and his power. He’s a very talented statesman,” Pompeo said on Fox. “He has lots of gifts. He was a KGB agent, for goodness’ sakes. He knows how to use power, we should respect that.”
The idea that the United States should respect a leader who rules with an iron fist, who crushed democracy and freedom of the press, imprisons political opponents and presides over a corrupt economy that empowers oligarchs is notable coming from an ex-secretary of state.
Foreign policy experts often divide on the question of whether Putin is playing a tough hand with aplomb or whether his international gangsterism is more the act of a weak leader terrified of legitimate opposition and being forced from power. It’s also questionable whether massing troops on the border of a vulnerable democracy and making outlandish demands of NATO is the behavior of a “talented statesman.”
And any arguments that Putin was cowed by Trump from using coercion against the West are confounded by US intelligence assessments that Moscow interfered in US elections. The then-President stunned the US espionage community by disowning assessments of Putin’s 2016 meddling when he appeared side-by-side with him at a press conference in Helsinki. Cyberattacks emanating from Russian soil also took place throughout the Trump presidency, including the SolarWinds operation that breached US federal agencies when the former President was in power. Supposed respect for the US didn’t stop Russian agents using a biological weapon on British soil to poison a defector, according to the UK government.
The willingness of the GOP to criticize Biden, despite these huge blemishes on Trump’s record, shows that for many of its members, with a few exceptions like McCaul, politics take priority over national security in the pursuit of future power. Such an approach only widens the divides on which Putin relies as he seeks to tarnish American prestige.