1) Kori Schake, “America’s Russia Policy Has a Biden Problem,” New York Times, February 11; 2022.
Ms. Schake, a foreign policy expert who worked for the National Security Council and the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, is the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Today is a good point to stand back from the mad rush of developments that suggest Russia, with an estimated 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine, may invade that country as soon as Wednesday, February 17.
Ironically, or perhaps tragically, February 17 is the day the U.N. Security Council is scheduled to meet to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
Kori Schake does an excellent in pointing out Biden’s grave error in taking force off the table in dealing with Vladimir Putin.
Looking at the current Ukraine Crisis from a broader perspective, one can appreciate how Putin’s prior experience with Barack Obama and Joe Biden when he invaded the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine in 2014, with Biden at the summit in Geneva in June, 2021, and above all as he observed Biden’s extraordinary demonstration of incompetence and poor strategic judgment in his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, might have led Putin to believe he could move against Ukraine with relative impunity.
The parallels between the cuurent Ukraine Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962 are striking. Nikita Khrushchev, having observed John F. Kennedy’s disastrous performance during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April, 1961, was not impressed by a poorly-prepared Kennedy at their summit in Vienna only months later, in June 1961. Having taken JFK’s measure, Khrushchev ordered the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba which, when they were discovered, led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Similarly, Putin met with Biden at a summit in Geneva in June, 2021, only months after Biden announced his catastrophic decision to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan. The president of Finland, who has known Putin well for 10 years, remarked recently in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, that he had noticed a sharp change in Putin’s behavior following the Geneva summit.
“Christian Esch und Christoph Scheuermann, “Interview: Finnischer Präsident Sauli Niinistö über Osteuropa-Konflikt
‘Putin war plötzlich sehr, sehr entschlossen; Kaum ein Staatschef kennt den Kremlherrscher besser als der finnische Präsident Niinistö. Er sagt: Die Russen sind bereit, hohe Preise für das zu zahlen, was ihnen wichtig ist, ” Der Spiegel, den 11. Februar 2022 (10.00 Uhr), aus DER SPIEGEL 7/2022.”
Putin also observed Biden’s incompetence during the botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Like Khrushchev before him, the Russian leader seems to have concluded that the American president would pose no serious obstacle to the execution of an extremely bold and risky plan, here an invasion of Ukraine.
It is perhaps unfair to the many able individuals working on Biden’s foreign policy team to label the team as incompetent. They may be doing the best they can under an incompetent team leader.
In Afghanistan, Biden ignored the advice of his top military and civilian advisers and, in a decision determined more by his emotions and stubbornness than by a realistic appraisal of the situation, decided to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country. The fact that Donald Trump had agreed to do so in February 2020 is irrelevant. Biden was entirely free to and did make his own decision.
The decision to withdraw was the catastrophic strategic blunder. The botched withdrawal added stark evidence of the incompetence of the U.S. foreign policy team under Biden.
In any event, given the strategic blunder, it is hard to imagine how the withdrawal could have gone smoothly.
In Ukraine, we may be witnessing the consequences of another fundamentally flawed Biden decision, or policy. Biden not only decided he would not use force to resist a Russian invasion of Ukraine, but announced publicly from the beginning that the U.S. would not use force, leading NATO members to make similar decisions.
In doing so, Biden in effect offered assurances to Vladimir Putin that he would not have to take a potential military response from the U.S. and its NATO allies into account in deciding whether or not to invade Ukraine.
Biden has just recently reiterated his pacifist message by declaring that if there were an invasion U.S. forces would not even go into Ukraine to extract U.S. citizens. He has also pulled American military trainers and most embassy staff out of the country, measures which have been followed by allies and other countries.
Biden may have thought that such public declarations were necessary to goad Americans to leave Ukraine–or perhaps to avoid a repetition of the criticism he received for leaving so many Americans and Afghan partners behind in Afghanistan.
Whatever it was, he doesn’t seem to have been focusing on the signals he was sending to Putin.
Viewed objectively, Biden’s actions look like some form of what might be termed “anticipatory appeasement” or “anticipatory pacifism”.
Putin effectively used the threat of nuclear war and World War III against Barack Obama in 2014. We need to recall that Biden was directly involved in decision making on Ukraine at that time, and indeed had a special brief to deal with Ukraine.
Obama blinked, and Biden was part of that decision. The threat of nuclear war cowed Obama, and even led him to collaborate with the Russians in Syria in the fight against ISIS, while conveniently allowing Russia to continue its military support of Bashir al-Assad and his commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, actions which Russia itself also committed.
Significantly, Biden has repeated the Russian mantra that if U.S. and Russian forces were to become engaged on opposite sides of the conflict, that would be World War III. Like Obama, he has received Putin’s threat, and internalized it.
At this point, what can be done by Biden and his foreign policy team to correct for his grave errors in framing the possible responses of the U.S. and its allies to a Russian invasion of Ukraine?
What Biden should do, and leaders of other NATO countries and allies should do on their own if he does not, is to loudly announce that if an invasion of Ukraine actually takes place, they will put the use of force back on the table.
If Putin invades Ukraine, they should announce, they will consider the potential use of force and all other actions (including cyber warfare) in deciding what measures they may take in collective self-defense of Ukraine.
In analyzing the current situation and actions which can and should be taken by the allies in response to any Russian aggression, it should be useful to review the following articles, which not only track the development of the conflict but also consider in depth different aspects of the crisis.
1) “The Ukraine Crisis: Current Developments (and the risks of nuclear war)–January 29, 2022,” The Trenchant Observer, January 29, 2022.:
2) “Biden’s defeatist approach to Ukraine: “If Putin invades Ukraine, we will sanction every clerk in his office.” In the meantime, U.S. clerks will go through the motions at the U.N. Significant risk of nuclear war exists,” The Trenchant Observer, January 28, 2022;
3) “REPRISE: The fatal flaws in U.S. thinking about responses to Russian aggression against Ukraine–UPDATED January 20, 2022,” The Trenchant Observer, January 20, 2022;
4) “Change Putin’s calculations: Put force back on the table, and begin active cyber-warfare measures to defend Ukraine,” The Trenchant Observer, January 14, 2022;
5) “How would a Russia-Ukraine war end? Beyond military alliances: The original United Nations Charter scheme of collective security,” The Trenchant Observer, January 12, 2022;
6) “Anne Applebaum’s warning on Ukraine, and Putin’s choices,” The Trenchant Observer, January 4, 2022;
7) “Purin’s threats suggest he leans toward invading Ukraine (Updated December 31, 2021),” The Trenchant Observer, December 30, 2022 (updated January 11, 2022;
8) “Ukraine: Putin’s “red lines” and the “red lines” of the U.N. Charter and international law,” The Trenchant Observer, December 24, 2021;
9) “U.S. warns allies of potential Russian invasion of Ukraine,” The Trenchant Observer, November 11, 2021;
10) “Appeasement in the West: Clueless Obama assures Russia the U.S. rules out the use of force in Ukraine” The Trenchant Observer, March 20, 2014.
In a word, what needs to be done now, urgently, is to put the potential use of force back on the table. Such an action could complicate Putin’s calculations, and give him cause to pull back from the brink.
To make that step credible, Biden needs to surround himself with the best and most experienced military and civilian advisers he can find. They should meet in permanent session, perhaps under the coordination of National Security Council Adviser Jack Sullivan, and seek to to approximate, to the extent they can, the work of the Excomm under Bobby Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Joe Biden is no Jack Kennedy, to cite Lloyd Bentsen’s famous words in the vice-presidential debate with Dan Quayle in 1988, but adjustments can be made.
This is the United States. Adjustments can and must be made.
The Trenchant Observer