Ukraine Crisis, February 21, 2022 (Part II): Weighing options–Biden’s Munich moment


1) Ann M. Simmons, Yaroslav Trofimov, and Matthew Luxmoore, “Putin Orders Deployment of Troops to Breakaway Regions in Ukraine; Russian president earlier recognized their independence, escalating tensions with West,” Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2022 (Updated 11:45 pm ET).

The White House said that Mr. Biden “strongly condemned” Mr. Putin’s decision to recognize two breakaway regions of Ukraine and said it planned to issue sanctions. Mr. Biden also “reiterated that the United States would respond swiftly and decisively, in lockstep with its Allies and partners, to further Russian aggression against Ukraine.”

This is what the Tiger Team came up with?

Lists of targeted individuals

The U.S. has told the U.N. that it has reliable information that the Kremlin plans to hunt down Ukrainians who oppose a Russian attack if Mr. Putin decides to invade the country.

“We have credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation,” Bathsheba Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. office and other international organizations in Geneva wrote a top U.N. human rights official. “Russian forces will likely use lethal measures to disperse peaceful protests or otherwise counter peaceful exercises of perceived resistance from civilian populations.”

Dissidents from Belarus and Russia who have sought refuge in Ukraine would also likely be targeted, as would journalists, anticorruption activists, religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ individuals, Ms. Crocker wrote.

The letter, which was first reported by the Washington Post, was sent to Michelle Bachelet, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights.

2) Robyn Dixon, Paul Sonne and Ellen Nakashima, “Putin orders troops to eastern Ukraine after formally recognizing two Moscow-backed separatist regions; The action by the Russian president was a dramatic escalation in a crisis that is threatening full-scale war,” Washington Post, February 21, 2022 (7:40 p.m. EST, Updated at 11:23 p.m. EST).

The situation presents a precarious moment for the White House. For weeks, Biden and allied leaders have been warning Russia that an invasion would result in severe sanctions on the Russian financial sector and export controls that would hobble the nation’s economy.

Now, they have to decide whether Putin’s decision to move Russian forces into the breakaway territories constitutes the sort of invasion that would trigger the full-fledged package of measures.

“Russian troops moving into Donbas would not itself be a new step,” the senior administration official said in a call with reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Russia has had forces in the Donbas region for the past eight years.”

3) Piotr Smolar, “Ukraine : à Washington, une réaction prudente face à l’escalade russe; La décision du Kremlin de reconnaître l’indépendance des républiques séparatistes ukrainiennes compromet la stratégie préventive et dissuasive développée par Washington depuis trois mois,” Le Monde, le 22 février 2022 (à 04h43, mis à jour à 07h10).

An excellent and nuanced analysis providing broad context.


Joe Biden is facing “a Munich moment”. Will he impose tough sanctions on Putin for crowning his ongoing invasion of the Eastern Ukraine with the recognition of the puppet regimes he installed in 2014 and has maintained in power since, as independent countries, who will immediately invite Russian troops in to “protect” the population?

It is clear from the reports above that Biden is temporizing, drawing fine intellectual distinctions just like his mentor, Barack Obama, who helped create the present Ukrainian crisis by not reacting strongly to Putin’s invasions of the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine in 2014.

In 2014 Obama objected to the characterization of the Russian invasion of the Donbas as an “invasion”, preferring to term it an “incursion”. An “incursion” did not require as strong a response with sanctions as an “invasion”, in Obama’s thinking, and as Biden eerily communicated to Putin in a press conference some weeks ago.

Biden has made two colossal strategic misjudgments, and appears to be making a third at this very moment.

The first was the irrevocable decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan. Once that decision was made, all that followed was a future foretold.

The second strategic blunder was to tell the world publicly, including Putin, that he was taking force off the table as a possible response to potential Russian aggression against Ukraine.

By that decision, Biden shaped the battlefield in ways which were sharply detrimental to Ukraine, and to the U.S. and its allies.

Both strategic blunders set parameters which made good outcomes virtually impossible to achieve. In Ukraine, it is hard to imagine what Biden might have done that would have made the military opportunity appear more attractive to Putin.

Now, having set the stage with the first two colossal blunders, Biden is making his third, by not applying the threatened severe sanctions against Putin for “merely” having engaged in an “incursion” in the Donbas.

The truth is that on their own the head and loyal lieutenant of Biden’s foreign policy team, Biden himself and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, are not too sharp. Blinken may have his strengths in executing policy, but he is not a heavyweight in strategic decision making. He did not stop Biden from the catastrophe of his Afghanistan withdrawal decision, for example, or persuade him not to take force off the table in trying to deter Putin from invading Ukraine.

Now, like Obama, Biden is trying to make fine intellectual distinctions in weighing sanctions, as if Putin were an accountant carefully adding up on his calculator the costs and benefits of invading Ukraine, whereas in fact he is a KGB thug, a war criminal (Syria, Chechnya), an apparent serial murderer of his opponents (Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalny–unsuccessful attempt, et. al.), and someone who invaded the Donbas and kept a war going that has cost some 14,000 lives.

Biden needs to stop imitating Obama, forget the fine distinctions involved in different acts of blatant aggression in violation of international law, and adopt maximum sanctions that might actually push back strongly against Russian aggression.

The initial sanctions announced today, to ban business with entities in the “separatist” republics and to sanction personally individuals involved in the decision to recognize them, is a bad joke. It repeats–almost in cut and paste fashion–the bad joke of Obama’s sanctions against Russia for invading the Crimea in 2014.

In 2014, it was a bad joke which emboldened Putin. In 2022, it is a bad joke which will not deter Putin from a larger war, and which very likely will increase his contempt for Biden–unless it is followed within a day or two by the heaviest of sanctions.

Biden’s third strategic blunder is underway, but it’s not too late for him to do some fresh thinking and adopt the heaviest possible sanctions.

Biden needs to lead the anti-Russian coalition, not merely sink to its lowest common denominator.

Putin will not stop until he hits a brick wall. Biden must either bring that brick wall into play, or choose the path of appeasement, as Western leaders did at Munich.

He faces what is likely to be the greatest Munich moment in his presidency.

The Trenchant Observer

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