Administration

Biden tested by brewing Russian crisis 

President Biden’s leadership is being tested by the brewing crisis caused by Russian aggression toward Ukraine. 

The stakes are high for Biden, particularly given the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that prompted widespread criticism and left allies questioning U.S. leadership. 

Political observers say that the unfolding situation represents an opportunity for Biden to demonstrate American leadership and draw a contrast with former President Trump’s handling of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

“More than anything, he has to show all these people that he’s not the weak and frail leader Republicans say he is,” said one Democratic strategist. “In this case, it’s about perception more than anything else.”

There are also some political risks, especially if the crisis spirals into war and impacts the domestic economy. 

With an eye toward the upcoming midterm elections, Republicans have tried to paint Biden as weak on issues of domestic and foreign policy.

But Democrats like the contrast between Biden’s approach to Russia and how Trump, who spoke warmly of Putin and exhibited deference to the Russian leader, dealt with the Kremlin. They think this will be an effective response to any GOP attacks on Biden’s approach to the crisis. 

“Foreign policy is one of those areas where presidents can look or seem presidential,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and director of Hunter College’s public policy program. 

“Particularly in the post-Trump environment where we all have been witness to the Trump-Putin bromance, if you will, I think voters will be able to see, number one, Biden on the world stage looking presidential, and two, can he look presidential against Putin where Donald Trump did not,” Smikle said.  

In a speech from the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Biden pledged to give diplomacy “every chance” to resolve the crisis while issuing a stern warning to Russia against invading Ukraine.   

“The world will not forget that Russia chose needless death and destruction,” Biden said.

“Invading Ukraine will prove to be a self-inflicted wound.”  

Biden administration officials have warned a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen at any time, but Russia sent some signals Tuesday that it may be willing to de-escalate. Biden is likely to receive credit if conflict is avoided, while he may incur some blame if the situation spirals out of control.  

Biden’s approach to the crisis has been focused on uniting allies behind a common approach to pushing back against Putin’s provocations and preparing a sanctions package that would cause pain to the Russian economy if it were to launch a renewed military invasion of Ukraine.   

Biden has been firm in his engagements with Putin, proposing “swift and severe costs” in the event of an invasion in a phone call over the weekend. He has sent thousands of troops to defend NATO allies in Eastern Europe while being clear that U.S. troops will not be sent into Ukraine to fight Russia. The troop movements have even won some praise from Republican lawmakers.  

Much of the economic impact of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine is expected to be centered in Europe, but it could drive up energy costs in the U.S., compounding the price pressures Americans are already facing.  

Biden acknowledged this possibility during his address on Tuesday and said his administration is “taking active steps to alleviate the pressure on our own energy markets.” 

“I will not pretend this will be painless,” he said. 

The Biden administration has been trying to fend off a potential energy crisis by engaging with countries and major energy companies to find a way to offset any energy shortage, given Europe’s reliance on Russian gas. 

Republicans have hammered Biden over inflation for months, seeking to convince voters that his policies are to blame and that he’s doing little to address high prices.  

“International crises could change the maps at home,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist.  

The economy and the pandemic will always matter a lot to people, Conant said, but if an international conflict escalates to the point that it affects the domestic economy or troops have to be deployed, it could definitely influence people’s views when voting.

Observers say this particular foreign policy scenario is different from the Afghanistan withdrawal that many see as a pivotal, negative point in Biden’s approval ratings as president. 

“I think the situation in Russia/Ukraine is quite different politically than Afghanistan,” said Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security who served as a foreign policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).  “The worst-case scenario is a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and if it happens, it will be despite the administration’s efforts to avert it. If Putin is determined to go forward, no one is going to stop him.   

“That, I think, is different than Afghanistan, where at issue was a U.S. policy of withdrawal implemented by the United States — and over objections from some of our allies.”  

The Afghanistan withdrawal struck at the heart of the competency message that Biden relied on during his successful presidential campaign. It was followed by a drop in the president’s domestic poll numbers that have not recovered as the nation grapples with the enduring coronavirus pandemic and inflation.  

There is limited data thus far on views of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and Biden’s handling of it. 

A CBS News poll released last week found that 70 percent of Democrats believe Biden’s approach to Russia is “about right,” while 44 percent of independents said the same. Only 16 percent of Republicans said his approach is “about right,” while 59 percent said it is “too friendly” and 25 percent said it is “too hostile.” 

Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau said the White House has handled the crisis well to date.  

“This administration, the amount of communicating they’re doing on this is important. It shows Russia and the Ukraine that the U.S. is invested, and it shows the American people this is something the U.S. takes seriously,” Mollineau said.  

At the same time, Fontaine observed that the current crisis could have adverse political ramifications for Biden if it consumes his time and takes his attention away from other priorities of the Biden administration. 

“If that goes on indefinitely, it could produce opportunity costs for other administration priorities, in both foreign and domestic policy,” he said.  

Democrats say whatever happens, it’s unlikely to be a defining issue in this year’s midterms or the presidential race in 2024. 

As Democratic strategist Eddie Vale put it, “The 2022 and 2024 elections are going to hinge on what happens in Kenosha, not Kyiv.” 

Brett Samuels contributed to this story.

Tags Afghanistan Donald Trump Joe Biden John McCain NATO Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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