The Memo: Risks grow for Biden as Ukraine crisis spirals
Washington and the world are bracing for an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine — something that poses deep risks for President Biden on the home front as well as on the global stage.
The president told reporters Thursday that the threat was “very high.” The U.S. had “every indication” that Russian troops were “prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine,” he said. He predicted an attack “in the next several days.”
If those fears are borne out, it will present Biden with a foreign policy challenge as grave as the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
But it won’t stop there.
There are tremors in U.S. financial markets already, and those tremors could become a full-blown earthquake if Russian President Vladimir Putin orders troops into Ukraine.
On Thursday, the S&P 500 fell by more than 2 percent and the Nasdaq composite by almost 3 percent amid increased worries of war.
A conflict would also seriously impact the oil market and, in turn, hike up the prices Americans pay for gas. Gas prices are already at or near their highest levels since 2014.
High gas prices are such a big political liability for Biden and his party that Senate Democrats who are in competitive battles to retain their seats this fall have floated the idea of a temporary suspension of the gas tax.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine would exacerbate the problem. As a CBS News report noted earlier this week, “Russia produced more than one-tenth of the world’s oil in 2020 — a significant share that would likely be disrupted in the event of military conflict or threatened sanctions by the U.S. and its allies.”
More amorphously — but no less importantly from a political perspective — the crisis is boiling over just at a time when Biden was hoping to turn the temperature down on other challenges Americans have faced at home, notably the COVID-19 pandemic.
Americans who had been hungering for restrictions to be eased as the omicron variant fades are now confronted by the probability of a new crisis.
It is cold comfort that the epicenter is thousands of miles away. If America voters notice the effects each time they fill up their gas tanks, it will have an impact — irrespective of whether they care about troop movements in Belarus, or the pros and cons of Ukrainian membership of NATO.
That, in turn, threatens to endanger Biden’s hopes of making progress on the remaining big items on his domestic agenda. The midterm elections are looming large, less than nine months away.
All told, it’s a grim confluence of events for the president.
“Certainly, the stock market is already paying attention, and if this accelerates you can imagine it having really bad effects on the market. It can clearly have an effect on inflationary pressures, particularly with regards to oil. So, economically, this isn’t ideal for the country, and certainly it is not politically ideal for the president,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
Zelizer added that there was another danger for Biden — the amount of time, energy and political oxygen that will be sucked up if Russia launches an invasion.
Biden has pledged not to put U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine, but Washington would still be expected to play a leading role in trying, somehow, to resolve the situation.
“It is not a war with the U.S. but we are involved whatever happens,” said Zelizer. “This will consume public attention and [Biden’s] attention right at the time when he wants to be focused on normalizing life as the pandemic recedes. There can be a lot of fallout from this.”
Deepening the problems still further, Biden is not able to draw on any deep reservoir of public goodwill. The positive poll ratings of his first months in office have long faded. Data and polling site FiveThirtyEight on Thursday afternoon indicated that 53 percent of Americans disapprove of his job performance and 41.4 percent approve.
On Ukraine, Biden does at least have the advantage that Republicans are split between a traditional, hawkish wing that wants him to push a harder line against Russia and others who hew to a more isolationist, Trump-like position.
Democrats defend Biden on the basis that he is doing a decent job with a near-insoluble problem. Virtually no one believes the American public would countenance committing American troops to a ground war under any circumstances. But that, in turn, limits the degree of deterrence that can be brought to bear on Putin.
The Democratic argument is that Biden is playing a difficult hand as well as anyone could.
“On this issue, he has shown that he has got a good deal of experience in foreign affairs, and he has handled it wisely and judiciously,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh. “This is the kind of crisis where you have a sigh of relief that Donald Trump is not in the White House anymore.”
Even so, Biden is not the only member of his administration who is being tested as the situation worsens. Vice President Harris arrived in Germany late Thursday to take part in the Munich Security Conference Friday and Saturday.
Harris’s schedule, which will include meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, will be her biggest moment yet on the global stage.
The bottom line, though, is that Biden has put a big diplomatic effort into trying to head off a Russian invasion and, right now, it seems to have failed.
Thursday saw increased attacks in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, the revelation that the U.S. deputy ambassador to Russia had been expelled and warnings from across the Biden administration that Putin was likely to confect a pretext to invade at any moment.
The storm-clouds of war are gathering.
Biden will have a hard job navigating his way through.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.