Five takeaways while the Ukraine crisis intensifies
The Russia-Ukraine crisis deepened on Tuesday, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine to be independent states.
The gravity of the situation is unmistakable, as is its capacity to affect the lives of millions of Americans.
President Biden addressed the situation from a tense White House early Tuesday afternoon, while Republicans sounded notes of criticism and caution.
Here are the main takeaways from a frenetic day.
Biden uses the I-word
Biden’s use of the term “invasion” was the single most significant feature of his White House remarks.
Specifically, he said Putin’s latest moves amounted to the “beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
The White House had, the previous evening, avoided the term in describing Russian actions, presumably because the label escalates the situation and demands a muscular response.
Biden spoke from the East Room of the White House for nine minutes and took no questions from reporters. He outlined new sanctions that he said would target Russian sovereign debt and “cut off Russia’s government from Western financing.”
He also pledged to sanction Russian elites, their family members and two Russian financial institutions.
Biden is trying to make clear to the Kremlin and the world that there will be no acquiescence to the Russian declaration regarding the breakaway regions — or to any military moves it might make there.
That’s important in itself — and it’s also an attempt to banish the memory of Biden’s gaffe at a news conference last month at which he suggested Russia could get away with a “minor incursion” and suffer little penalty.
Schisms show as Trump, other Republicans weigh in
Former President Trump, who has been uncharacteristically muted on the current crisis, entered the fray on Tuesday — and sparked controversy.
In an interview on radio’s “Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show,” Trump declared Putin “very savvy” and praised the Russian president’s decision to recognize the separatist regions of Ukraine as “genius.”
Trump then added, “By the way, this never would have happened with us. Had I been in office, not even thinkable.”
It was the latest intervention from a former president whose relations with both Russia and Ukraine have long been fraught.
In addition to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Trump infamously backed Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies at a 2018 news conference in Helsinki, Finland. On that occasion, the then-president declined to endorse the idea that Russia had meddled, asserting instead that Putin’s denials of such involvement had been “extremely strong and powerful.”
Other Republicans hit out at Biden too. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sought to link the crisis to the chaotic U.S. pullout from Afghanistan last year.
Speaking in Kentucky, McConnell said that Putin would not have been so aggressive “had we not precipitously withdrawn from Afghanistan.”
In an interview with Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) opined that Biden’s energy policy had “encouraged” Putin to become more belligerent on the world stage.
Rubio also argued that Putin “knows how to deal with someone like Joe Biden, because he’s been dealing with presidents like that, that operate within the confines of orthodoxy, for a long time.”
Comments like those make clear there is going to be no bipartisanship on this crisis, even as both Biden and his critics claim to be tough on the Kremlin.
Western unity is intact — so far
Biden’s White House aides emphasize his success in galvanizing a Western alliance to counter Putin in recent months.
That’s holding up — so far.
One of the first major developments on Tuesday was a decision by Germany to halt, for now, the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that his government needed to “reassess” the future of the pipeline from Russia “in light of the most recent developments.”
In the United Kingdom, embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced sanctions on five Russian banks, as well as a handful of prominent individuals.
The prime minister’s office said that a later phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron had found the two in agreement that they would “continue to work in lockstep.”
Western unity will be tested in the days ahead, but it’s off to a solid start — which is a relief for Biden.
Biden warns Americans they’ll feel the pain
One of the biggest unknowns about the current crisis is exactly how it will play out in relation to American domestic politics.
Biden prepared Americans for economic pain during his White House remarks.
“Defending freedom will have costs for us as well, here at home. We need to be honest about that,” he said.
At a minimum, the crisis seems sure to lift gas prices, which are already high, and add to inflationary pressures and supply chain problems.
Then there is the impact on financial markets. The major American stock indices fell sharply again on Tuesday, with the S&P 500 entering official correction territory — that is, down 10 percent from its peak.
Biden said he was already working to stabilize global energy supplies and promised that this would “blunt gas prices.”
Even so, a president already struggling with high inflation and low approval ratings has to be looking at the domestic ramifications of the crisis with foreboding.
Things will get worse before they get better
For all the talk from Washington and elsewhere in the West, there is zero indication so far that Putin will back down.
The U.S. president and the British prime minister both used the same phrase to describe the sanctions their governments were imposing: the “first tranche.”
In an overall situation that is so volatile and hazy, one of the few certainties is that there are more tensions, more sanctions and more pain to come.