Administration

Biden adopts play-it-cool strategy with Putin

President Biden is taking a play-it-cool strategy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

When Putin called for putting Russia’s deterrence forces — which includes nuclear weapons — on high alert, Biden chose not to respond in kind, avoiding any action Russia might portray as a show of aggression against it.

He has also given his European counterparts the space they need on sanctions announcements, including those related to SWIFT, the main system for global transactions, instead of suggesting or showing that they’re following his lead.

The effort is getting praise from Democrats and comes at a time when Biden is struggling with low approval ratings that have put his party on edge over the fall midterm elections. 

“This feels like the most comfortable Joe Biden has been in his presidency, being a quasi-wartime president,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “This is Joe Biden in his natural element. The former Senate Foreign Relations chair, working his relationships and bringing people along.”  

Foreign policy observers — including those critical of Biden’s messy troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last year — say the president’s measured strategy and response toward Russia has been on the mark.  

“Biden has handled this well,” said Richard Fontaine, the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security who served as a foreign policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“From the beginning, assisting Ukraine, conducting diplomacy with Russia, and unifying NATO was going to be no easy task. The administration did so, and its ability to marshal a global response to Putin’s aggression on a short timeline is deeply impressive.” 

Almost more importantly, Fontaine added, “Biden has also reacted soberly to the increasing danger by, for example, not responding to Putin’s nuclear saber rattling.” 

“I was pretty critical of the way in which the Afghanistan withdrawal proceeded but I have to say, this is what American leadership looks like,” he said.   

Since the Russian invasion, and even in the days leading up to it, Biden has walked a delicate dance of sorts with European allies.

When he was asked last week about blocking Russia from SWIFT, he couched his response as to not offend or preempt his counterparts.  

“Right now, that’s not the position that the rest of Europe wants to take,” he said during a news conference.  

The White House was also careful to allow Germany to rescind its certification for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which provided Russia leverage to supply natural gas to Eastern Europe, before imposing any sanctions of its own. Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had carefully skirted specifics on the topic just two weeks earlier during a White House press conference. 

Democrats said Biden’s approach also offers a contrast to the temperamental nature of former President Trump, who once sent a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that his own nuclear button was “bigger and more powerful.” 

“Anytime Joe Biden can contrast himself with Donald Trump is a good day for Joe Biden,” Payne said. “This is the most direct contrast with Donald Trump to date.”   

Still, even some Democrats concede that the strategy could backfire.  

A Washington Post-ABC News poll out this week showed 59 percent of those surveyed said Biden is not a strong leader, while 36 percent said he is. The survey showed that 65 percent of independents said he is not strong.  

Critics have argued the Biden administration was slow to respond late last year when it was clear Russia was amassing troops and military equipment near the Ukrainian border, and some in the GOP questioned why the White House gradually ratcheted up sanctions rather than hit the Kremlin hard in one swoop with sanctions on energy exports and banking.  

It’s a line of attack against Biden that is gaining steam with Republicans as Russia continues to mount its attack on Ukraine.  

On a call with reporters on Monday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said that Biden had spoken about the threat of Russian aggression toward Ukraine as far back as last April. 

“So the failure wasn’t this week or last week. We’ve had 10 months to help Ukraine prepare so that attacking it would have been crazy,” Gingrich said, urging Biden to ramp up domestic gas and oil production to reduce dependence on Russia. 

Privately, some Democrats say they worry that while the White House strategy appeared to be working, at least for the time being, it could be misinterpreted by some Americans who think the Biden administration could be doing more to fend off the Russian invasion.  

“It’s easy to see how things could backfire for the president because of this perception that he’s not a strong leader,” one Democratic strategist acknowledged, pointing to the criticism already out there. “If Putin does escalate this battle or if Russia does take over Ukraine, there will be plenty of second guessing and blaming.”  

Fontaine said Biden could be blamed if Russia continues to fight and if Kyiv should could fall.

“Then I assume some would begin attacking Biden for having ‘lost’ Ukraine, even though such an accusation would not match the facts,” he said.  

But the White House remained resolute on Monday that Biden’s strategy had effectively rallied the world in opposition to Russia and Putin’s behavior, pointing to a unified West and protests across Russia. 

“The preference of everybody is for President Putin to take de-escalatory steps,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing. “That is everybody’s preference. But as it relates to unity … I think what we’ve seen over the last few days is a commitment to remain united and to send a strong message to President Putin that these actions, this rhetoric is unacceptable, and the world is building a wall against it.”

Tags Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden John McCain Kim Jong Un Newt Gingrich Vladimir Putin

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