Administration

Biden finds hands tied on Ukraine

The Biden administration has found its hands tied as it seeks to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine without becoming embroiled in the conflict.

President Biden wants to provide support to the Ukrainian people to help them fight the Russian military, but he has staunchly avoided taking any steps that would pull the U.S. or its NATO allies directly into the conflict, which officials warn would trigger a larger war that could devastate Europe.

It’s the reason the Pentagon rejected a Polish plan to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine, and the president has refused to put U.S. boots on the ground there.  

But Biden has faced pressure from some members of Congress and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is expected to address U.S. lawmakers virtually this week, to do more to directly assist Ukraine with weapons and air power. 

Some have also advocated for a partial no-fly zone as the humanitarian crisis worsens, which could run the risk of American or NATO aircraft directly engaging Russians.  

“We have to weigh those risks on the attacks on the civilian population that are occurring,” said Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “I think we shouldn’t take it off the table, but I understand their concerns.”

The White House has leaned heavily on economic penalties in response to the Russian invasion, hoping to squeeze the Russian economy enough to force President Vladimir Putin to change course. Those measures have been coordinated with allies and have had a debilitating effect already, though Biden has said it will take time to reach full impact.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials met with Chinese officials Monday in Rome and warned Beijing of consequences if it provides support to Russia amid the invasion. The White House is said to be mulling a possible trip to Europe for Biden as the crisis continues.

Biden has largely gotten positive remarks for his response to the crisis, and polls show that Americans do not want to see U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine fighting Russia. 

“For any president, you have to weigh how you can lead the world, how you can make very clear that actions are horrific, that they are not acceptable, they’re not aligned with global norms, while also thinking about our own national security interest,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday.

“And, starting World War III is certainly not in our national security interest, putting U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine to fight a war with Russia is not in our national security interest,” she said.

Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but countries surrounding it are. A Russian attack on nearby Poland or Romania, even if it were inadvertent, would trigger a U.S. military response by the alliance under Article V. 

The threat of such an escalation seemed to grow over the weekend, as Russia launched an airstrike on a Ukrainian military training center about 10 miles from Poland’s border. 

The debate over sending Ukraine more airpower has heated up over the past week. 

The Biden administration has ruled out a Polish plan that would have involved transferring MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine from a U.S.-NATO air base in Germany because it could be viewed by Russia as an escalation by the U.S. and its partners. 

However, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was among a bipartisan group of senators that visited Poland over the weekend, questioned the administration’s stance during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, noting that the U.S. already supplies Ukraine with helicopters.  

“What the Ukrainian people are asking for is just the ability to defend themselves,” Portman said. “Give them the ability to try to stop some of this Russian superiority in terms of air power to be able to save lives, and hopefully end up with a peaceful solution to this. If we don’t figure out a way to help Ukraine push back, that’s much less likely.”

Volker similarly argued that providing Ukraine with the fighter jets would be “quite doable” because the U.S. has supplied Ukraine with other weaponry. He said the administration should also provide Ukraine with higher altitude air defense systems, anti-missile systems, shore-based anti-ship missiles, A-10 aircraft and armed drones.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said over the weekend that the administration would potentially supply Ukraine with additional anti-aircraft systems. 

Beyond military aid, Michael Stroud, former deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Homeland Security under former President Obama, said there were additional tools the White House could still use against Russia that are trade related.

“I anticipate a discussion of potentially supporting revocation of Russia’s WTO status, maybe limiting Russia’s preferred trade status with China, but I don’t really see that going too well with China, given ongoing trade issues between the United States and China. However, China might be inclined to work collectively to help stabilize global and regional energy and financial markets,” said Stroud, a partner at Nossaman.

Administration officials note that the U.S. has provided $1.2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Biden took office. That number is poised to increase in the coming days, when Biden signs into law a massive government funding bill that includes $13.6 billion in Ukraine-related humanitarian, security and economic assistance. 

Biden has received bipartisan support for his economic sanctions against Russia, but that could get complicated as the situation in Ukraine escalates, warns Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under former President George W. Bush.

“The current crisis certainly has been a rare instance where Congress has been unified enough to shift an administration’s foreign policy preferences on aspects of the crisis like sanctions and oil imports,” said Verdery, CEO of Monument Advocacy. “However, the closer the conflict comes to actual military engagement with Western forces, the more any commander in chief is going to have to listen to military advisers and less to political players from the Hill.”

Concerns have grown that Russia could launch a chemical weapons attack during its invasion of Ukraine, which has raised new questions about how the U.S. government would respond. 

Biden on Friday warned that Russia would pay a “severe price” if it did so, but he did not provide any other details of what that would entail or if that response would include U.S. military involvement.

When asked for examples of such severe consequences, considering the steps the administration has ruled out, Psaki on Monday wouldn’t comment much further.

Volker said the White House’s avoidance in detailing further punishment should chemical weapons be used by Russia was a sound tactic.

“I don’t think we should be specific. I think we should keep Putin guessing as to what that might be,” Volker said.

Tags Barack Obama invasion Jake Sullivan Jen Psaki Joe Biden Kurt Volker Rob Portman Russia Russia U.S. Ukraine response Ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin White House

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