The Memo: Biden, bruised by Afghanistan, faces a critical test in Ukraine

President BidenJoe BidenCarville advises Democrats to 'quit being a whiny party' Wendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Sullivan: 'It's too soon to tell' if Texas synagogue hostage situation part of broader extremist threat MORE is facing the second foreign policy crisis of his presidency and he has no room for error, given that he failed the first test with the ignominious U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Biden will hold a video conference with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinRussia cannot 'tolerate' NATO's 'gradual invasion' of Ukraine, Putin spokesman says Fears of Russian invasion of Ukraine rise despite US push for diplomacy Overnight Defense & National Security — US says Russia prepping 'false flag' operation MORE Tuesday morning. The encounter comes as Russian troops mass near the border with Ukraine. Moscow could invade as soon as next month.

A full-blown invasion would be a huge international challenge— and a massive test of U.S. resolve and muscle. 

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The hope, across the political spectrum, is that Putin can be shunted down an off-ramp before a catastrophic collision takes place.

Democrats and Republicans have very different views on how that might be done. And Biden’s critics worry that the chaotic Afghanistan pullout has set a bad precedent.

The Afghanistan withdrawal “shows that this administration has a broken foreign policy and has raised questions about its commitment to its allies,” Rep. Mike TurnerMichael Ray TurnerHouse GOP members introduce legislation targeting Russia over Ukraine Nunes formally resigns from Congress Sunday shows preview: Omicron surge continues; anniversary of Jan. 6 attack approaches MORE (R-Ohio) told this column.

Turner, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, also drew a line from the current situation to Putin’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The Kremlin’s move to seize Crimea drew condemnation from then-President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNew year brings more liberated Joe Biden  After the loss of three giants of conservation, Biden must pick up the mantle Kyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage MORE and much of the rest of the international community. But, seven years on, it has not been reversed.

“Extrapolating from what happened the last time surely doesn’t give Putin any indication that he is going to suffer serious consequences this time,” Turner said.

Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerThe Memo: Biden, bruised by Afghanistan, faces a critical test in Ukraine The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails CNN obtains audio of 2019 Giuliani call linked to Ukraine meddling allegations MORE, who served as special envoy to Ukraine during the Trump administration, argued that Putin is at heart an opportunist whose modus operandi is to show strength and see where it gets him.

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Asked about the perception that the Afghanistan withdrawal showed U.S. weakness, Volker said, “It’s important not because you or I might think that, but because Putin will think that. It showed a United States not comfortable with military force, that leaves its allies behind, that wants to focus on domestic issues. And that will be read by Putin as an opening.”

Biden considers himself a foreign policy expert. He served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was steeped in international issues during his eight years as Obama’s vice president. Yet domestic politics will surely play on his mind when he confronts Putin on Tuesday.

Biden is embattled at home, his poll numbers having fallen into negative territory. The decline, after an assured first few months in office, first became plain as things went bad in Afghanistan during the summer. 

Politically, the situation is all the more galling for the White House because Biden was well aware that the war in Afghanistan had grown vastly unpopular and that the American public wanted it to end. But the manner of the U.S. withdrawal appears to have exacerbated voters’ concerns about an America in decline, at home and abroad.

The White House has talked more than once about its “ironclad” commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty. Biden also pushed back hard late last week over demands from Putin that Washington should provide some form of guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO.

“I don’t accept anyone’s red line,” he told reporters at the White House.

However, that doesn’t answer the question of what happens from here.

Putin’s ostensible fear is that Ukraine is falling more and more into the West’s sphere of influence, potentially creating a threat to his own nation on its southwestern border.

Critics deride that idea, saying that Ukraine poses no threat to Russia, and that it is Putin who is the expansionist aggressor.

The seriousness of the situation is underlined by the fact that Russia is believed to have around 70,000 troops at or near the Ukrainian border already. American intelligence suggests this figure could easily reach 175,000 by early next year.

Virtually nobody believes the U.S. could get sucked into an all-out war with Russia anytime soon. Instead, the debate centers on how to deescalate the situation.

Voices that are broadly supportive of the administration hold fast to the power of diplomacy.

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Max Bergmann, a senior fellow who focuses on Europe and Russia at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, noted that there was no realistic chance of Ukraine being allowed to join NATO, and that there was already a degree of transparency around the military aid Washington provides for Kyiv.

That being so, he suggested that public statements around those kinds of topics might have some chance of diplomatic success.

“The last-ditch efforts, such as the call between Biden and Putin, are absolutely worth it and necessary,” he said. “If unpalatable compromises can be made that avert war, that is definitely worth pursuing.”

In terms of domestic American politics, Bergmann dismissed GOP criticisms of the president, given the backing Republicans gave former President TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE even as he cozied up to Putin at an infamously abject 2018 meeting in Helsinki.

The GOP will “100 percent” accuse Biden of weakness whatever he does, Bergmann argued. “Despite the fact that Republicans said nothing when Donald Trump stood on the stage with Putin in Helsinki, they will decry any kind of diplomatic engagement or concession. But they have lost credibility.”

But, for all that, even Bergmann said he was “pessimistic” that soft diplomacy could defuse the crisis.

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Voices that lean more toward the right argue just the opposite — that a hard line is what is needed.

“My main concern is what the Biden administration will do to de-escalate it,” said Luke Coffey, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “My concern is that it won’t be de-escalated through a show of strength, but that it will be de-escalated through weakness or meekness in the wake of the Afghan withdrawal.”

Such an approach, he argued, would leave Putin hungry to press for more.

For now, the one sure thing is that the stakes could not be higher as Biden and Putin confront each other.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage