The Memo

The Memo: Horizon darkens for Biden on Ukraine

President Biden is facing an intensifying crisis in Ukraine without any good options.

A Russian invasion of its neighboring state could come any day now. If that happens, it will pitch Europe into its biggest crisis in decades, hit international financial markets and reverberate through domestic politics in Washington.

Biden has invested considerable time and energy on bringing diplomatic pressure to bear on Russia. So far, there is no sign it has worked — even though the White House is trying to keep the sputtering flame alive.

The president is also boxed in by military and political realities.

There is no appetite among the American public or the body politic for putting American troops in harm’s way in Ukraine. And Biden himself has ruled out such a move.

But that leaves Russian President Vladimir Putin with room to maneuver, knowing the only military opposition his forces will face if they cross the border will be from the much smaller Ukrainian army.

U.S. intelligence reports last week suggested Russian forces could reach the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in a matter of days if Putin gives the go-ahead for an invasion.

Yet, even if an initial Russian invasion was successful in seizing key cities, it would almost certainly face prolonged guerrilla-style resistance.

Looking at the plausible paths for what comes next, it’s little wonder experts are worried.

“It’s bad for everybody,” said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow for Europe and Russia at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. “If Russia goes ahead, it is worst for Ukraine, obviously. But it is very bad for Russia both on the military front — Russian soldiers will lose their lives — and for the Russian people, since it will come with economic isolation and economic deprivation.”

The Biden administration has promised there will be severe economic sanctions if Putin moves ahead. Biden is already sending U.S. troops to fortify NATO allies in Eastern Europe, as well as giving military aid to Ukraine.

White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at Monday’s media briefing, “The path for diplomacy remains available if Russia chooses to engage constructively.”

But “we are in the window where an invasion could begin at any time,” Jean-Pierre emphasized, later warning of “every day, more and more troops” being massed by Putin close to the Ukrainian border.

In terms of domestic American politics, it’s almost impossible to see a scenario where Biden emerges in a strengthened position. The more likely implications run the gamut from bad to neutral.

It is entirely possible that an American public weary after two years of the pandemic and struggling with high inflation rates will simply not pay particularly close attention to the Ukraine crisis, unless it becomes truly cataclysmic.

On the other hand, Biden’s early strong approval ratings began to erode during an earlier foreign policy crisis, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although the specifics of the two situations are entirely different, the earlier debacle damaged Biden’s authority on international affairs.

The president has one advantage in terms of domestic politics: The Republican Party can’t seem to make up its mind whether he is being too weak or too aggressive with Russia.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) accused Biden of showing “weakness and appeasement” toward Putin during an interview with Fox News earlier this month.

On the flipside, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) recently sent a public letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken arguing against U.S. support for allowing Ukraine to become a NATO member.

Putin’s central demand is that NATO membership for Ukraine should be ruled out permanently.

Hawley’s letter sparked its own mini-furor when White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused him of “parroting Russian talking points.” In turn, Hawley published an op-ed with Fox News in which he accused “the usual Washington suspects” of having “their usual meltdown.”

In any event, the division of American opinion on the crisis was shown in a CBS News-YouGov poll at the weekend. 

The poll indicated that a middling 46 percent of Americans think Biden’s approach to Russia is “about right.” Those who think otherwise are split, with 34 percent saying the president is being “too friendly” toward Moscow and 20 percent saying he is being “too hostile.”

Those who are more sympathetic to Biden stress the sheer difficulty of the situation he faces. They also say he deserves credit for the relative unanimity he has forged among Western nations.

“The United States has won a strategic argument here, which is that if Vladimir Putin decides to invade, it will be seen as illegitimate by the world and it will put Russia into the ‘pariah lane’ of states,” Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration, told this column.

Rubin added, “Donald Trump would not have organized the United States with our European allies to oppose this.”

That all may be true.

But it doesn’t much change the fact that Biden is facing a bleak scenario that looks more likely to darken than brighten in the weeks ahead.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Antony Blinken Barack Obama Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden Josh Hawley Karine Jean-Pierre Russia Ted Cruz Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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