The Memo: Biden braces for impact as Russia moves to the brink
The Russia-Ukraine crisis lurched closer to the point of no return Monday via a series of events that reverberated from Moscow to Washington.
And this is only the beginning.
In the space of a few hours, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a long, aggrieved speech railing against the West, recognized two separatist regions of Ukraine as independent nations and ordered troops into those territories purportedly to fulfill “peacekeeping functions.”
Foreboding settled across Western capitals, given the likelihood of a full-blown Russian invasion of Ukraine. If that happens, experts say it will likely be the biggest military operation in Europe since the Second World War.
The ramifications for President Biden, and for the American people, are stark.
Gas prices will rise further from their current high levels. Inflation, which is at a 40-year high, will be further inflamed. There could even be cyberattacks or meddling with the undersea cables that are vital to the world’s digital infrastructure, depending on just how far Putin is willing to go in escalating the situation.
“We have to brace ourselves,” Max Bergmann, a senior fellow who focuses on Russia and Europe at the liberal Center for American Progress, told this column. “Russia invading and dismembering a democratic country has to be met with a massive response from the U.S. and Europe, and that is going to be in the economic domain.”
Russia is sure to respond in kind, Bergmann noted, perhaps even by cutting off its supplies of natural gas to Western Europe. He emphasized that Russia is also a key source of other major commodities — aluminum and titanium among them — and that this too could impact the price of any number of goods.
From a domestic U.S. perspective, the fact that this blizzard of troubles looks set to sweep in while the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, and with the midterm elections just eight months away, deepens the gloom for Biden.
Republicans are lining up to accuse the president of weakness — even though their attack is complicated by some dissenters on their party’s most isolationist flank who suggest that the U.S. is already over-involved.
Among the more hawkish GOP figures, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) tweeted Monday that he hoped Biden would not “get played by Putin.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), also writing on the social media platform, said Putin’s speech amounted to “a declaration of war against the people of Ukraine.” Graham said he wanted Biden to impose “the most crushing sanctions possible” but added: “The question is whether the Biden Administration has the will and determination to do so.”
Over the weekend, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas.) told “Fox News Sunday” that Europe was “on the verge of war because of the weakness, the fecklessness of Joe Biden.”
The White House and Democrats have a ready response to the critics, however.
They point out that nobody, including Republicans, has any appetite for putting American troops on the ground in Ukraine. They contend that Cruz’s preferred action — sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — would have deprived the West of negotiating leverage and could have caused a schism between the U.S. and Germany.
The administration also talks up Biden’s role in galvanizing a united front against Putin — a point that was emphasized by Vice President Harris during her trip to the Munich Security Conference.
“I don’t see any disunity. It’s an extremely unified front and has been pulled together much more quickly than in the past,” said Mitchell Orenstein, a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Putin’s latest moves appeared to gird that unity.
Biden quickly held a call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. According to the White House, the trio “strongly condemned” Putin’s declaration with respect to the separatist regions and discussed “how they will continue to coordinate their response on next steps.”
Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen blasted Putin’s move as a “blatant violation of international law,” and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “a very ill omen and a very dark sign.”
Orenstein also lauded the Biden administration for its early predictions that Putin would invade, arguing that this blunted any element of surprise and made it less likely that the Russian president could use a fog of confusion to his own advantage.
Some see the origins of the current crisis in a different light.
Robert Wilkie, who served as secretary of Veterans Affairs in former President Trump’s administration and as an assistant secretary of Defense under former President George W. Bush, contended that Putin had been emboldened by two big shifts under the current president.
He cited a skepticism about the American fossil fuel industry, which Wilkie argued helped keep the price of oil and gas up, and increases in defense spending so modest that they are unlikely to keep pace with inflation.
Wilkie added that Biden’s room to maneuver now was limited — and that the president could suffer political damage as a result.
While acknowledging that foreign policy crises rarely change the outcome of elections — so long as U.S. troops are not fighting — Wilkie argued that a failure to stop a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be woven into a broader narrative “in addition to inflation and a whole host of other things that indicates weakness.”
Bergmann, of the Center for American Progress, is broadly supportive of Biden’s approach so far. But he worries about what happens when the crisis is inevitably politicized.
“I would hope there would be some [bipartisan] understanding that we are going to have to take some economic pain on the chin” in terms of Russian retribution for sanctions, he said.
“But what if gas prices go up 20 cents? Does the RNC [Republican National Committee] start running ads that attack the Biden administration?
“It’s an election year. There are going to be rising prices — and there is going to be a lot of pressure.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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