Can punishing Russia become an end in itself?
President Biden’s gaffes during his recent European tour – from suggesting to American troops in Poland that they would be in war-torn Ukraine and saying NATO would respond “in kind” if Russia used chemical weapons to seemingly calling for regime change in Moscow – led to considerable clean-up efforts by his team. Biden, by his own admission, has a record of being a “gaffe machine.”
But the president’s misstatements on issues of war and peace in this perilous time carry significant risks, which explains why his top officials were quick to walk back his apparent regime-change call, lest it further erode U.S.-Russia relations. U.S.-Russia ties are already at an all-time low.
More fundamentally, Biden’s propensity for making misstatements that land his administration in difficult situations is detracting attention from the larger question of whether the president has a strategy to end the war in Ukraine.
Biden’s statements, in fact, are making it increasingly difficult to negotiate an end to the war. Washington’s overriding focus on punishing Russia for its brazen invasion suggests that top U.S. officials are not thinking of how to terminate the war, even as Moscow and Kyiv hold talks.
Punishing Russia for invading Ukraine, while essential, has ceased to be a means to an end and has apparently become an end in itself.
This may explain why Biden has discarded some key tenets of diplomacy, including avoiding insulting another country’s head of state or conveying an unintended policy message to preserve space for direct negotiations.
Biden has increasingly personalized the conflict by hurling a steady stream of insults at Russian President Vladimir Putin, while vowing to make him “a pariah on the international stage.” In the days before declaring, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden called Putin “a butcher,” “a murderous dictator,” “a pure thug” and “a war criminal” — a term whose past use against a foreign leader (for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) was usually accompanied by a U.S.-led campaign to topple him from power.
The use of aggressive language began long before the Ukraine war. Just weeks after entering the White House, Biden said Putin is “a killer,” vowing that the Russian leader will “pay a price” for allegedly meddling in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
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By contrast, Biden has treated Chinese President Xi Jinping with respect. Despite Xi’s coverup of the origins of the COVID-19 virus, his Asian expansionism and his Muslim gulag (which represents the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since Adolf Hitler), the president has not hurled any personal insult at him. Nor has he imposed any sanctions on the Chinese leader or those in his inner circle.
The unintended consequence of Biden’s vilification of Putin is to seriously crimp space for the U.S. and Russia to reach a modus vivendi to rein in their conflict. Putin now has a greater reason to double down and continue his invasion until the Russian forces carve out a strategic buffer against NATO that effectively partitions Ukraine into two, with the Dnieper River possibly serving as the approximate dividing line.
Biden, going beyond the traditional tools of deterrence and diplomacy, is relying entirely on his unprecedented sanctions to shape the behavior of a rival nuclear power, which has a long record of enduring economic hardship. In the post-World War II period, the U.S. has generally relied on sanctions to help bring weak states to heel. Regime change likewise has been imposed only on weak, vulnerable nations.
Squeezing a major power with a raft of harsh sanctions is fraught with danger. The unforeseen consequences could trigger an escalating spiral leading to devastating armed conflict. It was U.S. sanctions against Imperial Japan that ultimately provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, leading to the Pacific war and eventually the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Today’s Biden-initiated Western sanctions on Russia are the largest, coordinated punitive measures ever rolled out against any country in history. But just as Biden’s threat to impose such sanctions failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine, their actual imposition, far from chastening Moscow, is likely to resurrect the Iron Curtain and spur the emergence of a remilitarized, neo-imperial Russia.
The U.S.-led sanctions that followed Russia’s 2014 Crimea annexation, while fueling Russian nationalism, compelled Moscow to pivot to China, turning two natural competitors into close strategic partners. Those sanctions also led Russia to build a parallel payments system that has now helped take the sting out of the recent exit of Visa and Mastercard, thereby setting an example for other nations to invest in building their own payments infrastructure.
Today, the rise in international oil and gas prices, by directly contributing to inflation and political trouble at home, is underscoring that sanctions also impose costs on their imposers. Those costs would escalate and possibly even engender recession if the cycle of sanctions, counter-sanctions and fresh sanctions substantially diminished Russian energy exports.
In a further reminder that sanctions are blunt instruments and often produce unintended and undesirable consequences, the West’s comprehensive hybrid war against Russia is helping boost Putin’s popularity at home. According to a poll by the Levada Center, an independent, Moscow-based pollster that has been designated a “foreign agent” in Russia, Putin’s approval ratings shot up from 69 percent in January to 83 percent in late March.
Biden’s primary strategic focus ought to be on preserving America’s global preeminence. For years, the U.S. waged self-debilitating wars in the Islamic world, allowing China to emerge as its primary challenger globally. Now, as it pours military resources into Europe, America’s renewed focus on European security threatens to distract it from its long-term strategic objectives.
After losing Afghanistan to sandal-wearing terrorists, Biden should not allow the impulse for revenge against Moscow to drive his foreign policy. Ukraine is Europe’s problem, and he should exert pressure on Europeans to take greater ownership of their security so that the U.S. can single-mindedly focus on arresting its relative decline.
If a war-torn Ukraine were to become another Syria or Libya, the grave implications for Europe’s security would extend far beyond the refugee flow turning into a torrent. In such a scenario, some of the lethal arms the West is pouring into Ukraine could eventually flow back westward to haunt European nations’ internal security.
The current crisis represents the most dangerous period since the end of the Cold War. Stable Washington-Moscow relations can help to avert a wider conflict and reach a NATO-Russia agreement on Ukraine modeled on the 1955 treaty under which Austria established itself as a buffer state between the East and West and declared its neutrality.
More broadly, the U.S. should seek to drive a wedge in the China-Russia axis, instead of becoming a bridge that unites them. The deepening China-Russia entente is perhaps the biggest U.S. foreign-policy failure of the post-Cold War era.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
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