Putin has defeated Biden’s economic deterrence — Xi Jinping is next

Vladimir Putin’s Russia suffered no military consequences and no serious economic costs after invading Georgia in 2008 and Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014. He saw no reason to abandon his open ambition to forcefully reconstitute the Soviet Empire, starting with Ukraine.

The election of Joe Biden — who as vice president guided Barack Obama’s foreign policy and brought into his own administration a contingent of former Obama and Bill Clinton aides — was welcomed by aggressive powers Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. The Biden team returned U.S. policy to its predictable “realist” and accommodationist patterns, in contrast to Donald Trump’s strategic mood swings that often complicated his administration’s steady pursuit of transformational security policies.

The Biden promise of consultation and cooperation with U.S. allies and partners, together with his focus on the global competition between autocracy and democracy, greatly enhanced America’s international soft-power appeal.  

But multilateralism proved to be a mixed blessing when consensus-building devolved into a lowest-common-denominator approach. That was clear even before the new team took over, when Jake Sullivan, national security adviser designate, tried to persuade Germany not to proceed with the Nord Stream 2 Russian pipeline and was summarily rebuffed. Putin’s German romance was vindicated.

In office, Biden and his national security team had a couple of own goals on the consultation front. Their calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan shocked NATO allies who had committed forces there after 9/11. America’s enemies rejoiced at the chaotic retreat.

Subsequently, Biden managed to infuriate France by secretly negotiating with the United Kingdom to provide nuclear submarines to Australia, sabotaging France’s multibillion-dollar contract for conventional boats.

Cumulatively, Biden’s unilateral actions and the sporadic reversion to Clinton- and Obama-era policies — except for China, where he followed Trump’s tough approach — showed a divided West despite all the feel-good talk that “America is back.”

As the Russian threats against Ukraine mounted in the fall and winter, the administration strived mightily for a united front against Putin. But, with Germany still resisting any Nord Stream restrictions, it could only reach that goal by seeking a minimal-risk approach.

That fit neatly with Biden’s own anti-interventionist predilection as he repeatedly rejected appeals from Congress to begin imposing selective sanctions to demonstrate Western seriousness to Putin. Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and other administration officials instructed their critics that sanctions work if they are first merely threatened and imposed only if deterrence fails — which, in the Ukraine situation, meant after Putin had already embarked on his brutal course of aggression. Putin was not deterred before or after the sanctions. We can expect China’s Xi Jinping, who is watching closely, to test the U.S. next.

Biden drastically narrowed the scope of Western options when he declared before Russia’s invasion that direct military intervention was off the table, greatly expanding Putin’s latitude for action. Days later, Biden weakened even the threat of economic sanctions when he said the West’s response would depend on the actual scope of Putin’s incursion, undercutting the administration’s spadework on multilateralism.

Widespread criticism, including from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, compelled a more coherent statement of economic resolve from Biden, though he continued to delay action.  Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine opened European eyes and triggered the unprecedented U.S.-led program of coordinated economic sanctions.

Sweeping as these belated measures are, they have utterly failed to induce Putin to halt, let alone reverse, his murderous plan of conquest. The valiant Ukrainians, led by the surprisingly heroic Zelensky, have managed to slow the advancing Russian onslaught, but the overwhelming disparity in the size and lethality of military forces is taking a horrific toll in dead, injured and displaced Ukrainians and gradual loss of territory.

Biden and his predecessors have betrayed two existential promises to Ukraine. The first was the 1993 security guarantee given by Russia and the United States under the Clinton administration in exchange for Ukraine’s surrendering its nuclear weapons. Moscow’s pledge was always illusory, but America’s presumably meant something.

Then there was the promise of Ukraine joining NATO. Progress toward that goal was marked by Ukraine’s acceptance in the NATO-affiliated North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1991; NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994; the NATO-Ukraine Commission in 1997; and the 2008 statement that NATO “welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s … aspirations for membership and agreed that these countries will become members of NATO.” 

Four months later, Putin responded by invading Georgia. The George W. Bush administration, which had pushed for the NATO statement, decided that intervening to help Georgia would mean a dangerous confrontation with Russia, so they stood aside. From that point on, the West continued to yield to Putin’s demands, and the step-by-step momentum for the NATO accession of Georgia and Ukraine quickly stalled. When Russia seized Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Obama administration similarly buckled to Putin’s will and declined to enforce Clinton’s “red line.”

Trump, in office, lavished praise on Putin and did nothing to get him to reverse his earlier invasions of Ukraine. When the new aggression began, he called Putin “genius” and “savvy” but, after widespread condemnation of the invasion, he said it was “a holocaust.”

Biden’s present refusal to intervene militarily includes rejecting urgent requests for a no-fly zone to end at least Russia’s aerial and missile bombardment of civilian targets such as hospitals, schools and maternity clinics. Washington assumes Russia would defy the ban and a confrontation with American planes would ensue, something to be avoided at all costs.

Other countries have deferred to Biden’s hesitancy and offered workarounds that would help Ukraine without incurring the risk of U.S.-Russian conflict. Poland proposed to transfer its MiG29 fighters to Ukraine if Washington would backfill the Polish fleet with F-16s. The Biden team spurned that idea as well. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, “We do not support the transfer of additional fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian air force at this time.” 

In a single emphatic statement, Biden starkly exposed the internal contradiction in the U.S.-NATO position: “We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. Direct conflict between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent.” So, no Russian-made planes delivered by Polish personnel to be flown by Ukrainian pilots.

But Biden also defiantly said, “[W]ith our allies in Europe …[w]e will defend every inch of NATO territory … with the full might of the united and galvanized NATO.” So, World War III after all?

Excessive, one-sided Western caution has invited greater risk-taking by Putin, who always expects Biden and the West to pull back. 

Biden calls this era an “inflection point.” History will record it as the time a Russian dictator — a war criminal China’s Xi proudly proclaimed to be his “no-limits strategic partner” — succeeded in staring down four American presidents and the NATO alliance and upended the international order.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Joe Biden Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukraine–NATO relations Vladimir Putin Western sanctions on Russia Xi Jinping

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