The Biden administration’s (overdue) shift to Ukraine

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is shown in a Sept. 29, 2021, file photo.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is boldly transforming U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine. Speaking to reporters on April 26 at Ramstein Airbase in Germany, the former U.S. Army general insisted the 40-member coalition of countries aiding Ukraine must act with renewed urgency, declaring, “We’ve got to move at the speed of war.” Austin’s call to arms put an exclamation mark on his earlier joint declaration with Secretary of State Antony Blinken: it is now official U.S. policy to see Russia “weakened.”

Washington is recognizing Austin’s resolve. The Biden administration is requesting $33 billion from Congress for additional security, military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine and for U.S. efforts to strengthen European security in cooperation with NATO allies and partners. An administration official emphasized, “These resources will put urgently needed equipment into the hands of Ukraine’s military and police, as well as help NATO deter and defend against Russian aggression over the long term.”

The surprise visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on May Day further reinforces Washington’s commitment to Austin’s vision.

Remarkably, the U.S. military response under Austin has completed a 180-degree turnabout since Feb. 23 — the day before Putin authorized his “special operation” in Ukraine. No longer is the watchword “deterrence.” Now, Biden’s economic weapons are being surpassed by deliveries of heavy weaponry and in deliberate defiance of Russia’s repeated threats of World War III and nuclear brinkmanship. Russia clearly is taking notice of Austin, but is struggling with how to react to the U.S. defense secretary’s gauntlet.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tried first, hinting — yet again — of nuclear blackmail on April 26, warning, “The risks now are considerable. I would not want to elevate those risks artificially. Many would like that. The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.” Russian President Vladimir Putin was next. In response to the increase in acts of sabotage, and reports of British Special Air Service involvement, Putin announced, “If anyone ventures to intervene from the outside and [pose] unacceptable threats of a strategic nature to Russia, they should know that our counter-retaliatory strikes will take place with lightning speed.” Again, Putin implied the use of nuclear weapons: “We have all the tools to do this, the kind that no one else can boast of right now. We will use them if necessary. I want everyone to know that. All the decisions have been made in this regard.”

Austin’s assertive style of leadership is fitting for a man born in Mobile, Ala., site of The Battle of Mobile Bay where Vice Adm. David Farragut purportedly shouted, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” It is almost as if Austin is saying, “Damn the nukes, full speed ahead!” Whether channeling Farragut or not, better late than never. The U.S. is finally making it clear Washington will not cave to nuclear blackmail — a threat that has begun to lose its effectiveness.

Austin’s approach is not risk-free, especially his use of the word “weakened.” The word implies regime change, at least from Putin’s perspective, something President Biden also implied when he uttered in Poland, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” It would be more prudent to limit the end state of U.S. policy to defeat of Russian forces in Ukraine and let a “weakened” Russia — even the possibility of a regime change — be unspoken.

Nonetheless, Austin’s thinking is a welcomed departure from the Biden administration’s earlier reticence in confronting Putin despite U.S. intelligence making Putin’s intent to invade Ukraine crystal clear. It was almost as though they were standing on the sidelines waiting to see who would win before committing. And now that they see a weakened Putin, at least conventionally and politically, they “belly up to the bar.”

Austin’s policy shift is not done. The global policy of strategic ambiguity must become one of strategic clarity. The China threat looms in the Pacific. The U.S. should have immediately supported and echoed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s declaration to Beijing that attempts to build Chinese bases in the Solomon Islands would represent a “red line” China should not cross.

China, like Russia in Ukraine, is a threat to democracy in Taiwan and elsewhere in the Pacific. It necessitates the U.S. adopting a cohesive global foreign policy. Washington has pivoted enough. The U.S. would do well to channel Austin’s “Damn the nukes, full speed ahead” backbone on a global basis, thereby reassuring America’s role as a global leader and reestablishing confidence among its allies.

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTOTHSTL.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden China aggression Lloyd Austin Nancy Pelosi nuclear threat Russian war in Ukraine Sergei Lavrov Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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