Biden’s self-defeating defeatism on Ukraine

It’s hard to understand why President Biden is so eager to accept defeat in averting a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The president conceded Thursday that his ongoing efforts to solve the dispute through diplomacy were hurtling toward failure: “My sense is [an invasion] will happen in the next several days.” Behind closed doors, the White House obviously believes that U.S. and allied intelligence supports a bleak interpretation of the crisis: that the big question when it comes to a Russian military operation is “when, not if.” Yet is a clear message of defeatism really the one Biden wants to send publicly? 

There’s little dispute that Russia could attack its neighbor any day or any moment. A top NATO official recently confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to marshal more troops at the Ukrainian border, and compelling evidence indicates that the Kremlin may even be planning a “false-flag” operation that would enable it to ambush under a deceitful pretext.

The fact that pro-Russian rebels are now mass evacuating civilians from Donetsk in Ukraine to Russia – a move that follows multiple days of violence between Russian-supported separatists and Ukrainian forces – might give Putin the opening he seeks to rationalize a siege.  

Yet for U.S. leadership, there’s strength in public resolve. If any chance does remain of averting a crisis in Eastern Europe – something Secretary of State Antony Blinken has long insisted – America’s muscle at the bargaining table isn’t helped by Biden’s fatalism.

Biden’s comments erode confidence in U.S. power, and especially this White House’s ability to bend events to its will, even in the face of menacing threats. If an invasion is expected, Biden makes it harder for Putin to save face to his own domestic public by calling off a raid. Moreover, if Russia attacks, Biden’s comments may later make it seem like Putin simply did the inevitable, rather than acting recklessly in crossing a red line. 

One could argue that Biden’s recent comments belie the administration’s more carefully planned, methodical handling of the Russia-Ukraine tensions. Perhaps Biden’s remarks were a gaffe; perhaps he spoke out of turn; or perhaps he’s not keyed in to the inner details of his own administration’s strategy. Regardless, Biden’s words no more inspire confidence than his much-maligned comments at a press conference last month when he implied that America would respond to Moscow less punitively if Putin carried out only a “minor incursion” into Ukraine. It is troubling that Biden seems so out of his element in public appearances regarding this high-stakes foreign policy issue.

All of this doesn’t mean that Biden should put a sanguine spin on the Russian-Ukraine crisis or downplay its seriousness. Far from it. Biden should acknowledge its severity, and the White House should be fully prepared to retaliate – including with punishing sanctions and the force of American might – if Putin takes his gloves off. But that’s different than publicly framing a Russian attack as a virtual fait accompli. Confidence begets power. Biden would never admit that the remainder of his domestic policy agenda will get caught in the throes of Washington partisanship, despite mountains of evidence pointing to the potency of Republican opposition. Defeatism is self-defeating, whether at home or on the world stage. 

Thomas Gift (@TGiftiv) is associate professor and director of the Centre on US Politics at University College London.

Tags Antony Blinken Antony Blinken Biden White House Ukraine foreign policy of Joe Biden Joe Biden Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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