What Biden inherited — and what he must do to change course with Putin
The crisis in Ukraine will not end, regardless of whether Russia attacks its smaller neighbor. Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced that Russia is recognizing the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states and has sent troops to both. That only Russia will recognize them as such does not deter Moscow. After all, it has recognized the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Moldovan Transnistria, as independent states. Moreover, by mobilizing nearly 300,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, Putin has demonstrated that he can attack at a time of his choosing and pressure Kyiv at all times.
To a significant extent, the current Ukraine crisis is a legacy of Biden’s immediate two predecessors. Barack Obama never took Russia seriously. He labeled Russia a mere “regional power,” even as Moscow demonstrated that its regional clout extended to the Middle East. Indeed, during the 2012 presidential race, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney presciently termed Russia “America’s number one geopolitical foe,” Obama derided him during their third debate, characterizing Republicans as wedded to “the 1980s; they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
When Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine in 2014, John Kerry, Obama’s Secretary of State and currently Biden’s climate czar, relegated Putin to an even earlier historical era. Kerry admonished the Russian that “you just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.” Since Putin remains determined to restore Russia to its 19th century status — if not that of its great 18th century czar, Peter the Great — he probably took Kerry’s statement as a compliment.
Of course, Donald Trump would not even go as far as Obama and Kerry. Trump preferred to kowtow to the Russian leader. In July 2018, he famously accepted Putin’s denial of Russian influence in the 2016 election over the findings of his own intelligence community.
Misreading Russia is not the only joint Obama-Trump legacy with which Biden has had to cope, however. Obama’s failure to act upon his so-called “red line” to stop Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from employing chemical weapons against his own people signaled to both America’s friends and enemies that Washington’s threats could be ignored. Trump actually took some action against Assad’s forces, but then proceeded to abandon America’s Kurdish allies in that country.
Both Obama and Trump paved the way for America’s withdrawal from the region. Not surprisingly, Iran and Russia took note. Obama’s fateful decision to remove American combat forces from Iraq in December 2010, enabling Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to turn on his country’s Sunni population, led directly to the rise of ISIS, with the result that American forces returned to Iraq. Yet, even then, Obama made it clear that he wanted America to withdraw from the Middle East, as well as from Afghanistan.
Obama may well have sealed Afghanistan’s fate early in his presidency, when, in the course of announcing a troop surge in December 2009, he also stated that he had no intention of fighting an “endless war,” confirming the Taliban’s strategy to wait out the United States. He reaffirmed his decision when he ended the short-term surge two years later. Trump, for his part, instigated the one-sided February 2020 Doha Agreement with the Taliban that set a specific deadline for America’s departure from Afghanistan. It was left to Biden to reap the whirlwind of the collapse of the Afghan forces, the fall of the Kabul government, the Taliban takeover, and America’s chaotic departure from the country this past summer.
There is no denying — other than by senior administration officials — that Biden’s mismanagement of the withdrawal from Afghanistan further undermined America’s dwindling credibility with allies and friends. It clearly has encouraged Russia, China, Iran and lesser American adversaries such as Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. The administration’s excessive eagerness to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal, to the point of releasing Iranian assets that no doubt will be deployed to cause further mayhem in the Middle East, likewise has caused America’s regional allies to hedge their expectations of American support.
Nevertheless, Biden did inherit an unstable international environment to which both his predecessors contributed mightily. His determined diplomacy to rally the Atlantic Alliance against Russia; to expand the purview of the Quad (the U.S., Japan, Australia and India); and to create the AUKUS agreement that provides for closer technology cooperation among Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., all point to a new and more vigorous American response to the shifting international climate.
To underscore the credibility of his efforts, however, Biden also should increase the fiscal year 2023 defense budget in more than nominal terms. His budget for fiscal year 2022 did just the opposite, amounting to a minimal real increase even before the current inflationary spike took hold. In response, Congress appears poised to add tens of billions of dollars to the budget, perhaps as soon as the first week of March.
Recent reports indicate that Biden’s fiscal year 2023 proposal would amount to $773 billion. On its face, that would represent a major increase over the likely FY 2022 enacted budget. Once inflation is factored in, however, the increase would be considerably smaller, if there is an increase at all.
Biden must do better. If his administration offers nothing more than a budget increase that will be eaten away by inflation, it would signal that the administration is not prepared to do much more than to talk tough, which the likes of Putin no doubt would ignore. Only a significant addition to defense spending will get the attention of the world’s autocrats. If Biden will not offer that addition, Congress once again should do so in his place.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.