Biden’s under-appreciated achievements in the Ukraine crisis
Despite the remarkable resistance of the Ukrainian people, the courage and eloquence of President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the logistical, tactical, and intelligence failures plaguing the Russian military, the outcome of the war remains uncertain. It seems clear, however, that Russia’s invasion has galvanized democracies throughout the world to act decisively to preserve the liberal world order — and that President Biden has played an indispensable role in leading a response that is massive in its scale and scope.
In stark contrast to Donald Trump, who once declared that NATO is “obsolete” because it had been “designed for the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore,” and recently said the invasion of Ukraine demonstrates Vladimir Putin’s “genius,” Biden told UN Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in June 2021 that Russia poses a significant threat to stability and freedom.
Six months later, the Biden administration warned of an imminent invasion of Ukraine by 150,000 Russian troops massed at its border, preceded by “false flag” operations, including propaganda about Putin’s commitment to “denazification” and fake videos depicting Ukrainian attacks on ethnic Russians. “We’re calling out Russia’s plans loudly and repeatedly,” Biden said, “not because we want conflict, but because we’re doing everything in our power to remove any reason that Russia may give to justify invasion. If Russia pursues its plans, it will be responsible for a catastrophic and needless war of choice.”
The accuracy of U.S. intelligence proved Putin’s malign motives and enhanced Biden’s credibility with heretofore skeptical European leaders. Masterful behind-the-scenes diplomacy helped Biden achieve virtually unanimous support for a coordinated package of military and humanitarian assistance and economic sanctions that many, including Mr. Putin, had thought impossible.
Mindful of differences among coalition partners about limits on military assistance to a non-NATO member given the risks of escalation and a nuclear confrontation, Biden performed a delicate balancing act. NATO military forces will not enter Ukraine or enforce a no-fly zone. And the Biden administration scrapped Poland’s plan to send 28 MIG fighter jets to Ukraine via the U.S. Air Base in Ramstein, Germany.
However, the United States sent $200 million in military equipment to Ukraine — then another $350 million in weapons, including hand-held Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and body armor, a $1 billion allocation with longer range weapons, drones, and humanitarian aid, and, following the invasion, a $13.6 billion package. At a triple summit (NATO, EU, G-7) in Brussels this week, the United States announced it will take in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
Biden has also delivered a “crystal clear” message to Putin: “The United States and our allies will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of our collective power — every single inch.”
The United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have sent Ukraine anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft missiles, ammunition, fuel, helmets, body armor, and rations. The European Union has authorized 450 million euros for weapons, the first time the EU has delivered arms to a war zone. Japan has sent bullet-proof vests to Ukraine. The number of Finns and Swedes in favor of joining NATO has increased dramatically.
Designed to cripple Russia’s economy and drive the ruble to an all-time low, the sanctions imposed by EU countries in coordination with the Biden administration include freezing billions of dollars in the assets of Russian banks and individuals and restricting access to the SWIFT financial messaging system. Many other countries have pitched in as well, banning Russian air travel, sanctioning oligarchs, imposing export controls. Perennially neutral Switzerland has joined the anti-Putin coalition. Shell and Exxon have divested their Russian assets; Visa and MasterCard have ceased processing payments; Apple has stopped selling iPhones in Russia; Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and Starbucks have suspended operations there.
Most important, perhaps, a previously reluctant Olaf Scholz, the newly elected Chancellor of Germany, dropped his country’s decades-long ban on supplying weapons to a combat area, dramatically increased its annual defense budget, and suspended Nord Stream 2, an $11 billion Baltic Sea pipeline project, designed to double the amount of gas directed to Germany (which gets half of its supply from Russia). The UK and EU countries have reduced imports of Russian oil and gas: the United States has banned them.
A remarkably high percentage of Americans on both sides of the political aisle support sanctions, even if they raise energy prices. Critics in the United States are more likely to say not enough rather than too much has been done. There is little support for putting troops on the ground (or in the air over Ukraine), but two-thirds of Americans say the United States should maintain or increase its commitment to NATO.
This consensus, however, has not translated into a rise in Biden’s overall approval rating, which, in essence, is unchanged from January 2022.
“Democracies are rising to the moment,” Biden proclaimed in his State of the Union Address. “When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.”
If he is right, Biden will deserve substantial credit for making it happen.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”