Biden vow to alienate Putin as ‘pariah’ faces challenges
President Biden on Thursday vowed to make Russian President Vladimir Putin a pariah among the international community, with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine drawing wide condemnation for blowing up an international order meant to ensure peace in the wake of World War II.
But that condemnation wasn’t universal.
The U.S., Europe and global democracies largely aligned in the hours after Russian troops, tanks and planes bombarded Ukraine with bombs and missiles. They imposed a wide-range of sanctions that targeted Russia’s largest banks and billionaire elites and blocked Moscow’s access to key technologies.
At the same time, the response from international adversaries like China and nations within China and Russia’s spheres of influence brought into stark relief the dividing lines on the global stage.
China on Thursday rejected calling Russia’s attack on Ukraine an “invasion,” and as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is likely to veto any measure coming out of the body that was originally established to preserve peace and security following the end of World War II. Beijing could also take trade and economic measures to blunt the sting of sanctions.
“All eyes will be on China, which has tried to avoid making strong statements on the crisis in recent days,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in The New York Times on Thursday.
“Beijing is unlikely to condemn Russia outright. But Western powers will hope that it will at least signal some displeasure with Moscow.”
Gerard Filitti, senior counsel at The Lawfare Project, told The Hill in an email that while the U.N. Security Council is a “dramatic venue to air grievances,” it has little to no concrete power.
Russia is also unlikely to be expelled from its position as a permanent member of the Security Council, Filitti added, given practical steps required to carry out such an action — such as an amendment to the U.N. Charter — and concerns over closing off diplomatic channels to try and resolve the crisis.
“There is legitimate concern that backing Putin into a corner by excluding Russia from the global community may instigate further conflict, bringing other former Soviet republics (and countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain) into the line of fire,” Filitti said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken to an official from the United Arab Emirates to “the importance of building a strong international response to support Ukrainian sovereignty through the UN Security Council.”
Maintaining unity in Europe could also become an issue. While economic powerhouses like the United Kingdom and the 27-member European Union moved quickly to impose sanctions in coordination with the U.S., officials and analysts are raising concern that states vulnerable to Russian disinformation or with greater economic reliance on Moscow could fracture close coordination.
Much of Europe is dependent on Russia for its energy supply, and officials in Europe and the U.S. admit the sanctions could hurt the pocketbooks of their own citizens.
Biden acknowledged on Thursday that he was withholding sanctions that would expel Russia from the international Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) financial messaging system because of pushback from Europe. The SWIFT system is used to finalize financial transactions and transfers, and blocking Russia from the system could prevent global banks from operating efficiently or European states from paying for Russian oil and natural gas exports.
“It is always an option,” Biden said about blocking Russia from SWIFT, “but that’s not the position that the rest of Europe wishes to take.”
Vladimír Bilčík, head of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Interference, told The Hill on Thursday that unity among the E.U., U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization “cannot falter … we have to persevere because the Russians and the Kremlin will try to weaken us, divide us, and divide us use all sorts of distorted, manipulated disinformation campaigns.”
Bilčík, who was meeting with officials in Washington this week on a previously scheduled summit to address countering disinformation, called Russia the “current malign disinformer in the world.”
“Many European societies are, and have been, internally divided also when it comes to the Russia question; this is something which is a consequence of a long-term concerted effort by Russia to spread disinformation,” he said.
Etienne Soula, a research analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which tracks and analyzes state-backed disinformation campaigns, said that “Media reports suggest that some European Union member states still have misgivings about how to go about sanctioning Russia even as the invasion of Ukraine is underway.”
Soula added that, “whether or not to sanction Putin personally remains a sticking point, with some still hoping to maintain an open line of communication with the Kremlin.”
While Biden promised that Putin will be a “pariah on the international stage,” the president opted against sanctioning the Russian leader immediately on Thursday, saying the option remains on the table.
The decision is likely to draw pushback from lawmakers, with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calling for “sanctioning Putin personally” in a statement following the president’s remarks on Thursday.
Menendez, in a statement Wednesday night, further called for expelling “the current Kremlin leadership from the international community. Today must mark a historical shift in how the world views and deals with the despot in Moscow.”
Another potential wildcard is how Turkey, a NATO ally, will act to impose costs on Russia, with whom it has developed close ties amid Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. Ankara came under sanctions from the U.S. after buying Russian air defenses in 2017.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday voiced support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and said it was “saddened” over the outbreak of war.
“We are sincerely saddened that Russia and Ukraine, both of whom we see as friendly countries and with whom we have close political, economic, and social relations, come face to face in this way,” Erdogan reportedly said in remarks broadcast on Turkish television.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Turkish counterpart on Thursday and “thanked Turkey for its strong and vocal support in defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to a readout from the State Department.
Another potential fault line is India, the world’s largest democracy, which has deepened its ties with the U.S. as part of efforts to counter China. But New Delhi has offered tepid responses in the wake of Russia’s invasion against Ukraine.
Lisa Curtis, senior fellow and director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program with the Center for New American Security, said India’s efforts to preserve relations with Russia are likely to backfire on its goals to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
“Russia under western sanctions will be increasingly dependent on China, which will allow Beijing to better influence Russian behavior toward India,” she said in a statement. “If India believes support for a Russian invasion of Ukraine will guarantee Moscow’s support against Chinese aggression on its own borders, it may be mistaken.”
Biden on Thursday said the U.S. is in “consultation with India” over a response to Russia.
“We haven’t resolved that completely,” the president added.
Biden on Thursday warned that countries that fail to separate themselves from Putin “will be stained by association.”
“The history of this era is written. Putin’s choice to make a totally unjustifiable war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.”