The U.S. risks another hit to its prestige as the Biden administration weighs how to confront Russian aggression in its first major international crisis since withdrawing from Afghanistan.
As Russia escalates tensions with Ukraine with its buildup of troops at the border, President Biden must balance projecting strength in the global power struggle with a U.S. wary of engaging in foreign military conflicts.
It’s also renewed complaints from some Republicans that Biden risks looking weak without an aggressive response.
“Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan showed weakness. If this administration doesn’t show strength right now, I’m afraid that Russia is going to invade Ukraine,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill in a statement.
“This will have global ramifications and only embolden our adversaries,” he added.
The Biden administration has threatened Russia with punishing economic sanctions and export controls should it invade Ukraine, seeking to rally European allies around a common approach to the crisis.
However, Biden has made clear the U.S. does not intend to send forces into Ukraine, limiting the administration’s deterrence toolbelt.
Eliot Cohen, a State Department counselor during the George W. Bush administration, said he thinks Biden is handling the issue “more or less right.”
“I think a more analytic look at this says yeah, this is a problem for the United States, but it’s a much bigger problem for Russia,” he said.
The Russians efforts haven’t divided NATO like Russian President Vladimir Putin may have hoped, and the Russian military, whose budget pales in comparison to that of the U.S., isn’t equipped to take over a former Soviet satellite with a population of 40 million people, he added.
While the administration has not definitively laid out the sanctions that Russia would face, officials have been clear that the penalties would be greater than those levied against Moscow after it invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
“That means the gradualism of the past is out, and this time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there,” a senior administration official reiterated to reporters this week.
Still, John Sipher, a veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service, said, “I think the administration is playing from a position of weakness.”
“Our defeat in Afghanistan and the political chaos in the United States has us focused inward and uninterested in taking on serious foreign threats,” he said, adding that the U.S. has developed a pattern of failing to “push back effectively against Putin’s actions in the past.”
As concerns surrounding a possible invasion grew this week, the Pentagon put 8,500 troops on high alert to potentially deploy to Eastern Europe to defend NATO allies there.
At the same time, the Biden administration is offering diplomatic talks as an off-ramp. The State Department sent a written response to Russian demands on Wednesday that laid out areas of potential compromise if Russia were to reduce its troop presence along Ukraine’s border, in addition to expressing concerns about Russia’s posture.
Russia’s continued aggression toward Ukraine has renewed questions over just how far the country will go to reclaim its status as a superpower.
“If Russia is prepared to invade and occupy Ukraine, what else are they going to do? And I think it’s precisely for that reason that the Biden administration and allies are preparing for the possibility of reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank,” Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council under former President Obama, told The Hill.
Some Republicans have criticized Biden’s response to Russia’s aggressive behavior thus far as insufficient, though Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and others have notably credited Biden with putting the military on heightened alert for potential deployment.
Biden withstood scrutiny last week for suggesting in a news conference that a “minor incursion” by Russia would not trigger the robust sanctions the U.S. and its allies are preparing, a remark the White House swiftly sought to clarify.
“The Biden Administration has done exactly what was needed to confront Putin’s latest unprovoked provocations,” Ivo H. Daalder, who served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration and currently serves as president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told The Hill by email.
“He’s marshaled NATO allies and other European countries behind a clear and coherent strategy, bolstering deterrence (by making clear any further Russian invasion would exact great costs—economic, though punitive sanctions; political, through closer cooperation between Ukraine and the West; and militarily, through arms aid to Ukraine and significantly enhancing the US and NATO presence in Eastern Europe) and offering a diplomatic off-ramp without in any way giving in to Putin’s unacceptable demands for unilateral surrender.”
A Russian invasion would also make Moscow more dependent on China in the long run, Cohen said. That dependence would be intensified if the U.S. imposes the export controls it is threatening, which experts say would restrict Russia from buying key technologies from the U.S.
“This is not a geostrategic move, because let’s say that they go in in a big way, they’re going to get hammered really hard with sanctions. So they’ll kind of throw themselves into the laps of the Chinese to try to get around those sanctions. And that’ll be moderately successful. I don’t think sanctions alone are going to change their behavior,” he said.
“But they’ll be more and more dependent on them, and the Chinese are unsentimental about using people’s dependencies.”
The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan adds other layers to the U.S. calculus. The issue has been a regular punching bag for Republicans, and the visceral images of the exit are still fresh in the minds of an American public likely uneager to see the U.S. find itself in another conflict.
“I suspect — I don’t know — that Putin looked at the Afghan withdrawal as a sign of weakness on the part of the United States,” Cohen said. “I think he also could have read it very differently as the United States cutting its losses so it can focus elsewhere, and there have been other voices, including China, that saw it that way.”
Daalder said the lack of another distraction has been helpful for the U.S. as some of the military forces standing by to help in Ukraine “would have been diverted to bolstering the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan if Biden had decided to abrogate the 2020 agreement signed by Trump.”
Biden has made clear the U.S. won’t have direct military involvement, even as it helps bolster supplies of other militaries in the region. And the administration has repeatedly said that it’s Putin who must choose between diplomacy or deterrence.
“If Russia does decide to go to war, the United States and its allies aren’t going to stop them,” Kupchan said.
“Biden has said quite explicitly we’re not sending U.S. combat troops to the country. We’re not going to war with Russia over Ukraine, and I think that as long as the Biden administration goes the distance diplomatically to avert that outcome … I think it will be seen as having done its best to manage the problem.”