On Ukraine crisis, Biden seeks to show his mettle

Washington Updated: Feb 17, 2022, 04:18 PM(IST)

Biden also said on Monday that "there will no longer be Nord Stream 2," a crucial Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline, if Russia further invades Ukraine with "tanks and troops." Photograph:( Reuters )

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Since November, the administration has held more than 300 “diplomatic engagements” with partners and allies. Biden has sent troops to bolster jittery NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan last year was a made-for-TV tragedy — complete with camera-ready scenes of frantic civilians, harried US Marines and helicopters hovering over an embassy roof.

Ukraine is a foreign policy conundrum of an entirely different sort. President Joe Biden’s task is to stop a war from beginning, not to end one with dignity. But even if he wards off a Russian invasion, he shouldn’t expect any ticker tape on Fifth Avenue.

“The politics of foreign policy are rarely fair, and this is the epitome of that kind of situation,” said John Gans, a former Pentagon speechwriter in the Obama administration. “You rarely get credit for the dogs that don’t bark.”

Our New York Times colleagues have been all over the national security aspects of the showdown with Moscow, including the latest news developments, with reporting by Julian E. Barnes and Helene Cooper on how the White House is trying to outfox Russia, and Michael Crowley’s look at Biden’s calculations.

But this is a political newsletter, so we must ask a crass question: Can Ukraine help Biden win back some of the public trust he lost after the Afghanistan pullout?

In conversations in recent days with current and former officials, members of Congress and Capitol Hill aides, we found broad support overall for Biden’s approach to Ukraine, although some Republicans complained about specific aspects of the strategy. But the president’s options for resolving the crisis, many said, could give critics an opening. And, as Biden warned in his remarks Tuesday, confronting Vladimir Putin is not likely to be “painless” for Americans, even if Russia relents.

Quieting the Doubters

For the moment, Biden has faced some criticism on the right, but there’s been no sustained chorus of rebukes from either party.

Republicans aren’t speaking with one voice. They are split between those, like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who are agitating for a harder line against Moscow, and skeptics like Tucker Carlson of Fox News who say that Ukraine is not America’s problem. The party in 2018 lost its most prominent hawk, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, while its current leader, Donald Trump, makes for a less than ideal messenger when it comes to Russia.

The White House has also kept leading progressives on board. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has praised the administration for “doing its best walking a very difficult tightrope,” while Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon told HuffPost that they support Biden’s strategy.

Unlike with Afghanistan, criticism from the foreign policy establishment has been muted.

“I think they started with a bit of an analytical mistake — that they could have a stable and predictable relationship with Russia so they could focus on China,” said Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration. “But, generally, I’m impressed.”

Since November, the administration has held more than 300 “diplomatic engagements” with partners and allies. Biden has sent troops to bolster jittery NATO allies in Eastern Europe. And the White House has used information as a weapon of deterrence, declassifying and disclosing intelligence to disrupt possible Russian operations in real-time.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia, described this as an effort to “build a common threat picture.”

That much has worked so far. European countries that might otherwise have gone wobbly, notably Germany, have agreed to impose severe sanctions should Putin decide to invade.

“Trump couldn’t have done this,” said Daniel Fried, a longtime Russia expert who retired in 2017 as the State Department’s coordinator for sanctions policy. “Trump wouldn’t have been interested.”

Next Comes the Tricky Part

Putin might still attack, of course, which would raise questions about the White House’s strategy. And he has options short of war, too: Annexing parts of Ukraine. Squeezing Kyiv economically. Wielding Russia’s energy resources to divide European countries. Launching cyberattacks. Forcing up the price of oil.

Giving Putin an off-ramp could require a painful, protracted negotiating process, potentially leading to accusations that the United States is feeding Ukraine to the Russian wolf.

Building a cross-aisle coalition in Washington won’t be easy, either.

On Tuesday, as discussions on a bipartisan bill to penalize Russia broke down, the best Congress could cobble together was a statement expressing solidarity with Ukraine. Two of the holdouts were Cotton and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, both of whom harbor presidential ambitions. Senate Republicans introduced their own punitive legislation — the Never Yielding Europe’s Territory, or NYET Act, a rhetorical flourish in the form of a bill that would halt Nord Stream 2, a Baltic Sea gas pipeline meant to bypass Ukraine.

The proposal was a reminder that Republicans have a megaphone but no real responsibility. And in an election year, national security can get political in a hurry.

Don’t Expect a Ukraine Bump

Historically, any effect that foreign crises have on public opinion tends to be ephemeral.

After John F. Kennedy led the United States out of the Cuban missile crisis, his approval rating soared to 76%. By the time of his assassination a year later, it had fallen to the upper 50s. George H.W. Bush’s approval rating reached 89% after the first Gulf War, but it sank to 29% as the economy slumped, and he lost reelection to Bill Clinton. Killing Osama bin Laden bought Barack Obama about a month of buoyant poll numbers, at most.

But when things go wrong abroad, the damage to a president’s credibility can be devastating. Lyndon B. Johnson declined to run for reelection after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam helped drive his approval ratings into the mid-30s. The seizure of U.S. hostages in Iran paralyzed Jimmy Carter, contributing to his defeat in 1980. And although George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, Iraq haunted the remainder of his presidency.

David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Obama, said that Biden has been “very smart, strong and deliberate” on Ukraine. “Even as most Americans are focused closer to home,” he added, “‘smart, strong and deliberate’ are welcome adjectives for this president after a challenging six months.”

Should Putin gain the upper hand, though, history’s judgment could be harsh. And even if things go well, some question the wisdom of devoting so much attention to a region that represents the geopolitical past, not its future.

“We have to focus on China,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official in the Trump administration. “The military situation in Asia is increasingly acute, and we’re way behind. Russia’s a secondary issue.”

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