Prof. ST Hsieh
Director, US-China Energy Industry Forum
February 15, 2022
Biden and his team have already devoted significant amount of time and resources managing the Ukraine Crisis. In recent history, the Ukraine Crisis began in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea while Biden was the Vice President of the USA. Then, after President Biden took office, in March and April 2021, Russia started to mass thousands of military personnel and equipment near its border with Ukraine. The troops were partially removed by June. The crisis was renewed in October and November 2021, when over 100,000 Russian troops were again massed near the border by December.
In December 2021, Russia advanced two draft treaties that contained requests of what it referred to as “security guarantees”, including a legally binding promise that Ukraine would not join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as a reduction in NATO troops and military hardware stationed in Eastern Europe, and threatened unspecified military response if those demands were not met in full. NATO has rejected these requests, and Biden warned Russia of “swift and severe” economic sanctions should it further invade Ukraine.
Now the Ukraine crisis is a US-Russia impasse, in the worst case, could lead to the “Big War.” Today, President Biden took the podium at the White House and repeated the same strong languages to President Putin but maintained that the door for diplomacy is still open. President Putin, on the other hand, still insists that Russia has no intention to invade Ukraine. Putin also asks Biden to engage him diplomatically addressing Russia’s core demand based on his two draft treaties.
War is hell! Even the US and NATO will not send troops to Ukraine in any case, the promised severe economic sanctions would impact the global economy for years to come. The following reports from the HILL highlight some negative impacts on Biden’s presidency, even without military actions on the ground.
- The Ukraine crisis has dragged for almost one year with no peace insight. Biden’s capacity and leadership in managing foreign policy suffers in real-time because so many domestic and other global challenges are also facing the US now. For example, Biden’s focus on climate change is crucial but any action with real impacts is in the background now.
- The US and her NATO allies must deal with Putin Russia’s core demands. Unfortunately, Ukraine crisis appears to be the center of US attention. Even if Biden and Putin manage a détente so the war cloud over Ukraine is over soon (say Russia pulls her trips out of the border), Biden still faces Putin’s challenge in Europe. One key factor is Putin believes that he has the upper hand because Biden’s approval rating in the USA is very low.
- Biden is facing a tough mid-term election, the polling date is November 8, 2022. All politics are local in the USA, but the Republicans will challenge Democratic, led by President Biden, on every front. The Ukraine crisis is a liability for Biden already. For example, Biden could be challenged for global leadership if NATO leaders reach a resolution for peace with Putin when Biden stays in the White House all the time. In the event Russia invades Ukraine, Biden will have to deal with the aftermath no matter what and it won’t be pleasant.
- All politics are local, the US mid-term election is getting closer every day. The Texas Republican Primary will start on March 1, 2022. US voters will keep focus on the domestic issues: covid-19, inflation, voting rights… Current poll indicated that a middling 46 percent of Americans think Biden’s approach to Russia is “about right.” Those who think otherwise are split, with 34 percent saying the president is being “too friendly” toward Moscow and 20 percent saying he is being “too hostile.” It is clear that for Democratic party, Ukraine crisis is not a wining issue because less than 50% of the voters consider Biden’s approach to Russia is about right.
The Memo: Horizon darkens for Biden on Ukraine
February 15, 2022
President Biden is facing an intensifying crisis in Ukraine without any good options.
A Russian invasion of its neighboring state could come any day now. If that happens, it will pitch Europe into its biggest crisis in decades, hit international financial markets and reverberate through domestic politics in Washington.
Biden has invested considerable time and energy on bringing diplomatic pressure to bear on Russia. So far, there is no sign it has worked – even though the White House is trying to keep the sputtering flame alive.
The president is also boxed in by military and political realities.
There is no appetite among the American public or the body politic for putting American troops in harm’s way in Ukraine. And Biden himself has ruled out such a move.
But that leaves Russian President Vladimir Putin with room to maneuver, knowing the only military opposition his forces will face if they cross the border will be from the much smaller Ukrainian army.
U.S. intelligence reports last week suggested Russian forces could reach the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in a matter of days if Putin gives the go-ahead for an invasion.
Yet, even if an initial Russian invasion was successful in seizing key cities, it would almost certainly face prolonged guerrilla-style resistance.
Looking at the plausible paths for what comes next, it’s little wonder experts are worried.
“It’s bad for everybody,” said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow for Europe and Russia at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. “If Russia goes ahead, it is worst for Ukraine, obviously. But it is very bad for Russia both on the military front – Russian soldiers will lose their lives – and for the Russian people, since it will come with economic isolation and economic deprivation.”
The Biden administration has promised there will be severe economic sanctions if Putin moves ahead. Biden is already sending U.S. troops to fortify NATO allies in Eastern Europe, as well as giving military aid to Ukraine.
White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at Monday’s media briefing, “The path for diplomacy remains available if Russia chooses to engage constructively.”
But “we are in the window where an invasion could begin at any time,” Jean-Pierre emphasized, later warning of “every day, more and more troops” being massed by Putin close to the Ukrainian border.
In terms of domestic American politics, it’s almost impossible to see a scenario where Biden emerges in a strengthened position. The more likely implications run the gamut from bad to neutral.
It is entirely possible that an American public weary after two years of the pandemic and struggling with high inflation rates will simply not pay particularly close attention to the Ukraine crisis, unless it becomes truly cataclysmic.
On the other hand, Biden’s early strong approval ratings began to erode during an earlier foreign policy crisis, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although the specifics of the two situations are entirely different, the earlier debacle damaged Biden’s authority on international affairs.
The president has one advantage in terms of domestic politics: The Republican Party can’t seem to make up its mind whether he is being too weak or too aggressive with Russia.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) accused Biden of showing “weakness and appeasement” toward Putin during an interview with Fox News earlier this month.
On the flipside, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) recently sent a public letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken arguing against U.S. support for allowing Ukraine to become a NATO member.
Putin’s central demand is that NATO membership for Ukraine should be ruled out permanently.
Hawley’s letter sparked its own mini-furor when White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused him of “parroting Russian talking points.” In turn, Hawley published an op-ed with Fox News in which he accused “the usual Washington suspects” of having “their usual meltdown.”
In any event, the division of American opinion on the crisis was shown in a CBS News-YouGov poll at the weekend.
The poll indicated that a middling 46 percent of Americans think Biden’s approach to Russia is “about right.” Those who think otherwise are split, with 34 percent saying the president is being “too friendly” toward Moscow and 20 percent saying he is being “too hostile.”
Those who are more sympathetic to Biden stress the sheer difficulty of the situation he faces. They also say he deserves credit for the relative unanimity he has forged among Western nations.
“The United States has won a strategic argument here, which is that if Vladimir Putin decides to invade, it will be seen as illegitimate by the world and it will put Russia into the ‘pariah lane’ of states,” Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration, told this column.
Rubin added, “Donald Trump would not have organized the United States with our European allies to oppose this.”
That all may be true.
But it doesn’t much change the fact that Biden is facing a bleak scenario that looks more likely to darken than brighten in the weeks ahead.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
Biden tested by brewing Russian crisis
President Biden’s leadership is being tested by the brewing crisis caused by Russian aggression toward Ukraine.
The stakes are high for Biden, particularly given the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that prompted widespread criticism and left allies questioning U.S. leadership.
Political observers say that the unfolding situation represents an opportunity for Biden to demonstrate American leadership and draw a contrast with former President Trump’s handling of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“More than anything, he has to show all these people that he’s not the weak and frail leader Republicans say he is,” said one Democratic strategist. “In this case, it’s about perception more than anything else.”
There are also some political risks, especially if the crisis spirals into war and impacts the domestic economy.
With an eye toward the upcoming midterm elections, Republicans have tried to paint Biden as weak on issues of domestic and foreign policy.
But Democrats like the contrast between Biden’s approach to Russia and how Trump, who spoke warmly of Putin and exhibited deference to the Russian leader, dealt with the Kremlin. They think this will be an effective response to any GOP attacks on Biden’s approach to the crisis.
“Foreign policy is one of those areas where presidents can look or seem presidential,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and director of Hunter College’s public policy program.
“Particularly in the post-Trump environment where we all have been witness to the Trump-Putin bromance, if you will, I think voters will be able to see, number one, Biden on the world stage looking presidential, and two, can he look presidential against Putin where Donald Trump did not,” Smikle said.
In a speech from the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Biden pledged to give diplomacy “every chance” to resolve the crisis while issuing a stern warning to Russia against invading Ukraine.
“The world will not forget that Russia chose needless death and destruction,” Biden said.
“Invading Ukraine will prove to be a self-inflicted wound.”
Biden administration officials have warned a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen at any time, but Russia sent some signals Tuesday that it may be willing to de-escalate. Biden is likely to receive credit if conflict is avoided, while he may incur some blame if the situation spirals out of control.
Biden’s approach to the crisis has been focused on uniting allies behind a common approach to pushing back against Putin’s provocations and preparing a sanctions package that would cause pain to the Russian economy if it were to launch a renewed military invasion of Ukraine.
Biden has been firm in his engagements with Putin, proposing “swift and severe costs” in the event of an invasion in a phone call over the weekend. He has sent thousands of troops to defend NATO allies in Eastern Europe while being clear that U.S. troops will not be sent into Ukraine to fight Russia. The troop movements have even won some praise from Republican lawmakers.
Much of the economic impact of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine is expected to be centered in Europe, but it could drive up energy costs in the U.S., compounding the price pressures Americans are already facing.
Biden acknowledged this possibility during his address on Tuesday and said his administration is “taking active steps to alleviate the pressure on our own energy markets.”
“I will not pretend this will be painless,” he said.
The Biden administration has been trying to fend off a potential energy crisis by engaging with countries and major energy companies to find a way to offset any energy shortage, given Europe’s reliance on Russian gas.
Republicans have hammered Biden over inflation for months, seeking to convince voters that his policies are to blame and that he’s doing little to address high prices.
“International crises could change the maps at home,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist.
The economy and the pandemic will always matter a lot to people, Conant said, but if an international conflict escalates to the point that it affects the domestic economy or troops have to be deployed, it could definitely influence people’s views when voting.
Observers say this particular foreign policy scenario is different from the Afghanistan withdrawal that many see as a pivotal, negative point in Biden’s approval ratings as president.
“I think the situation in Russia/Ukraine is quite different politically than Afghanistan,” said Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security who served as a foreign policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “The worst-case scenario is a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and if it happens, it will be despite the administration’s efforts to avert it. If Putin is determined to go forward, no one is going to stop him.
“That, I think, is different than Afghanistan, where at issue was a U.S. policy of withdrawal implemented by the United States — and over objections from some of our allies.”
The Afghanistan withdrawal struck at the heart of the competency message that Biden relied on during his successful presidential campaign. It was followed by a drop in the president’s domestic poll numbers that have not recovered as the nation grapples with the enduring coronavirus pandemic and inflation.
There is limited data thus far on views of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and Biden’s handling of it.
A CBS News poll released last week found that 70 percent of Democrats believe Biden’s approach to Russia is “about right,” while 44 percent of independents said the same. Only 16 percent of Republicans said his approach is “about right,” while 59 percent said it is “too friendly” and 25 percent said it is “too hostile.”
Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau said the White House has handled the crisis well to date.
“This administration, the amount of communicating they’re doing on this is important. It shows Russia and the Ukraine that the U.S. is invested, and it shows the American people this is something the U.S. takes seriously,” Mollineau said.
At the same time, Fontaine observed that the current crisis could have adverse political ramifications for Biden if it consumes his time and takes his attention away from other priorities of the Biden administration.
“If that goes on indefinitely, it could produce opportunity costs for other administration priorities, in both foreign and domestic policy,” he said.
Democrats say whatever happens, it’s unlikely to be a defining issue in this year’s midterms or the presidential race in 2024.
As Democratic strategist Eddie Vale put it, “The 2022 and 2024 elections are going to hinge on what happens in Kenosha, not Kyiv.”
Brett Samuels contributed to this story.