Analysis: Joe Biden turns up the heat as Vladimir Putin mulls Ukraine invasion
Several Republicans have accused the president of showing weakness and placating Putin during talk show appearances on Sunday. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck a divisive tone as he described the Kremlin strongman as a “very talented statesman” who knew how to use power. GOP criticism of Biden has ignored the party’s tolerance of former President Donald Trump’s cowardly deference to the Russian leader and some have come across as an attempt to use a national security crisis to harm Biden politically ahead of the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election.
A series of moves, comments and signals from Washington and Europe over the weekend underscored the growing peril of the situation at a time when there appears to be little meaningful diplomatic activity to stop its rapid deterioration.
A potential tactical change from the United States
So far, the United States has focused on sketching dire consequences, in the form of debilitating sanctions, which it says would effectively cut Russia off from the Western economy in the event of an invasion. But the latest tactical moves have darkened an already ominous atmosphere after Biden said last week he believed the decision to invade Ukraine was Putin’s only dilemma. The troop deployment talks also came across as a direct challenge to the Russian leader while seemingly designed to protect Biden’s political flank at home.
While the State Department has said it is acting out of caution, the reduction in embassy staff is also a classic act of diplomatic symbolism that denotes a deepening crisis. Officials said any move to bolster NATO’s flanks would be aimed at “deterring and reassuring allies”. It was not immediately clear whether the deployments would come before or after any Russian invasion of Ukraine. But even talking about such moves warns Putin that the whole premise of his Ukraine hostage-taking — forcing NATO to withdraw its forces from former Soviet states — would backfire.
Yet the increasingly robust Western bet is also a risk. This could convince Putin that he is right to warn that Russian security is threatened by the West. At the very least, it could give him a propaganda pretext to invade Ukraine. And Biden has to wonder if high-level troop deployments ahead of an invasion that the US says could come at any time could make it even harder for Putin to back down without a tangible gain for his troop build-up. .
Top Republican: “Weakness invites aggression”
Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Sunday urged the White House to apply sanctions against Russia before any invasion, as requested by the Ukrainian government.
“If we don’t do something strong right now, I’m afraid he’ll invade Ukraine, which will have global ramifications here,” the Texas Republican said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
But Blinken rejected such an approach, warning it would reduce the chances that concerns about consequences could sway Putin’s decision. “As far as sanctions are concerned, the purpose of these sanctions is to deter Russian aggression,” Blinken said on “State of the Union.” “And so if they’re triggered now, you lose the deterrent effect.”
McCaul also spoke to Biden about the administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, saying he had convinced the Russian leader that the United States would not defend its interests.
“I think it all started…with Afghanistan and the unconditional surrender to the Taliban when he saw weakness. Weakness invited aggression,” McCaul said on CBS. “We are considered weak right now…because of President Biden.” (The administration says the evacuation from Afghanistan was a huge success, but the initial debacle shocked U.S. allies, left some to question U.S. global commitment, and helped bring down President’s approval ratings). The administration is responding to GOP criticism by saying a deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban gave it no choice but to leave the country.
Pompeo insisted to Fox that the previous administration earned Putin’s respect by being strong, with the result that he “didn’t use coercive activity to try to push NATO back.” It is true that some members of the Western alliance have increased their military spending after Trump’s complaints that the United States has been ripped off by its allies – although the perception of a growing Russian threat and its antipathy to the idea of defending allies also contributed. And the ex-president authorized the sending of deadly American aid to Ukraine, unlike former President Barack Obama. But his desire to win Putin’s approval has often seemed to undermine his own administration’s policy. His withdrawal from Syria, constant reprimands from NATO allies and denial of Russian election interference have advanced Putin’s foreign policy goals.
Pompeo: ‘We should ‘respect’ Putin
But Pompeo also praised the Russian leader’s intellect, which seemed odd, given that he is a US adversary currently threatening an armed takeover of a Washington-backed democracy.
“We had respect for him and his power. He’s a very talented statesman,” Pompeo said on Fox. “He has a lot of gifts. He was a KGB agent, for God’s sake. He knows how to use power, we have to respect that.”
Notable is the idea that the United States should respect a leader who rules with an iron fist, crushes democracy and freedom of the press, imprisons political opponents, and presides over a corrupt economy that empowers the oligarchs. coming from a former secretary of state.
Foreign policy experts are often divided on whether Putin is playing hard-handed with aplomb or whether his international gangsterism is more the act of a weak leader terrified of legitimate opposition and forced out of power. It is also debatable whether massing troops on the border of a vulnerable democracy and making outlandish demands of NATO is the behavior of a “talented statesman”.
The GOP’s willingness to criticize Biden, despite these huge flaws on Trump’s record, shows that for many of its members, with a few exceptions like McCaul, politics trumps national security in the pursuit of future power. Such an approach only widens the cleavages on which Putin relies as he seeks to tarnish American prestige.
Jim Sciutto, Kylie Atwood and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.