Biden must respond to Putin’s provocations against Ukraine
This week, US President Joe Biden faces the first major test of his administration’s global authority. America’s credibility as an ally is at stake, as is Biden’s ability to shape a shared NATO approach with Russia and to support diplomacy with credible military options.
The challenge to American power comes from Russian President Vladimir Putin, a ruthless supporter of the scam. The immediate focus is on Putin’s accumulation of around 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, ready for a potential invasion to counter Russia’s invention of a “threat” from Kiev.
The stakes are, in fact, higher for Putin. It reaffirms Russia’s claim for a sphere of influence over the former states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. If Biden concedes Putin’s assertions, America’s credibility and power fades, but nothing yet in Washington’s approach shows a resolute course of action.
This should mean a lot to Australia because, to be frank, we depend as much on American power as the Europeans. And Chinese leader Xi Jinping is learning from Russian risk-taking. The strategies Putin used to threaten Europe may well be used by Xi to threaten Taiwan, constrain Southeast Asia, and weaken Australia, Japan and US allies in the Pacific.
You could argue that Biden’s first major international test was withdrawing from Afghanistan, but it was a self-inflicted injury. Biden himself determined when and how quickly this would happen. America’s actions were not shaped or coerced by allies, the Afghan government, or the Taliban, or informed by concerns about what would happen in Kabul once the troops left.
Russia’s threat to invade Ukraine, the reaffirmation of Soviet-style dominance in Belarus and Kazakhstan, and attempts to weaken NATO’s position pose an entirely different challenge to Biden’s authority. . Putin questions America’s ability to lead an increasingly fractured Europe in the defense of its own security interests.
Russia’s assertion of a role for itself as a world power is based on Putin’s claim that the United States broke a commitment made in 1990 when the Berlin Wall fell from not to extend NATO to the east, closer to the Soviet Union. Then-US Secretary of State James Baker told the New York Times this week, “I may have been a bit advanced on my skis on this,” but negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed that a unified Germany would be in NATO. The ban on states joining NATO has never been accepted. Russia does indeed have legitimate security interests, but that does not mean that the interests of neighboring countries are superfluous.
NATO now includes the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999); Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (2004); Albania and Croatia (2009); Montenegro (2017); and North Macedonia (2020). This brought NATO closer to Russia’s borders, but was the result of countries seeking security with the democratic West against an aggressive Moscow.
Putin’s contemporary claims that NATO missiles and military exercises threaten Russian security and that Moscow needs to control its “near-abroad” neighbors to ensure its own security simply distract from the US. annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the proxy conflict in the eastern provinces of Ukraine.
So to the current military stalemate on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Keeping 100,000 people on a war footing during the winter is expensive and cannot last long. I recently argued that Putin may have no intention of mounting a full-scale invasion of western Ukraine. A hard-fought military occupation would quickly bankrupt Russia and, over time, harm Putin’s domestic political position. He has many options besides war, including the use of cyber attacks to shut down Ukraine’s power grid. What is clear is that the threat of Russian military action frightened Biden, whose initial reaction was to tell Putin at their virtual summit in December: “If Russia invades Ukraine further, the The United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures “.
Eliminating the threat of a US military response to Russian aggression gives Putin the opportunity to push for further concessions. Even before negotiators arrived in Geneva for the first of three separate meetings with the Russians this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken foreshadowed possible US concessions, including “arms control, which we are committed to. successfully with Russia…; various confidence-building measures; greater transparency; risk reduction ‘.
Possible negotiating measures include reducing NATO exercises and withdrawing US missiles from Poland. The US demand, Blinken stressed, was Russian reciprocity, in particular the de-escalation of the Ukrainian situation. “It will be very difficult to make real progress if Russia continues to step up its military build-up and inflammatory rhetoric.”
The possibility of cutting back on NATO exercises echoes former President Donald Trump’s unilateral concession to North Korea in 2018 to end major US-South Korean defensive exercises on the Korean Peninsula. The North was thrilled and offered nothing in return.
Rather than focusing on concessions, the United States should seek to make Putin’s goal of intimidating more difficult. Why not locate some American special forces coaches in Ukraine, like the United States did with Taiwan?
Even more puzzling is the Biden administration‘s response to developments in Kazakhstan. Let’s be clear: the deployment of thousands of Russian special forces in Almaty is not necessary for crowd control. It is a reaffirmation of Russian power over a client state “close to abroad”.
Yet a senior Biden official’s response to a White House press briefing was to say: “What is happening in Kazakhstan does not concern us in any way.” Once again, Putin gets a White House pass for his bad behavior.
This week of negotiations could strengthen the United States’ position as the reality is that Russia seeks an opportunistic advantage. NATO cannot accept rules regarding military exercises and positioning that weaken the ability of the United States to defend Europe. France and Germany will not intervene in this gap either.
We need a confident America operating with a sense of its own power and purpose. Putin plays his weaker hand much more decisively. After a year in office, Biden needs a national security approach with a less windy rhetoric about the importance of allies. Yes, it’s good that “America is back”, but what exactly are we all going to do about these arrogant dictators? The answer involves a greater focus on the sources of American strength and a greater will for collective military action, not to wage war but to deter risky adventurism by reminding authoritarian countries that there are limits. necessary for their international intimidation.