Commentary

Biden’s toughest choices on Ukraine, Russia lie ahead of him | Fletcher McClellan

It is only a matter of time before Americans decide Biden is spending too much time on foreign affairs and not enough on domestic issues

March 31, 2022 6:30 am
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy Virtually Addresses Congress On Current Russian Invasion Of Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 16: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress by video to plead for support as his country is besieged by Russian forces at the U.S. Capitol on March 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. Zelenskyy addressed Congress as Ukraine continues to defend itself from an ongoing Russian invasion. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has strengthened President Joe Biden’s stature around the globe, but not at home.

Fletcher McClellan (Capital-Star file)

Internationally, the president seized the opportunity to serve as leader of the democratic world. Reminiscent of the Cold War at its peak, Biden framed Ukraine as a focusing event in a larger, longer struggle of democracy-seeking peoples against Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian rulers.

Biden took advantage of the ample powers presidents possess in conducting foreign and military policy, relatively free of Congressional oversight.

Prior to the invasion, the president issued U.S. intelligence reports about the Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border, the imminence of war, and possible Russian false flag operations serving as a pretext for war.

Since the war began, working with leaders of the European Union, NATO, Japan, and other countries, Biden organized punishing economic sanctions on Russian banks, companies, trade, travel, and gold. The U.S., United Kingdom, and Canada targeted the assets of Russian officials and oligarchs.

Biden’s leadership also helped to unify Europe against Putin. Though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the NATO alliance sent military, economic, and humanitarian assistance, including at least $13.6 billion in American aid. U.S. and European leaders delivered stern messages of retaliation if the Russians took military action against NATO countries.

Domestically, the Russian invasion brought Americans together. Biden challenged Putin apologists, particularly Republican officials and President Trump, to see the Russian leader as an enemy of democracy.

Responding to the past month’s events, the former president who withheld military aid to Ukraine for political gain equivocated, praising Putin’s “genius” but saying the invasion of Ukraine was a “big mistake.”

Along with the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ukraine took attention away from Biden’s domestic troubles, including rising inflation, continuing concerns about COVID, and his stalled legislative agenda.

Indeed, Putin and Ukraine furnished Biden with an excuse for rising gas prices.

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However, due mainly to partisan polarization, Biden is not getting the rally-round-the-flag support that presidents have traditionally received during international crises.

It is only a matter of time before the American public decides Biden is spending too much time on foreign affairs and not enough on domestic issues.

The hard choices that lie ahead, based on the military situation in Ukraine, are likely to weaken Biden’s prestige at home and abroad.

Reports on the first month of the war were favorable to Ukraine, indicating that Putin underestimated the strength of Ukrainian resistance and the unity of the West in opposition to the invasion.

Putin believed a “shock and awe” military campaign would produce a quick victory. Instead, it was the world that was shocked at the sight of Russian atrocities toward the civilian population.

Nevertheless, the Russians are in a strong position in southern and eastern Ukraine. Russia could claim victory by dividing Ukraine into two states in perpetual tension, much like North and South Korea.

A long-term stalemate in Ukraine would test the patience of the U.S. and its allies for continuing sanctions against Russia. For one thing, Europe and other parts of the globe still rely on Russian fossil fuels.

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If Ukraine is somehow able to roll back the Russian advance, it is possible Zelenskyy will not stop until all of Ukraine, including Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, is reclaimed. Biden would have to decide whether to support a Ukrainian military push to the east.

On the other hand, if Russia encircles the capital city of Kyiv, as it has Mariupol, NATO would be faced with the dilemma of whether to confront Russia directly or watch the fall of the brave Ukrainian government.

It will be hard for the West to resist Zalenskyy’s pleas for a no-fly zone if civilian targets continue to be pulverized and humanitarian need, now at 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees, reaches even more catastrophic proportions.

Hovering over the state of play on the battlefield is the question of what to do about Putin.

Putin has nuclear weapons and has threatened to use them. As Putin “Stalinizes” Russia, purging his government, military, and population, his state of mind is of constant concern.

Biden’s remark last weekend that Putin “cannot remain in power” stirred speculation that regime change has become an objective of U.S. foreign policy.

In committing what some say was a diplomatic blunder, it is possible Biden was going for a Reaganesque – “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” – moment, signaling the Russian resistance that it will have U.S. backing.

Then the test will be whether more than “moral outrage” will be needed to topple Putin. Among many available options, will Biden stay the present course, join the fighting in Ukraine, or engineer an uprising in Moscow?

With Democratic prospects for the 2022 midterm elections looking bleaker by the week, and the public (including Republicans) wanting the U.S. to “do more” for Ukraine, military action may be a temptation Biden is unable to resist.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at  Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef

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