In Ukraine, President Joe Biden’s options and tasks were already extraordinarily difficult. They’re about to get even more excruciating as the horror of the conflict grows.
Biden has sought to punish and isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as to lessen the death of civilians, by delivering defensive weapons to the Kyiv government since the onslaught began last month. But he’s also fine-tuned his measures to avoid getting drawn into a potentially dangerous direct clash with nuclear-armed Russia while simultaneously managing his own fragile domestic political situation.
As Putin’s attack intensifies, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky becomes more desperate, and the civilian toll rises by the day, Biden’s balancing act becomes increasingly difficult.
After a period of extraordinary unity in Washington, the political pressure on the President is likely to increase. That will be especially true if the rest of the world is forced to see a brutal Russian siege and shelling of Kyiv, as appears increasingly likely.
On Wednesday, Zelensky will deliver a virtual speech to Congress at a major Washington event. If his recent speech to the UK parliament, which has drawn Churchillian analogies, is any indication, it will be a piercing and stirring rallying cry for legislators. If the President of Ukraine includes last-ditch requests for fighter jets and a no-fly zone over his country, which Biden rejected because they may spark a war with Russia, he will face intense domestic pressure.
Biden’s difficulty is that having unleashed full-bore economic warfare on Russia with extremely strong sanctions, he now has a limited number of options for increasing pressure on Putin without risking a direct military or cyber battle. Some critics in Congress and portions of the foreign policy establishment, including within his party, feel that the President has been too cautious.
It’s one thing for a member of Congress to accuse Biden of caving into Putin’s threats. In a scenario like this, a President bears enormous responsibility and cannot afford to make mistakes. The White House has taken great care not to force a vengeful and more reckless Putin any farther into a corner. It, for example, did not respond in kind to his order last month to raise the alert level of his nuclear forces and saw the Russian leader’s nuclear bluff as an attempt to scare the West.
In a similar spirit, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby refused to call a Russian airstrike on a Ukrainian base near the Polish border a new phase of the conflict that could endanger NATO territory on Monday. The administration is adamant about not providing Putin a reason to extend the fight beyond Ukraine’s borders.
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However, Biden is the first commander in chief since the 1980s to face the real danger of escalating tensions with Moscow, which might lead to nuclear war. He must also decide how he would respond if a Russian missile strayed inside NATO territory in eastern Europe, a scenario that may trigger the alliance’s Article Five collective defense mechanism, at the very least in theory.
Biden, who arrived in Washington as a young senator at the height of the Cold War, now bears the same lonely weight as other Cold War presidents: the world’s fate may rest on his shoulders. And the situation may be more unpredictable than it was during the long decades of the Soviet-American confrontation. Throughout the Cold War, the idea of mutually assured destruction, which supports the concept of nuclear deterrence, was in place. The question now is whether Putin humiliated and facing political extinction, would stick to the same red lines as his Communist forefathers.
“The risk of nuclear conflict, long inconceivable, has resurfaced,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said Monday, describing Putin’s decision to raise his country’s nuclear alert as “bone-chilling.”
“There’s a lot of gravitas at this moment,” a senior US official said following extensive talks with China on Monday, which included some discussion of Ukraine.
It’s no surprise that senior officials feel the Ukraine issue will define Biden’s term, as CNN’s Kevin Liptak reported earlier this month. Sources also indicated on Monday that the President was considering a trip to Europe to boost NATO morale, which would be the most important transatlantic trip by any American president in decades. A diplomatic source familiar with the plans told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins Monday evening that NATO leaders could meet in person as soon as next week in Brussels.
So far, diplomacy has failed.
As if the geopolitical stakes weren’t high enough, the failure of an international diplomatic effort to persuade Putin to back down and Russia-Ukraine discussions that have achieved no results are exacerbating the importance of the President’s next moves.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned his country into a pariah in economics, diplomacy, culture, and sports. After earlier expectations of a Blitzkrieg and valiant resistance by Ukrainians, Russia has been embarrassed by the slow march of its men. However, what the world has learned about Putin’s personality and track record during his more than two decades in office shows that his impulse will be to escalate the conflict. A weekend of savage attacks on civilian targets such as apartment blocks, as well as bombardments and sieges of various cities, indicate that this is already taking place.
“He will make sure that Ukraine is a wasteland if Ukraine does not bend the knee to Russia,” Heather Conley, head of the German Marshall Fund, said on CNN’s “Inside Politics” on Monday.
On CNN’s “Newsroom” on Monday, retired Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt argued that Putin’s tactics, which have already prompted accusations of war crimes, are going to become even harsher.
“Now that they’ve recognized this is going to be a long haul, they’re using a slow bulldozer-like machine to push things out of the way or below them, as they’ve done in the past. They are about to begin the siege of Kyiv, and I believe we will see how that approach plays out “Kimmitt remarked.
Images surfacing from the besieged coastal city of Mariupol, which has been ravaged by Russian bombardments and has little heat, electricity, food, or water, as well as from towns outside of Kyiv, paint a terrifying picture of what the capital may face.
A lengthy Russian siege of Kyiv, with large civilian losses and inconceivable destruction, would expose Biden to accusations of failing to intervene to avert genocide or war crimes. It would put enormous international and local political pressure on the President to overcome his aversion to using steps that could lead to a direct clash between the US and Russia.
Biden, who campaigned on compassion and understanding amid a pandemic, may one day be the President on the other end of the call, explaining to Zelensky why the West couldn’t do more to help Ukraine.
A new push in Congress for Ukrainian jets
As it was revealed on Monday that Zelensky would address a Joint Session by video connection on Wednesday, signs that the battle for Kyiv could be imminent added new urgency to requests in the US Congress for Biden to do more. The boldness of Ukraine’s president has inspired the Western community to unify and punish Putin far more harshly than many thought. After initiating what is virtually a proxy war in Ukraine by delivering anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, the alliance is back in the business of killing Russian soldiers. So far, Putin’s actions haven’t prompted him to take direct action against the West, despite Russia’s warning that such shipments are valid targets.
This has prompted congressional critics of Biden to claim that the US’s rejection of Poland’s offer to send Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine amounted to the US caving into a Russian bluff. Only a few members of Congress have asked for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, indicating a hesitancy to commit US troops into harm’s way and a potentially dangerous face-to-face confrontation with Russia. However, Senate Republican Whip John Thune said Monday that including a provision authorizing the deployment of military aircraft to Ukraine in a bill aimed at Russia’s energy imports and trade status has broad bipartisan support.
“I’m aware of the administration’s stance on this. However, there would be widespread bipartisan support for planes “South Dakota Senator John Thune told reporters on Monday.
Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada, a member of the Armed Services Committee, has urged the administration to assist Ukraine in acquiring more warplanes.
In response to the idea of the Polish jet, Rosen told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday, “The President is still resistant.” “I believe they are still working with our NATO allies to find a back door without igniting World War III,” says the author.
Her remark underscored Biden’s challenge in negotiating a route through the crisis that does everything the US and its allies can to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe while keeping the battle within Ukraine contained. However, as the crisis progresses, accomplishing both will become increasingly difficult.