After building a strong Western coalition to try to deter Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine, Biden needed to prepare the home front for the hardships that may come for Americans, including soaring energy prices, if Russian President Vladimir Putin goes ahead. He did so in a grave White House address Tuesday that – while it may have been necessary for domestic political reasons – might also have risked a new escalation in US tensions with the Kremlin since Biden signaled no quarter on Putin’s core demands.
The world remains on tenterhooks for Putin’s next move, even after Moscow said it pulled back some troops in a possible sign of flexibility. Biden said the US had not yet detected such a movement on the ground.
The President’s speech was directed at multiple audiences – Putin himself, Russian citizens with whom he said the US had no quarrel, Ukrainians and US allies in Europe.
But the President took pains to ensure the American people heard a clear message too. This was important for protecting his domestic flank. While Republican leaders have been generally supportive of the President’s approach, there are clear signs that the GOP is laying the ground to pounce if the situation worsens.
While stressing he would not send troops to Ukraine, Biden told Americans that everything that their country stood for – freedom, democracy and the right of sovereign nations to decide their destinies – would be risked by caving to Russia. He argued that American national security depended now, as it had done for decades past, on resolute defense in Europe to prevent any Russian moves on US allies beyond Ukraine.
For much of the Cold War this was an accepted plank of bipartisan foreign policy. But given US exhaustion with two decades of 21st century war abroad and the America First unilateralism, attacks on NATO and hero worship of autocrats of the Donald Trump era, it can no longer be assumed this is a default US position.
“(If) we do not stand for freedom, where it is at risk today, we’ll surely pay a steeper price tomorrow. Thank you. I’ll keep you informed,” Biden said, before turning on his heel at the end of a crisp 11-minute speech to camera.
Biden’s fragile political position is a factor
There was a strong impression that Biden, whose staff had been seeking a window for such an address, according to CNN sources, hoped to rebuild a reputation for candor and competence dented by his last big foreign policy crisis – the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer.
He also hedged against yet more incoming political damage when he warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could destabilize world energy markets and Americans will not escape consequences. This is why it was so important for Biden to explain to American voters that he did not welcome the confrontation and wanted to still offer Putin an off-ramp.
“I will not pretend this will be painless,” the President said. “There could be impact on our energy prices. … We’re prepared to deploy all the tools and authority at our disposal to provide relief at the gas pump. And I’ll work with Congress on additional measures to help protect consumers and address the impact of prices at the pump.”
Perceptions of Biden’s presidency and the rebounding economy as the pandemic eases have already been gutted by high gasoline prices and the largest hikes in inflation for basic goods in 40 years.
He can ill afford another economic blow only nine months before elections in which Republicans have high hopes of taking back the House of Representatives and the Senate, throttling his domestic presidency.
And the risks of a blowback from Russian action are acute, as Putin – who has shown a flair for playing domestic US politics with his election meddling and would enjoy wounding Biden politically – surely understands. For example, a new analysis by RSM shared with CNN found that if the current crisis drives oil to $110 a barrel, inflation in the US would top 10% on a year-on-year basis.
Republicans play both sides of the crisis
That backdrop underscores why Biden’s political position is treacherous as he navigates the crisis and why a speech like Tuesday’s was necessary for political reasons, even if it risked complicating the diplomatic gambit.
While there is no sign that Biden is willing to appease the Russians, he has little political room in Washington for any concessions.
Some Republicans are playing the game on both sides – showing solidarity against Russia while leaving room to capitalize on the situation and brand the President weak if things go poorly. Others, especially those who swore fealty to Trump, care little for national unity at a time of crisis.
This duality in the GOP response was laid bare in a statement in which senior Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations, Intelligence and Armed Services committees signed onto a statement with top Democrats on the crisis.
“In this dark hour, we are sending a bipartisan message of solidarity and resolve to the people of Ukraine, and an equally clear warning to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin,” said the message, bearing the names of Republican Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Marco Rubio of Florida and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But McConnell also told reporters that the crisis was partly Biden’s fault.
“But for the catastrophe in Afghanistan, there’s not a doubt in my mind – not a doubt in my mind – that the Russians wouldn’t be on the border of Ukraine with 100,000 or more troops, had we not indicated to the rest of the world we were pulling the plug on Afghanistan and going home,” McConnell told reporters.
New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican who rose to a leadership position in the House because of her staunch support for Trump, lashed out a Biden as she joined a push by GOP lawmakers for their version of punishing sanctions that would target Putin and his associates even before an invasion of Ukraine.
“Joe Biden’s slow support for Ukraine and weakness on the world stage has emboldened Vladimir Putin’s aggression against the sovereign and democratic state of Ukraine,” Stefanik said in a statement.
A chilling moment
Beyond the political undercurrent, it was rather chilling to hear a US president make such stark assurances to allies about support in the face of Russian aggression. Biden almost cast a time-warp back to the 1980s, a decade when his worldview was sketched as a globetrotting US senator during the Cold War and his adversary, Putin, was forged into a strongman by his years in the KGB – the Soviet Union’s feared state security service and espionage agency.
“Make no mistake, the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power,” Biden warned.
“An attack against one NATO country is an attack against all of us and the United States commitment to Article Five is sacrosanct.”
Article Five has only been invoked once – by America’s allies after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Biden’s promise to defend NATO members, including those that joined after leaving the Warsaw Pact after the Soviet Union fell, was a reminder of how tense things could get if Putin invades Ukraine.
In that scenario, Russian forces would come closer to NATO troops in nations that border the country, like Hungary, Poland and Romania. That is a situation fraught with possibilities for miscalculations and would considerably worsen tensions in Europe.
Still, while Biden’s frankness was jarring, the speech should also be seen in the context of a propaganda mind game the US has been playing with Putin as it seeks to set the pace in the crisis and remove his element of surprise.
Diplomatic repercussions for US security
Blowback against Americans would not just be at the gas pump if relations with Moscow deteriorate further in the event of a Ukraine invasion.
The kind of fearsome sanctions that the US and its allies would impose would cause a Russian counter reaction. Moscow has the capacity to disrupt foreign policy in multiple areas that Washington cares about, including on issues vital to US national security like curtailing Iranian and North Korean nuclear and missile threats. And Putin is likely to be even less responsive to US demands to stop cyber-hacks on American soil if his regime is pulverized by its sanctions.
All of this points to the real political consequences that Biden would face in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. In his speech, he offered broad security talks with Moscow, consultations on transparency and strategic stability. But the fact that Biden cannot both preserve NATO and cede to Putin’s core demands – an alliance withdrawal from former Soviet allied states in eastern Europe – shows that there may be no diplomatic solution to be had unless the Russian President is willing to settle for something less far reaching.
“The reality of the matter, what Putin wants, is something we cannot give him through diplomacy. He wants to control Ukraine, he wants to, in many ways, reset the European security order that was agreed to after the Cold War,” Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday.
“It seems to me he wants to threaten us into unilateral surrender and Biden went out today and said it’s not going to happen,” Daalder said.