Don't Trust, Just Verify: Biden Administration and Ukraine
By the time you read this, it’s entirely possible that Russia will have invaded Ukraine, or that the crisis at the Russia-Ukraine border will have receded. More likely, though, the state of tension continues, with Russia insisting it has no intention of invading, NATO largely remaining silent, and the United States rattling its transparent sabers and thumping a hollow chest.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook are aware I have been skeptical that Russia intends to invade from the beginning and I haven’t wavered from that skepticism. It should be obvious—though, sadly, in this era of reactionary opinions magnified exponentially by social media, it isn’t—that I consider what Russia has done here is reckless and dangerous. Whether or not Vladimir Putin’s intention is to invade, his troop movements and buildup on the border of a country with which Russia has been engaged in a low-level conflict for years could lead to war. All it takes is one misstep, one overanxious or overzealous person with a weapon on either side to spark fighting that could lead to dire consequences for the people of Ukraine and, indeed, for the entire world.
That said, the response of the Biden administration has also been reckless and dangerous. Russian aggression is a very real thing, but in this instance, it is grounded at least as much in legitimate security concerns as it is in Putin’s expansionist ambitions. Biden has ignored this basic fact.
At the end of the Cold War, the leaders of the NATO countries promised not to expand the alliance in return for Russia’s cooperation on integrating the newly reunited German Republic into NATO. The promise was not made in writing, and even the statements made, while obvious in their meaning, were not explicit. But this was clearly the understanding in Moscow, in Washington, in Berlin, in Paris, and in the other members of the NATO alliance as well as the countries of the former Soviet Union.
That promise has not just been broken; it’s been smashed to smithereens. And, while this does not justify anything Russia has done in Ukraine, it is a legitimate concern for Moscow that NATO is bringing in countries closer and closer to its borders.
To be sure, the issue in Ukraine is also regional and cultural, and it is also connected to Putin’s wistful desire to return Russia to the days where the USSR was the major rival to the U.S. in the global power game. But the security concerns are real and these are the matters that directly concern the U.S. and NATO. They need to be addressed in some way if tensions with Russia are to be lowered.
This has not been the objective of the Biden administration. It has steadfastly refused to even consider discussing the question of Russia’s security concerns, especially NATO expansion, hiding behind double-talk about this not being a U.S. but a NATO prerogative, while ignoring other NATO states’ objections to this acrimonious approach. The prerogative conveniently switches according to Biden’s desires of the moment.
Joe Biden has, even before he won the White House, crafted a foreign policy—if such a threadbare agenda can even legitimately be labeled as such—that is based on antagonism with both Russia and China. In the case of Ukraine, this has led to a dangerous strategy of approaching Russia with sticks and no carrots.
That is a defensible strategy when dealing with an implacable opponent whose true desire is to advance aggression and who presents any other concerns, real or fabricated, merely to bolster their dive into conflict. And that is precisely the characterization of Russia and Putin that Biden, and indeed, the entire Democratic party has been pushing for years. But, as with similar caricatures of Iran and China, it is inaccurate and leads to bad policy.
Once again, I need to make it clear: Russia is an expansionist country which pursues objectionable and, at times, even criminal foreign policies (see: Syria, as well as its annexation of Crimea). It is an authoritarian country which is despicable in its routine assaults on LGBTQI* people, its misogyny, and its intolerance of civil liberties, among other things.
But promoting rational, diplomatic foreign policy with Russia and trying to work toward a more peaceful and productive interaction with a country that has global influence is not tantamount to being a Putin apologist. Experience tells me, however, that no matter how many times I say that I will still be accused of just that, and by a range of interlocutors that spans the Democratic and Republican Parties, from neoconservatives to liberal hawks and even some who think they are promoting peace.
But none of that changes the failure of the Biden administration to offer Putin any reason to back down. Threats are obviously only going to strengthen Putin’s resolve. Indeed, any leader, but especially a strongman like Putin, cannot afford to be seen to be backing away due to threats by adversaries.
If attacking Ukraine was his goal, he has had the means to do so for many weeks now. The initial buildup of troops was said to number 100,000. That’s more than enough to launch an invasion, considering that Russia has about one million active military personnel while Ukraine has a quarter of that number.
In the intervening weeks, Russia has continued fortifying that force with personnel and equipment. And for all the American bluster, they have little real power to deter Russia if it does invade, short of military engagement. That would not seem to be on the table, and it would be a very tough sell to the American public if it were proposed.
The deterring factor for Russia is that an invasion of Ukraine, even if swiftly successful, would spark an ongoing conflict there, between Russian troops and Ukrainian sympathizers and most Ukrainians who would actively resist Russian control and would be aided by NATO countries with equipment, intelligence, strategic advice, and diplomatic support, including crippling sanctions against Moscow.
That could turn into a long slog. Indeed, it is likely to, and while the US and NATO will side with Ukraine, they will not have boots on the ground in the near term.
The American public is not interested in fighting for Ukraine, even though a majority sympathizes with the beleaguered state. A recent poll shows only 13% of Americans support sending U.S. troops to fight Russia off. The opposition to that idea is bipartisan and almost as strong among Democrats (only 16% of whom support sending U.S. troops to Ukraine) as among the general population, despite years of their party wildly exaggerating the effect of the certainly genuine Russian interference in the 2016 election as well as Biden’s unrelenting, Cold War-style hawkishness.
It is more crucial than ever that Americans guard against misinformation. We know this is something Russia is exceptionally skilled at, but the greater threat in this regard is domestic and it’s coming from our own government. An embarrassing exchange between State Department spokesperson Ned Price and veteran Associated Press reporter Matt Lee was emblematic.
Price claimed that an Russia was crafting a phony video showing Ukrainian soldiers attacking Russian troops, to be used as a pretext for invasion. Price, who is a veteran spokesperson and former intelligence analyst, said that the U.S. had de-classified the information proving the Russian plot. When Lee asked where this declassified information was, Price said “I just gave it to you,” meaning the declassified information was nothing more than Price’s unverified claim.
Lee challenged Price on this circular assertion and Price became clearly agitated, behaving very much like a man who had been caught in a lie. Which is exactly what he was. He even used the childish dodge of accusing Lee—who has been covering foreign affairs in DC for AP for fifteen years—of accepting Russia’s word over the U.S.’ This is pressure on the media worthy of any authoritarian nationalist.
And Price was not the only culprit. Another veteran spokesperson, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki acted in a similar fashion regarding the death of civilians, including six children, in the American assassination of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. The White House claimed that the civilians were killed when al-Qurayshi detonated a bomb he had been wearing, an odd thing to do since he was surrounded by his own family and the U.S. special forces had not yet approached his location.
It's certainly possible that the official account is true, but especially given how much the Biden administration lied about the events during the withdrawal from Afghanistan, among other things in only one year in office, it hardly has credibility on this matter. Yet when questioned about this, Psaki implied that the reporter was taking the word of ISIS spokespeople above that of the U.S. government, the same authoritarian tactic Price used.
Biden was contradicted by his own military on troop levels in Afghanistan before the pullout. CNN recently demonstrated that the Biden administration’s account of the withdrawal from Kabul omitted some key points about American troops massacring civilians on their way out. There is certainly good reason for journalists to demand some proof to back up this administration’s statements. Yet the administration is telling us to “trust them” despite ongoing doublespeak and a history of dissembling on many matters (we’ve not even touched on Yemen, Palestine, and Iran among others).
This is intolerable. And right now, it’s especially dangerous. Biden’s dishonesty and his and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s bumbling, belligerent handling of the explosive situation on the Russian Ukrainian border has made a dire situation—undoubtedly, at least in the near term, of Russia’s creation—even worse.
While there isn’t much we can do about that, we can certainly be on our guard against misinformation, whether it’s coming from Moscow or from Washington.
At Medium, I deconstructed the practice of singling out a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine as the only permissible idea and explained why this is incredibly detrimental to any hope for realizing Palestinian rights.
Also at The New Arab, I examined the hysterical reaction to Amnesty International’s in-depth report demonstrating that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid and why they so quickly launched into such a panicked response.
At ReThinking Foreign Policy, you can find two letters RTFP signed on to. One is calling on the Biden administration to overhaul its policies regarding civilian harm in its military operations. The other is supporting efforts by the Biden administration to find a way to restore the Iran nuclear deal despite opposition from hawks, including prominent Democrats.
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