“Politics must stop at the water’s edge,” Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg famously asserted in1947, as he helped Democratic President Harry S. Truman lay the groundwork for the post-World War II liberal international order that largely kept the peace in Europe for the next 75 years. But if it were ever true that American partisan squabbling stopped when faced with a foreign threat (it wasn’t, and it didn’t), it might seem as if the Ukraine crisis would provide another quintessential unifying moment for political parties and people of the United States. But to almost no one’s surprise, that didn’t happen.
The Biden Administration has organized a sometimes stunningly effective international response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has helped to slow if not halt Moscow’s advances. The administration is currently masterminding diplomatic efforts to deter Russia from further aggression and end European dependence on its natural gas, a key point of leverage for Moscow. It remains to be seen how effective all this will be in forcing Russia to back down, but it seems that it won’t be enough to get the Republican Party to back away from criticisms of the administration’s response so far.
And Washington’s considerable efforts seem to have made little appreciable impact on its friends, partners, and allies in the Middle East, several of whom are charting diplomatic courses strongly at odds with those of the United States. This may eventually force some recalibration of American policy in the region, especially since the world, at least in President Biden’s estimation, now faces a defining moment in the struggle against autocratic aggression.
The Story So Far
When Russian President Vladimir Putin made a strategic decision to launch a war against Ukraine on February 24, speculation was rife as to his motivations and apparent indifference to threats of serious consequences. His decision seems to have stemmed from his own self-interest and his perception of Russia’s history and devotion to reclaiming his country’s sphere of influence. If he expected the West to roll over and accept his dictates, and Ukraine itself to fall quickly, he was mistaken. For weeks, the Biden Administration had publicly signaled warnings of serious repercussions in response to an invasion, meanwhile engaging in a creative campaign of releasing US intelligence reports to expose Putin’s intentions and deprive Moscow of the element of surprise. Despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s protests of American alarmism on the imminence of an invasion, the administration’s predictions proved accurate. If one part of Russia’s combined arms strategy included winning the information war through its own patented blend of disinformatzia and shameless lying, Washington’s response successfully upstaged the Kremlin’s leaders.
If he expected the West to roll over and accept his dictates, and Ukraine itself to fall quickly, he was mistaken.
Consequences followed swiftly from the West, and they were due largely to leadership from Washington. The Biden Administration organized an international sanctions regime against Russia, combined with a ramp-up of lethal aid to Ukraine, unprecedented in scope and speed. This helped swiftly unify NATO and the European Union, both in opposition to the Russian invasion and commitment to shoring up their own defenses in case Moscow’s ambitions extended beyond Ukraine. This forceful response has helped crater the Russian economy while providing outmanned and outgunned Ukrainian forces the vital assistance they need to slow the Russian advance and grind down its supply lines.
Biden has refused to countenance Zelenskyy’s demands for fighter aircraft and a no-fly zone over Ukraine, worried about a direct conflict with Russia. But other forms of American assistance have been moving forward with astonishing speed.
On March 11, the US approved a $13.6 billion emergency package in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including $6.5 billion for military assistance and about $6.7 billion for the support of refugees and Eastern European countries impacted by the refugee crisis. An additional $800 million security assistance package was approved shortly thereafter, including 800 Stinger anti-aircraft weapons, as well as 2,000 Javelin anti-armor missiles and thousands of other, lighter anti-armor weapons. These have proved critical to slowing Russian advances. Biden announced he was sending more US troops to help shore up NATO’s flanks, joined by other alliance countries that announced substantial increases of their own. In addition, the administration announced the United States would take in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
Biden himself visited Europe in late March to continue to rally European support and bolster Western unity. He largely succeeded. Allies announced tough new economic sanctions on Russian economic entities and individuals, and the president delivered a ringing address in Warsaw framing the conflict as a fundamental battle between authoritarianism and democracy. “Democracies of the world are revitalized,” he declared. He also declared that “For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power,” an unscripted remark Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to walk back later to make clear Biden wasn’t demanding regime change in Russia. The president himself insisted he stood by his remark, clarifying that what he expressed was the “moral outrage” he felt after he visited Ukrainians made refugees by the Russian invasion.
Lack of Political Consensus in the United States
Congressional leaders have signaled broad, if not deep, support for Biden’s handling of the crisis, and the president’s approval rating initially rose modestly. Vladimir Putin, by contrast, is now widely hated in the United States, with unfavorability numbers comparable to those of the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran and Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Most Americans strongly support the economic sanctions the United States has implemented so far, “as close to unanimous public judgment on an issue as we are likely to get,” according to Gallup.
Congressional leaders have signaled broad, if not deep, support for Biden’s handling of the crisis, and the president’s approval rating initially rose modestly.
This has not necessarily translated into good news for Biden, however. A March 24 poll by NPR/IPSOS indicated a majority of Americans believe that the US should do more to support Ukraine militarily while avoiding a broader conflict with Russia—essentially Biden’s policy—while also expressing the view that the president has not done a good job of handling the conflict. If anything, the poll suggests few Americans are doing a good job of following a complex international situation, small consolation for the Biden Administration and its foreign policy team.
Some Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, have found an opening and intensified political attacks on Biden for alleged weakness in the face of Putin’s onslaught, and a vocal minority of conspiracy-mongers have embraced Putin’s version of events. (Trump has tried to have it both ways; first congratulating Putin for his “savvy” in launching the war, then pivoting to the “weakness” attack on Biden.) In this view, Biden’s unwillingness to bluster, threaten, and escalate was a strategic mistake.
This approach appears both misguided and fecklessly combative. But there is a persuasive criticism that has emerged from conservative circles, and it is that Biden may have erred in strictly and repeatedly ruling out American and NATO military action to confront Russian aggression, as well as denying certain weapons systems to Ukraine. This argument has been made forcefully and well by the American Enterprise Institute’s Kori Schake, and rests on the proposition that by ruling out options, the administration may have sacrificed some deterrent effect, sending a signal to Putin that he might enjoy a freer hand than he does.
The administration clearly wishes to stick to the letter of the NATO treaty and avoid a desperate Russian escalation, which might include tactical nuclear weapons. However reasonable that approach might seem, the debate will rage on.
The administration clearly wishes to stick to the letter of the NATO treaty and avoid a desperate Russian escalation, which might include tactical nuclear weapons.
Much of the energy in anti-Biden Ukraine criticisms seems to lie not among principled foreign policy conservatives like Schake, but among the more radical politicians who populate the nihilist right. The controversy and division over Ukraine, which plays well on Fox News and other similar outlets, may well help set the stage for this November’s mid-term congressional elections. How that will play out politically in eight months, though, very much remains to be seen.
What Would Trump Have Done?
One can only guess as to how this crisis would have been handled under the former administration, but clues abound. Trump administration insiders speculate that the former president would have pulled the United States out of NATO in a second term, which Putin reportedly had been awaiting as a green light to invade Ukraine. Trump’s effort to blackmail Zelenskyy for electoral help in 2019, under threat of withholding badly needed arms shipments to combat Russian aggression, was the proximate cause of his first impeachment. His sycophancy toward Putin strongly suggests the former president would have raised only mild objections, if any, to a Russian attempt to conquer Ukraine. It seems unlikely that if Trump were still president, Putin would have been deterred in any way, shape or form from his present bloody course—unless pre-emptive American capitulation to Putin’s demands might have enabled a Russian takeover without recourse to the horrendous large-scale violence that has taken place so far, much in the manner of Moscow’s 2020 rebooting of Alexander Lukashenko’s reign in Belarus or Russia’s own takeover of Crimea in 2014.
Fortunately, Trump and his acolytes have been largely sidelined in the debate of late, held up to ridicule and contempt as Russian atrocities mount in Ukraine. Unfortunately, the last has not been heard from this persistent minority.
Reaction in the Middle East and North Africa
If the unity and solidarity demonstrated by the European Union and NATO in response to Ukraine was heartening (and indeed rather surprising), the response of Washington’s close partners and good friends in the Middle East was not.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been virtually neutral in the conflict so far. The UAE, which currently holds a seat on the United Nations Security Council, abstained on a vote to condemn the Russian invasion, although it later voted in favor of a similar resolution in the General Assembly. Saudi Arabia elected not to entertain pleas from the United States to increase oil production on the grounds that it supported OPEC+’s common position on output that it had agreed with Russia. Reportedly, neither Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman nor Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed would take telephone calls from President Biden, but elected to speak to Putin instead. (The White House denied the veracity of the report.) Dubai has already become a playground for wealthy Russians, and more seem to be arriving daily, bringing their super yachts with them.
Israel seemed to tread a sort of middle ground. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid initially condemned the invasion but was brought up short by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who declined to do the same outright, while proclaiming his dismay at the war. Bennet subsequently undertook a diplomatic effort to try to broker a solution at the request of the Ukrainians, with the support of the United States and Zelenskyy. Both Israel and Ukraine denied reports that Bennett had advised Zelenskyy to accept Russia’s demands for an end to the crisis, including ceding the Donbas region, agreeing to a neutral foreign policy that would preclude Ukrainian membership in NATO, demilitarizing the country, and recognizing Russia’s 2014 seizure of the Crimea.
In any case, the mediation effort failed to bear fruit. The United States and Ukraine have continued to press Israel to go along with international sanctions on Russia and not become “the last haven for dirty money that is feeding Putin’s wars,” as US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland put it. So far Israel has proved reluctant, in part because the government does not want to risk its deconfliction agreement with Russia in Syria that permits it to strike Iranian targets there without risk of clashes with Russian forces.
So far Israel has proved reluctant, in part because the government does not want to risk its deconfliction agreement with Russia in Syria that permits it to strike Iranian targets there without risk of clashes with Russian forces.
For its part, Egypt voted for the UN General Assembly resolution of March 2 condemning the Russian invasion, but otherwise has been hedging its bets, probably like the Israelis, out worry about upsetting growing relations (including arms deals) with Russia. A statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately after the invasion neither mentioned Russia by name nor condemned the Russian incursion, noting only that Cairo was “following with deep concern the successive developments regarding the situation in Ukraine, and affirms the importance of upholding dialogue and diplomatic solutions.” Meanwhile, Cairo went ahead with a Russian loan for $25 billion to build a nuclear power plant.
Initial reactions elsewhere in the region to Putin’s invasion ranged from condemnatory (Lebanon) to neutral (Algeria, Iraq, Qatar, Oman) to laudatory (Syria). Iran contented itself with blaming NATO and the United States. When Moscow tried to leverage its approval of the incipient new version of the old Iran nuclear deal (aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) to get a break on sanctions, the United States summarily rejected the ploy while Iran politely dithered. Russia eventually backed off, claiming it had received unspecified assurances from the United States to protect its equities. Maybe.
Challenges and Opportunities in the Middle East and Elsewhere
The crisis in Ukraine will have far-reaching effects on Biden’s foreign policy agenda as well. In the Middle East, the United States is getting a better sense of who its friends really are. Many of those will come under increasing diplomatic pressure to align with Europe and the United States on the Ukraine issue. If they drag their heels, they should expect similar treatment with regard to decisions on future bilateral aid and support for lending programs by international financial institutions. In a worse-case scenario, a number of these countries and entities that refuse to cooperate with sanctions on Russia could suffer from “secondary sanctions” now under consideration by the Biden Administration. Arms sales could likewise come under additional scrutiny.
But as John F. Kennedy (and many others) once noted, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.” The Chinese themselves clearly view the Ukraine crisis in this light, and so should the United States and its allies. By leveraging Russia’s assault on democratic Ukraine to shore up defensive alliances such as NATO and, indeed, the very idea of the “West” and its values, the Biden Administration can go a long way to advancing its democracy agenda.
This agenda was stated emphatically in last December’s “Summit for Democracy,” but has taken on a new urgency now. The virtues and strengths of democracy, challenged and belittled by Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and their ilk, have been demonstrated once again, not only in the worldwide political upwelling of support for Ukraine and its democracy, but by the hard-hitting military and economic impacts of Western sanctions on the Russian economy and the implicit warnings to other authoritarian regimes that might contemplate attempted territorial acquisitions of their own, such as China vis-à-vis Taiwan. With the Biden Administration leading the way, a new and more vigorous case could be made to strengthen the foundations of democracy in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere to guard against democratic backsliding and authoritarian expansionism. Tools should include domestic laws to strengthen civic and political rights, more international cooperation to help democracies learn from and strengthen each other, and economic and military aid to bolster smaller or nascent democracies against foreign threats. The old view that good relations with bad autocrats is necessary for stability should be vigorously challenged, politically and practically.
With the Biden Administration leading the way, a new and more vigorous case could be made to strengthen the foundations of democracy in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere to guard against democratic backsliding and authoritarian expansionism.
In the short term, such an agenda will be challenged by the need to secure new energy supplies for European allies who remain dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, as well as to decrease pressure in international markets. This may require further concessions to Iran and Venezuela, as well as overtures to Saudi Arabia and other fractious American partners, including an easing of pressure over human rights concerns.
In the longer term, however, these are not tasks that are impossible to reconcile. Reducing dependence on Russian energy, accompanied by a greater international push for renewable sources (a policy that seems more like a necessity than a luxury these days) will strengthen the hand of Western countries in their political dealings with energy-peddling autocracies. And the demonstrated strengths of what is quaintly known as the “Free World” will appeal to many, especially those who might desire the freedoms and protections afforded by that free world down the road. (Non-NATO European countries, take note.)
However difficult the international challenges at present, the US and its allies may be facing a moment of restructuring and opportunity akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The West—and those who claim to be its partners and allies—should be preparing for this moment of reckoning.