Biden: Still Doing a Good Job on Ukraine
He shouldn't have publicly called for regime change. But check the scoreboard.
1. A Partitioned Ukraine
We have some possible movement on Putin’s war aims:
Moscow claims its focus is on wresting the entire eastern Donbas region, which has been partially controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014. A high-ranking Russian military official on Friday said that troops were being redirected to the east from other parts of the country.
Russia has supported the separatist rebels in Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk since the insurgency erupted there shortly after Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. In talks with Ukraine, Moscow has demanded Kyiv acknowledge the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, accused Russia of seeking to split Ukraine in two . . .
If true, this is significant. It suggests that Putin is preparing to offer some kind of ceasefire if he can get control of Mariupol and then present it as a mere ratification of facts on the ground: These people are Russian anyway and we hold the territory, so you let us call them an independent republic and we’ll stop killing civilians in Kyiv and Kharkiv.
The current Ukrainian position, however, isn’t congenial to this proposal:
Ukraine’s priorities at the talks will be “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Zelenskyy told his nation in his nightly address.
Instead, here’s what the Ukrainians are selling:
Zelensky also told independent Russian journalists Sunday that his government would consider declaring neutrality and offering security guarantees to Russia, repeating earlier statements. That would include keeping Ukraine nuclear-free, he said.
This is serious business so it feels wrong to laugh but . . . Ukraine offering a “security guarantee” to Russia might be the biggest FU in the history of diplomacy, given the current state of military affairs and the history of recent Russian security guarantees.
Looking ahead we can assume there will be no serious Russian ceasefire proposal until they hold Mariupol. But once that happens, how serious could such a proposal be?
I’m not sure. Because even if Ukraine was inclined to give Putin what he wants, I’m not sure Zelensky will be in a position to give it.
Are the residents of the Donbas going to happily join up with Mother Russia? Or will that region enter a state of ongoing resistance?
Russia probably can’t make peace with Ukraine unless sanctions relief is part of the deal. But that’s not up to Zelensky and what would the Western incentive be to ease sanctions?
And here’s another thing to consider:
[Zelensky] told the reporters that the issue of neutrality—and agreeing to stay out of NATO—should be put to Ukrainian voters in a referendum after Russian troops withdraw. He said a vote could take place within a few months of the troops leaving.
If Ukrainians are given the choice to vote on neutrality after what they just went through, how certain can anyone be as to what they would choose? And does “neutrality” just mean NATO? Or would it preclude E.U. membership, too?
Because here’s the thing: Whenever this war ends, Ukraine is going to need a lot of money and a lot of guns.
These dollars and bullets are going to come from E.U. and NATO countries.
Ukraine isn’t going to be neutral because Ukraine can’t be neutral between the country that invaded it and killed its people and the countries that accepted its refugees, gave it money, and provided the military resources to defend itself.
Whatever the language of a ceasefire agreement might be, Zelensky can’t provide Ukrainian neutrality, because it can’t exist.
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2. Regime Change
These three things are simultaneously true:
(1) There is no way to re-normalize Russia’s place in the world until Putin is gone.
(2) America’s strategic choices should be designed to make it harder for him to hold power.
(3) No one in the American government should say this out loud because doing so makes is easier for Putin to rally internal Russian opinion by framing the conflict not as “Putin against the world,” but as “Americanskis against Russia.”
Thus it was unhelpful when Lindsey Graham talked about having Putin assassinated a few weeks ago and it was unhelpful when Biden said this weekend: "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power."
Not the end of the world. But unhelpful. It was good that the administration walked Biden’s statement back. You and I can say that regime change is America’s ultimate goal in Russia. Officials in the U.S. government should keep that talk behind closed doors.
Yet in toto, the administration’s handling of this crisis remains solid. A month into the war:
The NATO/EU alliance against Russia remains solid and unified.
The military aid pipeline has functioned well and given Ukrainians effective weaponry.
The real-time intelligence pipeline from NATO to Ukraine is functioning well enough that Russian generals keep getting popped.
Russian losses are staggering—far above what anyone predicted going into the conflict.
Ukraine has held all major cities and even begun counter-offensives west of Kyiv.
Putin’s inner circle has lapsed into the dangerous realm of recriminations and disappearances.
Belarus has thus far resisted involvement, contra Putin’s wishes, because doing could destabilize Putin’s sole in-theater ally.
Despite threats, Putin has not escalated into the use of either chemical or nuclear weapons. He has not expanded the conflict to Moldova. And he has not struck into NATO, despite suggesting that he might do so.
The Biden administration’s handling of this crisis has not been perfect.
But it is hard to see how Ukraine or the West could be in a better position than they are right now. And while most of the credit for this state goes to the Ukrainian people, a not-insignificant amount of credit should go to Biden’s team, too.
But there’s still work to do.
There is a lot of fixation on different levels of military aid to Ukraine—should NATO give them MiG-29s, etc. To my mind, the most important task the administration has in front of it is keeping sanctions in place against Russia even if a ceasefire is signed.
There’s already talk in the U.K. about lifting sanctions should Russian forces withdraw.
That would be a mistake and the administration should be working to keep the alliance bought into maintaining sanctions until some impossible eventuality. For example: Set the bar at sanctions being lifted once all Russian forces withdraw to pre-2014 lines and Russia pays reparations to Ukraine.
The reason an impossible condition should be set is because we can’t say “Sanctions will be lifted once Putin is gone.”
But in practice, that’s what the policy should be.
3. Republican Outrage
All of that said, did you notice some of the reactions from Republican World over the weekend?
If this seems a little much to take, that’s because . . . it is.
At first, you may recall that many Republicans insisted that the entire prospective invasion of Ukraine was a big distraction cooked up by Democrats.
After the tanks rolled across the border, Republicans ran around claiming that Donald Trump’s volatile unpredictability was what kept Putin at bay from 2016 to 2020:
Mr. Dolan continued by saying Trump would never have allowed Putin to move into Ukraine, outlining that his “unpredictability” as a leader made him a “dangerous enemy”. . . .
“It is evident that Biden and Harris’ incompetence and perceived weakness has emboldened the Kremlin to act with hostile impunity.”
“No-one would have been able to guess Trump's response to this situation, but that was his strength - an unpredictable leader with such awesome military capabilities is a very dangerous enemy indeed.”
Since then other Republicans have complained that Biden hasn’t been tough enough and that America’s alliance building, weapons supply, and sanctions have been an inadequate response to Putin’s aggression:
The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen argued that “Putin respects strength and disdains weakness. Biden is projecting weakness—and weakness is provocative.” The National Review’s Kyle Smith argued that “Biden and whoever is giving him orders about what he’s allowed to do are running the administration like a woke blog,” allowing a big tough man like Putin the opening to do what he wants. . . . The Federalist’s Ben Domenech, who correctly notes that the idea that Biden’s ability to instantly change the diplomatic order was overstated, argued that the result was catastrophic: This “could very well be the administration that lost the post–Cold War world order that had been maintained, carefully and not without error, for more than thirty years.”
In sum, the Republican response to the invasion of Ukraine has been, variously:
Russia isn’t going to invade. This is all a distraction.
The invasion is Biden’s fault because he was too predictable.
Biden’s not being tough enough; he ought to do more.
We want a No Fly Zone and who cares if it means shooting down Russian planes!
Biden is being too bellicose in calling for regime change.
Biden isn’t being disciplined enough—his unpredictability is dangerous!
All of that said, it is touching that some Republicans are now concerned that the words of a famous American could be used by “Putin’s propaganda machine.”
Perhaps they could go on Fox to talk about this problem in some other context?