USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) For several months now Russian troops have been poised along the country’s border with neighboring Ukraine, raising concerns that Russia will expand its war in Ukraine. Expansion of the war could take many different forms, including sending thousands of more troops into Ukraine in something approximating a full-scale invasion. While that could be devastating for Ukraine, this conflict must also be examined in the context of the broader tensions between Russia and the United States.
In recent history, this tension has taken several forms as the US and Russia have clashed over Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere in the post-Soviet region. In general, Moscow has opposed efforts by these countries to move into a more Western orbit. In Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014, this view has led Moscow to invade or attack, while additionally, the Kremlin authorities have contributed to political instability and disinformation campaigns in these countries. The US has also actively intervened in the domestic politics of much of the region, generally under the guise of democracy promotion, whereas Moscow views the American project in Ukraine and elsewhere as being less about democracy and more about expanding US influence and power. A central issue in all of this has been Moscow’s deep concern about the possibility of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO, with both countries persisting in their efforts to acquire NATO membership as a means to ensure their defence against Russian aggression.
The rift between Russia and the US is not nearly as simple as all that. Russia’s role in supporting various destabilising political forces throughout the west, most relevantly for the US in the election of Donald Trump in 2016, raises further difficulties for the bilateral relationship between Washington and Moscow.
It is within this framework that President Joseph Biden must decide what to do to about the increased threat of more Russian aggression in Ukraine.
The foreign policy challenge facing Biden is genuine and confounding, but no US policy question, even one like this, can be fully understood or sufficiently analysed without due consideration for domestic politics as well. The key thing to understand about every decision Biden confronts is that, unlike most previous US presidents who operated and functioned in the face of powerful political opposition, today’s Republican leaders have already demonstrated their willingness to undermine the stability and security of the US, as most clearly evidenced by their apologetics for the insurrection of January 6th, if doing so means weakening Biden and the Democratic Party.
It does not take a brilliant strategist to realize that with inflation rising, Covid still raging in much of the US, thanks in large part to GOP-backed anti-vaccine movements, much of President Biden’s legislative agenda stalled and his approval ratings stuck in the low 40s, a foreign policy adventure that goes badly could push Biden into the kind of failure and irrelevance that could usher in the restoration of Donald Trump in November 2024. While there are good reasons to stop Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, the drumbeat from many GOP leaders for aggressive US action has to be seen in this context as well. Additionally, the Republican Party is still desperate to distance itself from the fealty to Putin that many saw in President Trump.
Recently, the White House announced that about 8,500 troops would be put on high alert. This is not, on its face, a bad decision. It may be the right one and the only way to stop a larger war in Ukraine, but it is also true that should the US be pulled into the conflict, it could go very badly very quickly for the US. While that would be disastrous for Biden and for the country, it would also bring the GOP closer to the goal that they have elevated above all others – a return to power.
Admittedly, this represents a very cynical take on the current crisis, but it would be irresponsible not to at least consider it. For Biden, there is no easy way out. If he does nothing and Russia invades Ukraine, he will be seen to have allowed Putin to pursue his aggressive goals. If he does little and Putin does not invade, the threat and the story will quickly fade away and Biden will get no credit. If he is pulled into a larger and more full-scale effort to stop Putin and the conflict expands with the US ending up in another long foreign war, even one that requires a relatively small number of troops, Biden’s numbers will plummet even more. For the Republican Party, it’s a win-win situation without risk, because even if Biden’s actions lead to Putin backing down, the GOP will take credit for having pushed Biden in that direction.
Given Russia’s role in destabilising US politics in recent years, it is certain that the Kremlin understands the President and the country’s vulnerability at this moment. That may not be the primary reason Moscow has chosen right now to loudly beat the drums of war in Ukraine, but it has certainly informed Russian thinking.