President Joe Biden spent the weekend leading what is looking like an increasingly desperate final effort to forestall a Russian invasion of Ukraine — an incursion that could have grave consequences for his own political standing.
If President Vladimir Putin orders his tanks into Russia’s smaller, democratic neighbor, he would send shockwaves around the world and trigger one of the worst and most dangerous national security crises since the Cold War.
And while it is not his prime intention, Putin would cause significant damage to Biden’s prestige and inflict real-time consequences on Americans in an already tense midterm election year — including with likely new hikes to already soaring gasoline prices that often act as an index of voter anger and perceptions about the economy.
The President’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on Sunday encapsulated a weekend in which the tone of Western governments warning of a possible invasion became more alarming, exacerbating a sense that the weeks-long Russian buildup around Ukraine might be racing to a decisive moment.
“The way they have built up their forces, the way they have maneuvered things in place, makes it a distinct possibility that there will be major military action very soon,” Sullivan told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Conjuring a frightening scenario of mass conflict in Europe, Sullivan warned that an invasion would likely start with a prolonged barrage of missile and bomb attacks that could cause significant civilian casualties.
“If Russia moves forward, we will defend NATO territory, we will impose costs on Russia, and we will ensure that we emerge from this as the West stronger, more determined, more purposeful than we have been in 30 years, and that Russia ultimately suffers a significant strategic cost for military action,” Sullivan told Tapper.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby added to the impression that this could be a fateful week, saying on Fox on Sunday that the US had good intelligence sources that pointed to a “crescendo opportunity for Mr. Putin.”
The United States will not send troops into Ukraine to defend it. The former Soviet federated republic is not a member of NATO, the alliance that has defended the Western world since soon after World War II. So direct conflict between Russian and US soldiers is unlikely. Biden has, however, ordered several thousand troops to frontline NATO states to deter any further Russian adventurism — including to Romania and Poland, two countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain but are now members of the alliance — much to Putin’s fury.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine would crush democratic principles and the idea that people can chose their leaders for themselves — principles on which the United States had built decades of foreign policy. It could embolden China to take action against the democratic island of Taiwan, which it considers Chinese territory, in a conflict far more likely to draw the US into a major war than an invasion of Ukraine.
But more immediately, a Russian invasion could have a significant domestic blowback inside the United States in a way that would impose more economic pain and ultimately hurt the prospects of Biden and his Democrats in November’s elections.
The President promised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday that the US would impose measures that would “swiftly and decisively” punish Russia. This response would transform American foreign policy and add yet another crisis to Biden’s crowded plate.
For the first time in 30 years, the United States and Russia — the two countries with the biggest nuclear arsenals — would be locked in a direct standoff. Tensions could further ratchet up if the United States gets back into the business of killing Russians. There have been calls in Congress for a US-funded insurgency in Ukraine to mirror the one led by Washington that helped eject Moscow from Afghanistan in the 1980s and hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia would respond to such a campaign — and has the capacity to disrupt US goals and diplomacy worldwide, including on vital issues like the nuclear challenges posed by Iran and North Korea, which both have the potential to soon cause a direct threat to American national security.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine could also cause oil prices to shoot up and translate into direct pain at the pump for US drivers. High gas prices, currently averaging $3.48 according to the American Automobile Association, have been a contributing factor to Biden’s fall in popularity. The President cannot afford a crisis with the potential to push them even higher just days after key data on Thursday showed that inflation rose 7.5%, in the worst such figures since 1982.
A Russian invasion could also cause stocks to tumble in a way that would hit voter perceptions of economic security and prosperity, deepening worries that would further bite into Democratic hopes of staving off a rout in an election that could hand the House of Representatives and the Senate to Republicans. Then there is a psychological and political backlash that Biden could face with an already disgruntled electorate if a Russian invasion of Ukraine added to the impression of a world racing out of control in ways that make him, and the US, look outmaneuvered.
Republicans have already been trying to paint Biden as weak and give the impression that what have been robust US efforts to convince Putin not to invade — including the readying of the most painful sanctions the US and the West have ever imposed on Moscow — have failed to influence the Russian leader. Ex-President Donald Trump is making an argument that will become familiar if an invasion does occur. He claimed in a Fox interview on Saturday that Putin had been encouraged to challenge the United States because of the Biden’s team’s chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan.
“When they watched all of that I think they got emboldened,” Trump said. The former President also claimed that he would have prevented Putin from taking such a stand, adding, “I know him very well, got along with him very well. We respected each other.” Trump claimed that no administration had been tougher on Russian than the one he led. While his administration did have a robust policy toward Moscow — including the dispatch of weapons to Ukraine — Trump often seemed to be following his personal approach, which involved fawning in front of Putin and adopting the Russian leader’s point of view on key questions — including Putin’s denial of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
A second Trump presidency would raise real questions about the future of NATO that would again play into Putin’s goal of dividing or even destroying the alliance. The New York Times reported, for instance, in 2019 that Trump had privately spoken about withdrawing from the organization that he frequently criticized — a move that, if it went ahead, would represent a massive victory for Russia. Any action in Ukraine that hurts Biden might help Trump and his campaign-in-waiting, a factor that could play into the calculations of a Russian leader who has already interfered in US elections with the goal of helping the 45th President.
A presidency already in trouble
Trump’s comments over the weekend were clearly intended as signal to Republicans of how to go after Biden should a Russian invasion take place. The GOP has spent months building a midterm election message centered on the idea that Biden is weak and incompetent and that the world has lost respect for the US with the departure of the strongman Trump.
Biden conveyed a direct caution to Putin about the US actions — including sanctions that could cripple the Russian economy if an invasion goes ahead — in a telephone call on Saturday. But his frequent contacts with the Russian leader risk leaving him open to accusations of appeasement if Putin ignores US warnings and marches into Ukraine anyway.
Republican leaders also want to stress high prices for gasoline and basic goods, mostly brought on by the pandemic, to portray Biden’s economic management as a disaster despite some of the strongest jobs numbers in decades. So many of the cascading events that would result from a Russian invasion of Ukraine could play into their hands.
Biden’s presidency is already reeling. His approval rating dipped to 41% in a new CNN/SSRS poll released last week, and a Russian invasion of Ukraine would deepen the sense of crisis that is already tightening its grip on the White House. History suggests that presidents in that much trouble suffer stinging defeats in midterm elections in their first term. The CNN survey, conducted in January and February, found that only 45% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters wanted to see the party renominate Biden in 2024, while 51% preferred a different candidate. There was not much better news for Trump, however, with 50% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters wanting the GOP to nominate him again and 49% wanting an alternative candidate.
Biden is unlikely to get much credit from voters for what has, despite a few rhetorical missteps, been a multi-front and successful effort to unite America’s NATO allies and build a punishing set of consequences for Moscow if it invades Ukraine.
Any decision by Putin to stop at the brink of an invasion and stand down his forces would allow the President to argue in the run-up to the midterms that his strength and statesmanship had caused Russia to back down. But the Russian leader is unlikely to let up pressure on Ukraine — even if he doesn’t mount a full invasion — and no doubt plans to be a constant headache for the US and Biden.