President Biden’s conduct of foreign policy reminds me of the 1960s television show Get Smart. Bumbling Secret Agent 86 — Maxwell Smart – stumbles through his battles with the evil crime syndicate KAOS. When cornered, he issues hollow threats that the bad guys never take seriously. Given the administration’s abysmal foreign policy record to date, it is very possible to imagine a conversation about the threatened invasion of Ukraine between Biden and Putin going something like this:
“If you invade, would you believe that we will slap you with sanctions that will bring your country to its knees? …
“No? Would you believe a strong letter of protest? …
“OK, how about a panicky evacuation of our embassy from Kyiv?”
That, Putin would probably believe. In the comedic world of TV sitcoms, Smart usually blunders through with the help of his competent female sidekick, Agent 99. In the real world, Biden’s sidekick is Vice President Kamala Harris, and we wonder why no one takes us seriously anymore. The current crisis with Russia is occurring because Vladimir Putin believes that our president is a weakling, and he has good reason to reach that conclusion. The disgraceful retreat from Afghanistan was followed by a pathetic attempt to reignite nuclear talks with Iran. These have shown that Biden and his inept secretary of state, Antony Blinken, have turned U.S. foreign policy into a paper tiger; it is all negotiation with no threat of real consequences for those who wish us no good.
The initiative belongs entirely to Putin. The only question is how much of Ukraine the Russians will try to devour.
Biden and Blinken have made it clear that Ukraine is not a “go-to-war” issue for them. Putin has given us what equates to a démarche, and we have responded with threats of economic sanctions, which are being brushed aside. I strongly suspect the Putin views Biden as an American version of the despised Mikhail Gorbachev and would like to humiliate us the way we humiliated the Soviet Union as it collapsed. China’s Xi is no doubt watching from the sidelines hoping to exploit lessons learned from this crisis vis-à-vis Taiwan.
In his January 19 news conference, Biden admitted that the U.S. can do very little to challenge the Russians if they decide to invade. To make matters worse, Biden indicated that severe sanctions might not be imposed if the Russian incursion were limited. Even Harold Macmillan came home from Germany in 1938 with a written agreement — no matter how useless — after he acquiesced to Hitler’s demands not to go to war over the partition of Czechoslovakia. By words and lack of deeds, Biden has virtually given Russia the green light for an invasion of some kind. The time has passed for any military action that might have deterred Putin or could have been used as a bargaining chip. The initiative belongs entirely to Putin. The only question is how much of Ukraine the Russians will try to devour.
Before retirement, I made a good living playing the opposition in Defense Department war games and exercises in the early part of this century and still teach a course on Red Teaming at the graduate level. To do so, I have had to put myself in the cultural and strategic mindset of the adversary. Apologists for Putin ask us to put ourselves in Putin’s shoes if the strategic situation had been reversed and NATO rather than the Warsaw Pact had collapsed in 1989. They ask how we would feel if the victorious Warsaw Pact threatened to invite Canada or Mexico to be a member. Indeed, that argument gives Putin top cover domestically in instigating the current crisis.
But there is a greater game afoot. Putin is looking to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence in the nations that comprised the old Soviet Union and that portion of the old Warsaw Pact that has not yet joined NATO. He clearly views the loss of U.S. influence in Southwest Asia following the Afghan debacle as an opportunity, as his actions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan have shown. To give credit where credit is due, he has done a good job of it. That is the way I would play if I were in his place. Handing the imperfect but improving Ukrainian democracy over to the tender mercies of the Russians would be criminal appeasement on the part of the West in general and the United States in particular. (READ MORE from Gary Anderson: The Endless War Is Not Over)
Historically, Russia has done a miserable job when allowed to have a sphere of influence. Its meddling in Serbia sparked World War I, Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler led to Soviet involvement in World War II, and the Brezhnev doctrine helped ensure the collapse of the Soviet Union. Giving Putin free rein in the nations comprising the old Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact is like giving matches to a three-year-old.
Nothing that the Biden administration has done to date seems to have gotten Putin’s attention, and the AP reports that the Russians are sending saboteurs in to attack pro-Russian troops to make it look like the Ukrainians started the war. And there will be a war if Russia invades; the Ukrainians will fight as did Finland when the Russians invaded. As in the Finnish case, if the U.S. finally tries to provide some kind of military support, it will be too little, too late. And what will our answer be to a Russian invasion? “Sorry about that, Ukraine.”
Gary Anderson was a senior member of the Defense Adaptive Red Team and a Special Adviser to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. He lectures on Red Teaming at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.