Analysis |

Not Inflation, Not Abortions: Defeating Putin Will Be Biden's Lasting Legacy

Vladimir Putin’s failures in the invasion of Ukraine have mainly been self-inflicted, but they were also the result of U.S. President Joe Biden’s steadfastness and clarity

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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US President Joe Biden at the NATO summit in Madrid on Wednesday.
US President Joe Biden at the NATO summit in Madrid on Wednesday.Credit: GABRIEL BOUYS - AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Joe Biden was elected to repair a broken republic. Anyone following the House select committee investigating the events of January 6 realizes how broken the American republic is. As a candidate, Biden said he was running because “there is a fight for the soul of America.” There surely is, as anyone following the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade realizes.

But while he is immersed in a broken, dysfunctional and toxic political system, high inflation, high oil prices and ambitious legislation he has only partially succeeded in passing, Biden’s legacy lies elsewhere: in inflicting a major strategic defeat on Russia.

Biden’s place in history will more likely be determined by his Russia policy than by lowering inflation by 3 or 4 percentage points, or lowering gas prices by $2 (two things he has only a limited ability to influence).

His entire political career had a substantial foreign policy component in it. And now, circumstances and events point to foreign policy as the defining feature and quality of his – still young – presidency.

Foreign policy will not fix the U.S. political system. Defeating Vladimir Putin and challenging China will not unify the two Americas into a United States, and will not necessarily help any reelection bid in 2024.

This is not the repairing and renovation of the republic he thought of as a generational imperative bestowed on him by history. But circumstances are making it his calling.

Putin is at the epicenter of an anti-American, anti-Western, autocratic realm. Not since World War II has the liberal-democratic West been under such a clear, present and ominous threat than the one posed by the Russian president. According to Biden, Putin is nothing short of a force of evil who must be vigilantly stopped, not accommodated.

Russia’s war of attrition in Ukraine is intended not only to break Ukraine’s resilience, but to sow discord and doubt in NATO’s resolve and economic war through sanctions. Putin may be thinking that in 2024 a Trump or Trumpite clone may be in the White House, scale back U.S. involvement and alliance investment-management, and enable him to reconstruct a Soviet-style sphere of influence. But this is 2022, not 2024, and the one thing preventing him from doing so now is Joe Biden.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking to the media in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on Thursday.Credit: Dmitry Azarov/AP

The Kremlin came out with a savvy, ingenious idea on Tuesday: the military operation in Ukraine will end if Ukraine surrenders, a presidential spokesman said. The beauty is in the simplicity. Whodathunkit?

But this asinine statement does draw attention to a renewed debate in the West regarding the direction and end of the Ukraine war. The United States believes Putin is still entertaining thoughts of capturing all of Ukraine, or at least subjugating it politically to a degree that would turn it into a puppet state. Putin is still striving to create a “meta-sovereignty” over the former USSR and establish a sphere of influence over the Soviet satellite states that were in the Warsaw Pact defense treaty.

Two things stand in his way: U.S. and NATO resolve; and an abysmally underperforming Russian military.

Obviously, compared to Russia’s original and initial interests, the war – soon to enter its 130th day – is a strategic debacle for Putin, and a series of colossal miscalculations and mistakes. However, Russia is winning tactically and incrementally in eastern Ukraine, the Donbas region, and many have concluded that since Ukraine cannot conceivably win the war, it would be prudent to find a diplomatic formula or solution to end it.

The alternative, according to U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, is a protracted war in which small Russian gains are offset by military incapability, which is why “the picture remains pretty grim,” she said in Washington on Wednesday.

The West, and especially its Putin appeasers, need a crash course in Putinology, Swedish economist Anders Åslund wrote in May.

Putin is essentially an authoritarian kleptocrat conveniently using Russian nationalism – particularly revisionist and messianic nationalism – to consolidate power and wealth, the only two things he is really after, Åslund stated. This is a salient point and argument, albeit one that many Putin-watchers and Russia-analysts share.

Where Åslund makes a valuable addition to the debate over the end of the war is in the West’s dangerous misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Putin’s modus operandi and frame of mind. There is, the Swede claims, a key component that is frequently used in Western calculus on Russian policy: a fear of escalation. While Putin is using war as a means to expand and justify repression or, arguably, because he feels weakened, the West is overly cautious and accommodating because of escalation anxieties.

Instead, Åslund states, the West must make it unequivocally clear to Putin, and as a means of deterrence, that escalation can go both ways.

That is why one of the ideas being entertained in Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels is warship escorts for vessels carrying grain from the port of Odesa, defying the Russians – who are blockading the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast and strangling Ukraine’s export economy – to engage.

Ukrainian troops riding a tank on a road in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas last week.Credit: ANATOLII STEPANOV - AFP

As the debate over the war’s endgame scenarios develops, various appeasing phrases are being heard:

* Let’s not corner Putin.

* Let’s not provoke Putin.

* Russia should be offered a Sun Tzu “golden bridge” – a face-saving retreat.

* Putin may escalate, so we should propose de-escalation through negotiations.

* Ukraine should accept a bitter deal or risk further devastation. It needs to cede territory to Russia (Crimea and the Donbas) and effectively demilitarize itself, goes the logic – most famously and recently enunciated by Henry Kissinger.

These periodic renditions, even when presented with the best of intentions, are recklessly and conveniently dismissing the core truth: Putin was the aggressor who attacked Ukraine in a ruthless, unprovoked and patently unjustified invasion. He refused to negotiate with Ukraine, not recognizing – and aspiring to extinguish – its sovereignty. Ukraine never posed a threat to Russia, nor was it joining NATO.

There is a body of strategic thinking in the West that genuinely wants to end the war and save lives, but is using cautionary terms disguised as “realism.” These include being “careful not to destabilize Russia” or “cause dangerous military escalation.”

This is inherently flawed because it assumes Putin is a source of stability, while the exact opposite is true. It is Putin who destabilized Russia. It is Putin who escalated the conflict. And it is Putin who threatens to employ weapons of mass destruction. Any talk of accommodating Russia will only manufacture a false winning narrative, vindicate Putin and serve as the foundation of future aggression.

While the U.S. media is overwhelmed by dramatic Supreme Court decisions and immersed in the revelations heard in the January 6 committee about Trump’s coup attempt, a NATO summit is taking place in Madrid.

The summit is important not only for the policy decisions coming out of it, but because of how clearly it highlights the asymmetry between Russia and NATO. While in Russia all major decisions are made by one man, Putin, who steadily moved from autocrat to full dictator, the Western alliance – exponentially stronger than Russia, both economically and militarily – is governed by deliberations, advice, consent and consensus. It is that consensus Putin wants to crack.

Biden announced that “Putin has shattered the peace in Europe,” and the summit has produced some significant statements: a formal invitation to Finland and Sweden to join NATO, after Turkey lifted most of its objections; a joint declaration on Russia posing the most critical threat; a U.S. decision to increase land, sea and air capabilities and deployment in the NATO area; ongoing support and vow of assistance for Ukraine; and, for the first time from the transatlantic alliance, a statement describing China as a strategic “challenge” emanating from “the deepening strategic partnership between China and the Russian Federation, and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order [that] runs counter to our values and interests.”

This list not only illuminates Putin’s most resounding failure – the strengthening and consolidation of NATO – but is consistent with Biden’s would-be-should-be legacy: defeating Russia and then turning the spotlight on China.

U.S. President Joe Biden talking to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as they pose with other leaders for a group photo during the NATO summit in Madrid on Wednesday.Credit: Bernat Armangue/AP

Even if Ukraine cannot win the war in the traditional definition of military victory, and assuming that Russia will complete the occupation and eventual annexation of the Donbas region, it does not mean Putin has won or is winning. Quite the contrary.

Even if India keeps buying cheap Russian oil and China pledges eternal friendship and camaraderie, Putin’s strategic folly is glaring and enduring. He failed to topple the Ukrainian government and to suppress sovereignty. He exposed Russia’s military flaws. He expanded and strengthened NATO where U.S. presidents had failed. And he subjected Russia to harsh sanctions and made a pariah of his country, himself and the financial elite surrounding him. All that for the Donbas region.

These failures were mostly self-inflicted, but they were also the result of Biden’s steadfastness and clarity. Preventing Putin from further aggression and provoking NATO remains Biden’s mission statement. It could very well be his legacy as well.

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