There’s commentary below on the Ukraine issue, but first, the meta-message of President Biden’s press conference on Wednesday: Trump can be un-impeached any time now. The two things he was impeached for have become U.S. policy under Joe Biden.
The first impeachment of Trump was over Trump’s handling of arms shipments to Ukraine. Democrats in Congress charged that Trump improperly delayed them and showed inadequate support for Ukraine’s security, allegedly as an extortion move against the Ukrainian government in a quest to get Kyiv to attack Joe Biden.
Now showing inadequate support for Ukraine’s security is Biden’s U.S. national policy.
The second impeachment of Trump was over Trump’s objections to the irregularities seen in the 2020 election, which Trump said invalidated the outcome. Trump’s stated perception of the 2020 election as illegitimate has been condemned by Democrats for more than a year as a criminal act.
Now impugning the legitimacy of U.S. elections is Biden’s policy on election integrity.
Stephen Hayes, no friend of Trump’s (a Never Trumper, in fact), summed it up after the presser:
Different groups will remember the two points, I think; the contingent that will prioritize remembering both is a relatively small one. But Hayes is right: remembered they will be.
As for Biden’s comments on Ukraine, many interpreted his statement that “a minor incursion would be one thing” as a green light to Vladimir Putin to come on in.
That’s understandable, but I would frame it a bit more subtly than that. Biden didn’t so much give Putin a green light as he gave Putin a method by which to incur the least backlash from the U.S. and NATO.
Biden drew Putin a picture, basically, of how to evade retaliation. What Putin has to do is act as deceptively as possible. If he does that, and NATO can’t firmly attribute hot-lead military activity in Ukraine to Russia, then Putin can get away with whatever he can achieve by that method.
No, Biden didn’t say that in so many words. But he didn’t say “come on in” either, yet pretty much everyone heard that in what Biden did say. It’s no stretch to read into Biden’s comments – including the clarification issued after the presser – that Putin will be courting retribution mainly if he does enough to be caught red-handed.
The “clarification” certainly doesn’t put that perception to rest. Besides implying a threat if Russian forces cross Ukraine’s border, it says, “President Biden also knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response.”
Now, Biden affirmed no such thing, but that’s a separate point. The clarification may sound superficially wise to Putin’s wiles, but what it in fact does is put the concept of less-than-overt action in play – in a way Putin himself has not done. Merely by mentioning NATO’s knowledge of Putin’s tactics, Biden carved a space for Putin to act in.
Biden himself, putative approver of the clarification statement, set forth the realm of “cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics” as a separate one: first by distinguishing it from “Russian military forces moving across Ukraine’s border,” and second by indicating that cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics would draw a distinct form of response from NATO.
Nothing compelled Team Biden to make that distinction. It was just a bad move by his policy writers.
All it takes is one simple thought exercise to see it. “Paramilitary tactics” are what? In the case of the “Little Green Men” (Russians not in national uniforms) who attended the 2014 invasion of Crimea, they’re Russians crossing the border under cover.
The clarification of Biden’s comments to the media is that the U.S. will see a border crossing differently if it’s done by “paramilitary tactics.” The same may well be expected for artillery fire into Ukraine that doesn’t involve the artillery vehicles themselves crossing the border, or Russian air or missile assets that hold Ukrainian forces at risk from Russian territory. (Or Belorussian territory, for that matter.)
There’s also, as an aside, no telling what “reciprocal” means, as it’s used in the clarification. It would be pointless even to speculate (clearly it can’t mean NATO employing paramilitary tactics against Russia; no one has the appetite for such a response). If it means counter-cyberattacks, NATO unity on such a matter seems questionable. It’s unlikely Poland and the Baltic Republics, for example, feel quite as invulnerable to devastation from counter-counter-cyberattacks by Russia as, say, the U.S. and Canada might.
As a general criticism, Biden got himself into a rhetorical mess he couldn’t be rescued from by speaking about Russia and Ukraine during the press conference as if he were leading an undergraduate seminar on the topic. He wandered around in speculation and background-editorializing about the nature of Russia’s intentions, instead of stating what cries out to be stated, and has for months: i.e., what U.S. and NATO interests and policy are.
A formulation that always goes “If Russia does this, we’ll do that” is not such a statement. Nor are vague bromides about Ukraine’s right to want to be in NATO, if Ukraine feels like it. That’s a silly non-statement of the NATO alliance’s priorities.
I alluded to this shortfall in NATO rhetoric in the 17 January Ready Room post. A statement of U.S./NATO interests would be more along the lines of something like this:
“The U.S. and NATO want peace and security on our alliance’s southeastern flank, and we believe that is perfectly consistent with Russia’s expectations for peace and security too. Our alliance has not sought to bring in Ukraine as a treaty member, and although we don’t envision doing so, we don’t believe that making guarantees that we won’t is in NATO’s best interest. Our alliance must not limit its defensive options with ill-conceived guarantees made under duress.
“What concerns us greatly as a matter of NATO and European security is the invasion and effort to partition Ukraine Russia has already made, starting in 2014.
“The U.S. and NATO recognize that Russia has legitimate security interests in Southeastern Europe and the Black Sea. We respect those interests, and we affirm the principle that it is destabilizing and unsustainable if those interests are ignored. But Moscow invading and partitioning Russia’s neighbors is not the way to express discontent or solve a problem.
“We have no desire to unilaterally limit Russian defensive options or freedom of movement on Russia’s borders. If we can revive the spirit of mutual agreement and assurances on such movements, we will be glad to open a dialogue.
“We will, however, uphold the principle that aggression and force of arms must not alter the recognized border of Ukraine, and we will do that by supporting and enabling Ukraine in its own defense. To that end, NATO members have already provided additional weapon systems to Ukraine, and we have limited detachments of NATO forces there to train the Ukrainian armed forces in their use. We will provide additional systems if we deem it necessary to ensure Ukrainian defenses are adequate.
“If Russia moves to destabilize Ukraine and capitalize on that by seizing control of territory, we will also promptly apply a package of harsh sanctions that will make it harder by the day for President Putin to continue operations in Ukraine – and will likely affect Russia’s capabilities elsewhere as well.
“The U.S. and NATO stand ready to sit down with Russia and address the situation in Ukraine, which at present is unsatisfactory to all the parties involved. We have stated our concerns many times elsewhere – the integrity of Ukrainian territory as a general security principle affecting the entire region, the Middle East and Black Sea as a security flank for NATO, the issues of economy and energy, theater missile defense, terrorism, and migration – and we are eager to engage with Russia on those matters, and the matters of particular concern to Russia.
“That engagement must start by honoring the principle that national borders are not to be changed arbitrarily by outside powers using force. We welcome an airing of views in this regard, and are hopeful that agreements acceptable to all can be reached: agreements that recognize Ukraine’s integrity and rights as a sovereign nation. We urge President Putin to call a halt to the current, dangerous activities of his armed forces and join us for further talks at his earliest convenience.”
Everything we need to establish in Putin’s mind can be communicated without opining, as Biden did on Wednesday, that Russia will probably “do something” in Ukraine; or averring, as Biden did, that Russia’s power is dominant and would win out in Ukraine; or going into unnecessary detail about the kind of attacks we expect, or the particulars of any stabilizing settlement we envision.
But the basics of statesmanship and security intentions do have to be articulated. They’re what’s missing.
Feature image: President Biden holds his annual news conference on 19 January 2022. CNBC video, YouTube.