Who will blink first?
Joe Biden can’t avoid a stare-down with Vladimir Putin over Ukraine
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The crisis in Ukraine becomes more dangerous by the day. It is not clear whether Russia will bite off another large chunk of the country, as it did when Joe Biden was vice president in 2014. But two things are clear. The first is that Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues its aggressive offense, forcing other countries to step back or respond. The second is that the Russian president sees his U.S. counterpart as weak and current U.S. foreign policy as scattered and unprincipled.
Much of Eastern Europe is already under tremendous stress. Belarus, which shares a border with Ukraine and is backed by Russia, is pushing thousands of Asian migrants to the Polish border. Poland and three NATO countries, including the U.K., have sent military engineers and troops to fortify the border. Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline will give Russia even more power to turn off the heat in Western Europe, as climate idealists in Berlin and Paris shut down their own nations’ nuclear and coal plants. Russia’s air force and navy routinely stray over international boundaries—and not by accident.
Putin’s rise to power came as Russia’s economy was in turmoil, as NATO had expanded to Russia’s borders (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), and as Russia’s global influence was on the wane. As Putin and his cronies began to rebuild the nation as an oligarchy, they felt routinely disrespected by the West. A notable example of this is that Putin believes President Barack Obama lied to him when choosing to topple Libya’s dictator.
And then there is Ukraine.
Putin is jealous of Russian influence, particularly on Russia’s borders and in former
Soviet republics. Russia and Ukraine
share a land border similar in length to the Texas-Mexico border. Russia has never been happy with the
idea of Eastern European countries seeking EU and NATO membership, so the West has
continued to drag its feet at bringing Ukraine and its neighbors into Western institutions. But that has not stopped Russia’s concern
that Ukraine may someday be allowed entry into NATO.
Ukraine has many Russian speakers and Russia fans, particularly in Crimea and the eastern Donbass region. Putin wants Ukraine to remain a junior partner in an alliance of states that look to Moscow for leadership. He also wants the prestige of handling this matter to Mother Russia’s advantage on the world stage. Thus, he says that the Ukraine issue should be handled directly between Washington and Moscow, not multilaterally. This implies a Cold War drama that emphasizes Russia’s preeminence on the global stage.
Putin is a master of sowing fear and intimidation abroad. Beyond the ambiguous, but real, activity of online trolls, bots, and hackers, he causes disunity in the West by pushing buttons that pit the Western allies against each other. Putin has set Turkey against its NATO allies. His religious diplomacy rebuilds Orthodox churches and sacred sites throughout the eastern Mediterranean, inflaming tensions between two member states, Greece and Turkey. Putin gives long speeches that are attractive to some Western conservatives about saving Christian civilization from sexual orientation and gender identity ideologies. His domestic support has risen over the years as he demonstrates a muscular Russian nationalism, with himself at the helm.
Moscow has been watching Joe Biden for decades. Russia sees the U.S. president as particularly weak and beset at present. Biden declared that no U.S. troops will help Ukraine but pledges “withering sanctions.” Putin has to chuckle at this. In just his first year in office, Biden not only abandoned Afghanistan but also dismantled a key buttress of Central Asia’s security architecture. He is now nervously grasping for ways to deal with China. Biden’s executive branch still largely works from home on Zoom, even as the world threatens to blow up.
The Biden administration says that climate change, not Russia, China, or terrorism, is our greatest threat. It’s also true that Biden’s secretary of defense does not exude the gravitas or strength of predecessors like Secretaries James Mattis, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Donald Rumsfeld. Biden’s radical vice president just adds to the impression of American weakness.
Some Christians may say, “This all sounds like power politics. It has little to do with us.” That is simply untrue. Power politics should be about using power responsibly. Spider-Man’s credo, “With great power comes great responsibility,” is the basis of national security stewardship. A weak, vacillating United States abdicates its responsibility to build alliances and lead coalitions in support of international security and against injustice. A strong United States does not mean constant war-making around the world, but it does mean sober, even stern, constructive engagement. We cannot appease or wish away threats like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and a Putin who does not fear the power of the United States is a dangerous man indeed.
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