Joe Biden Can't Escape Looking Weak Against Putin

President Joe Biden may find it impossible to escape looking weak in his response to Russian President Vladimir Putin, after Russian troops were ordered into two breakaway regions of Ukraine.

Experts who spoke to Newsweek suggested that Biden was making the right moves in terms of working closely with U.S. allies on the issue, but also argued that Republican criticism would be unavoidable, while the effect former President Donald Trump had on U.S. foreign relations could also stymie Biden's efforts.

Putin signed decrees on Monday recognizing the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Luhansk and People's Republic of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine—the move was later approved by the Russian Duma.

Biden introduced economic sanctions against the breakaway regions through an executive order on Monday.

On Tuesday, the president imposed further sanctions on certain Russian banks and a measure preventing the purchase of Russian sovereign debt.

However, those sanctions have already been criticized by some Republicans, with Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska calling them "too little too late."

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said the Biden administration had failed to deliver on a promise of swift and severe sanctions. "Ukraine is a test of western resolve. It's not just about Putin. The Chinese communists and Iranian jihadists are watching too. It's a major leadership moment for Biden. So far, he's failing," Haley said.

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Tuesday that Putin will win in Ukraine because Biden has failed to unite NATO. Further criticism of this kind is likely to continue as the crisis drags on.

The administration has prepared sanctions that will make Russia into an international "pariah," according to Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh.

Those sanctions have not yet been introduced despite repeated threats from the administration. However, moves announced on Tuesday are expected to be just the first tranche of sanctions, according to media reports.

Biden caused controversy on January 19 when he referred to Russian troops potentially entering Ukraine as a "minor incursion" and suggested that NATO members would be divided in their response.

"I think what you're going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it depends on what it does. It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do," Biden said.

Those remarks led to a critical response from Ukrainian President Voldoymyr Zelenskyy and the White House subsequently walked back the comment.

And this week there was controversy over the Biden administration not immediately referring to Russian troop movements into Ukraine as an invasion. On Tuesday morning, administration officials used the term "invasion" for the first time.

The Water's Edge

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek that Republican criticism of Biden's approach to Russia was unavoidable.

"There's nothing Biden can do to obviate Republican criticism on Russia," Gift said. "The adage that 'politics stops at the water's edge' when it comes to foreign policy is an ideal that no longer applies in today's hyper-partisan climate—if it ever did."

"Especially because the GOP is so diverse in its views on foreign policy, Biden will also be attacked from all angles: from isolationists who think Biden has been too quick to beat the drums of war, and from hawks who think Biden hasn't been tough enough in standing up to Putin," Gift said.

He said many of those critiques would be "grounded in legitimate philosophical differences with the administration's handling of Moscow."

"But what virtually all Republicans have in common is a sense that Biden's record as commander in chief, especially the coming out of the Afghanistan fiasco, can be exploited. So that's what they'll do," Gift said.

The Foundation of NATO

The Biden administration has focused heavily on coordinating with NATO allies in the response to Russia's actions. In his inaugural address in January, 2021, Biden pledged to work closely with U.S. allies after four years where some friendly nations took a dim view of Trump's foreign policy approach. Ukraine could prove a test for longstanding international relationships.

Peter Hahn, a professor of history at The Ohio State University, and an expert on U.S. diplomacy, told Newsweek that Ukraine could represent an opportunity to renew alliances.

"When he decided to withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan, President Biden fumbled on his inaugural pledge to work closely with the NATO allies," Hahn said.

"The president withdrew from Afghanistan after considering U.S. national security interests and domestic political pressures, although he left most NATO allies feeling that he had acted unilaterally and had consulted them inadequately—given their contributions to the inter-allied mission in Afghanistan over many years," he said.

Hahn contrasted Afghanistan with Ukraine, saying "the Biden team seems to be consulting the European allies closely."

"U.S. efforts to deter Russian aggression have been synced with the diplomacy of the NATO partners," Hahn said. He pointed to Germany's decision to halt the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

"The Trump Administration weakened the foundation of NATO," Hahn went on.

"Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan did nothing to repair the breach. While it is severely testing European security, the situation in Ukraine provides another opportunity to reinvigorate NATO," he said.

Biden's Limits

Kyle Haynes is an associate professor of political science at Purdue University. He told Newsweek that the Trump administration had weakened U.S. alliances and as a result, Biden's ability to act was limited.

Haynes said the president had done "about as well as could be expected in repairing the damage done by the Trump administration to U.S. alliance networks, broader relationships with friendly countries, and reputation as a trustworthy and responsible actor in the international arena."

"Much of the damage Trump did to American standing in the world is simply irreparable over the short to medium term," Haynes said.

"So there are inherent limits to Biden's ability to completely fulfill his inaugural pledge. Building deep and enduring relationships around the world requires the ability to make credible long-term commitments," he said.

Burying Their Heads

Haynes warned that if Republicans retake Congress and the White House over the next three years, Biden's work "could easily be undone in short order."

"The world now knows that one of the two major parties in the U.S. is deeply hostile to America's longstanding role in the world," Haynes said. "Other countries have already started hedging against that eventuality, and I expect them to continue doing so."

Haynes said that U.S. allies had strong incentives at the moment "to act like everything is normal, while hoping that Trump isn't returned to office in 2024, and the GOP has moved back toward the center by 2028."

However, he warned that "GOP extremism" meant "U.S. allies know that Biden's promises aren't credible over the long-term, but they still have huge short-term incentives to bury their heads in the sand and act as though everything is back to normal."

"Eventually, though, they may be forced to recognize this new reality and embark on a long-term, costly, and potentially dangerous path toward strategic autonomy," Haynes said.

Indecision

If President's Biden's promises aren't credible in the long term, it may raise questions about the actions he can take in the short term.

Dr. Mark Shanahan is an associate professor at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Reading University in the U.K., and co-editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage. He told Newsweek that Biden needed to act decisively.

"The sense in Europe at the moment—much closer to the action—is that the president is still too indecisive," Shanahan said.

"Biden needs to go in hard on sanctions now; to be seen to be active in supporting Ukraine's sovereignty but also to be listening to allies and acting with them as opposed to his unilateral action over Afghanistan in 2021," Shanahan added.

"No-one wants a war, and Biden has been telling us for years that he is the cool, calm, foreign policy expert. Now is the time for him to demonstrate that expertise," he said.

Enabling Putin?

"As for the Republicans, perhaps they need to acknowledge their role in enabling Putin to take this action," Shanahan went on.

He suggested that Trump's America First agenda "essentially took the U.S. out of international relations leadership."

"The GOP's tacit approval of strong populist dictators under Trump while trashing relationships with longstanding allies has all left Biden on weak ground with an uphill climb to re-establishing any kind of moral authority," Shanahan said.

"Strong action will demand bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Perhaps it's time for the Republicans to remember who their commander in chief is and who's actually the transgressor in this crisis," he added.

Newsweek has asked the White House for comment.

Joe Biden Speaks at a News Conference
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the East Room of the White House on February 07, 2022 in Washington, DC. Experts have suggested Biden may struggle in response to Russia due to the Trump administration's approach to foreign policy. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images