Was Joe Biden Taking on Vladimir Putin His Biggest Blunder as President?

President Joe Biden is facing crucial midterm elections as the U.S. copes with the highest inflation in 40 years, record-breaking gas prices and concerns about the cost of food.

Those issues come as the Biden administration has offered strong support to Ukraine in its fight against a Russian invasion, which has now lasted more than 100 days, and seen severe sanctions imposed on President Vladimir Putin's country.

Biden met Putin in Geneva, Switzerland just over one year ago. The two presidents held a summit on June 16, 2021 and relations have deteriorated substantially since then because of the invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24 this year.

The Biden administration's swift imposition of sanctions was met with rapid action by U.S. corporations with operations in Russia. However, some administration officials have now expressed concern that the sanctions are exacerbating inflation and food insecurity, according to a Bloomberg report this week.

Part of the problem appears to be U.S. companies' "self-sanctioning" by taking a very cautious approach to trade with Russia. Some major corporations are reportedly going beyond current legal requirements in order to make sure they are not violating sanctions, which could have an impact on supply chains and inflation.

The annualized rate of inflation was 8.6 percent in May and the average price for a gallon of gas surpassed $5 for the first time last week.

Political experts who spoke to Newsweek suggested that Biden could suffer some short-term political pain from inflation and other economic issues that may have been made worse by sanctions but he'll ultimately be judged on the outcome of his Ukraine policy.

Unintended Consequences

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek that the administration could have "costed in" corporations' response to sanctions into their policy.

"The history of regulation is the history of unintended consequences," Gift said. "By slapping sanctions on Russia, the White House created a vast legal minefield that U.S. firms are understandably - and imperfectly - just learning to navigate."

"It's clear the Biden administration didn't predict the extent of self-sanctioning that companies would impose to avoid the legal liability - and political fallout - from violations," he said.

Gift said that corporations will "bend over backwards to avoid sanctioning, of course, they'll run up millions in lawyers' fees to ensure compliance, and of course, many will take a cautious approach when the rules are unclear."

"Even if one thinks sanctions should still have gone ahead as they did, the bottom line is that this behavior by firms, and its impact on the U.S. economy, should have been costed in," he added. "The fact that it wasn't is a blunder by the White House."

A Long-Game Strategy

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 the Biden administration could not be expected to predict all of the results of the war in Ukraine.

"War is messy and unpredictable, and even the U.S., an economic superpower, can't be expected to have all the answers in a ready-made playbook when it comes to supporting a sovereign state on one hand, but not getting militarily involved in the battle on the other," Shanahan said.

"The key thing to remember about sanctions is that they're a long-game strategy," he went on. "They don't have an immediate impact and work at a number of different levels, isolating and damaging the economic and cultural power of the aggressor state.

Shanahan said that while Putin "would have factored sanctions into his war plan" before launching the invasion of Ukraine, he had also "factored in a far shorter and easier war than what has transpired."

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin
In this combination image, President Joe Biden speaks during a bill signing event at the State Dining Room of the White House June 16, 2022 and Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the State Awarding Ceremony at the Grand Kremlin Palace, June 12, 2022. The Biden administration has imposed harsh sanctions on Russia. Alex Wong/Getty

A Chokehold on Putin

Shanahan said the U.S. "needs to remain firm to ensure sanctions have their desired effect" and that the U.S. is now "daily building up its experience of what's working and what needs to be tweaked to minimize the economic damage both at home and to the rest of the world."

"Bringing nuance rather than a one-size-fits-all sledgehammer can still keep a firm chokehold on Putin's necessary pressure points but can also bring an element of relief elsewhere," Shanahan said.

"Biden's problem is that at home, voters judge the government on what's in their wallet. The war may be the prime reason gas prices are spiking - but the president may take a kicking for it in the midterms," he added.

Saving the World

Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, told Newsweek that calling Biden's approach to Ukraine a blunder assumes that what matters is "nothing more than the president's short-term political gains and losses."

Quirk argued that there are much larger issues at play than the president's current political fortunes.

"The Russian invasion of Ukraine has produced a crisis with monumentally important stakes for humanitarian values, stability in Europe, and American national interests," he said.

"From all appearances, Biden has understood the situation and has been trying to strike a careful balance between helping to defeat Putin's war of aggression and avoiding a direct American military conflict with Russia," Quirk went on.

Quirk said that Biden "is undoubtedly concerned about political consequences."

"Inflation, high gas prices, and food shortages will not help in the midterm elections," he said. "But most presidents have understood that, in the gravest situations, their responsibility is to do their best for the country - and to assume that, in the end, saving the world will be good politics."