Biden’s gambit in Ukraine is a risky gamble

Biden’s strategy to whip war threat frenzy will not help contain Russia.

U.S. President Joe Biden is seen through a glass doorway as he speaks by phone with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S`
US President Joe Biden speaks by phone with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on December 9, 2021 [File: Reuters/Leah Millis] TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY REFILE - CORRECTING SPELLING OF ID

As US President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda “build back better” faces major challenges in Congress, he seems to have taken his schema to the international scene in an attempt to build back US global alliances better.

Biden, who campaigned on repairing the political and strategic damage caused by his predecessor, has more leeway to manoeuvre internationally, as the US commander-in-chief, than he does nationally, where Congress and the state governors exercise great power.

It also helps that the deeply polarised Democratic and Republican leadership are united behind his vision and determination to “restore US global leadership” vis-a-vis the more bellicose Russia and the more assertive China.

What better way to rebuild transatlantic alliances than whipping the European allies into a frenzy by warning them about Russia’s “sabre-rattling” in Eurasia and its imminent invasion of Ukraine and preparing to deploy US troops in Eastern Europe?

And what better way to rebuild transpacific alliances than whipping Asian allies into a frenzy by raising the stakes with China and warning of a potential Chinese intervention in Taiwan?

As part of this strategy, Biden seems to be hyping up the war scenario domestically and internationally, despite the fact that the Kremlin is downplaying it. That is not deterrence, not by any stretch of the imagination.

It is almost as if Biden is daring Russia to go ahead and do it, invade!

Such an approach may have been a clever strategy against say, Iran or Venezuela, but it may prove reckless against nuclear powers like Russia and China.

To be sure, Moscow and Beijing have been making aggressive moves in their neighbourhoods to cement their influence, which the West has taken as a justification to enact preventive measures, such as raising the diplomatic temperature, establishing coalitions, and issuing sanctions threats.

But pushing Russia and China into a corner at the same time leaves little room for serious diplomacy. Such attempts at “dual containment” have been tried and have failed against the far weaker non-nuclear powers, Iraq and Iran, in the 1990s. In the following decade, this mutated into the “axis of evil” strategy, which also proved a foolish disaster.

When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva last month, he sounded eerily like his predecessor, James Baker, after meeting with his Iraqi counterpart, Tariq Aziz, in the Swiss city three decades earlier.

Like Baker, a confident Blinken said the talks were “not negotiations”; they meant to inform not threaten, and warned against another terrible miscalculation while stressing the need for a peaceful outcome.

The US has fought two wars against Iraq and held Iran under sanctions for decades at a terrible cost for all three nations, sowing further instability, insecurity and prompting Iran to pursue nuclear power status.

Needless to say, Russia is no Iraq or Iran. Nor is the US today the same global power it was in 1991 – not after the fiasco of its second war against Iraq in 2003 or its humiliation in Afghanistan.

Washington is not seeking UN Security Council endorsement for war, nor would it send 500,000 Americans, or any number of troops, to liberate Ukraine or Taiwan.

It may have succeeded to put the Ukrainian issue on the UN Security Council agenda earlier this week, but its motion was flatly rejected by Russia and China, rendering it no more than an exercise in public relations.

Meanwhile, no Western leader has shown more enthusiasm for Biden’s manoeuvres than British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is trying to deflect attention from the “Partygate” scandal and is fighting to keep his job after deceiving the British public, yet again.

Johnson’s irresponsible enthusiasm for escalation in Ukraine has alarmed his European counterparts in Paris and Berlin, who prefer quiet diplomacy to public bombast and warmongering.

Indeed, as tensions over Ukraine deepen, there are signs of the same Western discord along the Anglo-American and Franco-German axes as in the run-up to the 2003 Gulf war.

For these European powers, Biden’s enthusiasm for an assertive NATO feels no less, or perhaps more worrisome than his predecessor Donald Trump’s indifference to the alliance. Indeed, his tight embrace feels like strangling.

If Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin emboldened the Russian strongman, Biden’s frantic hostility is pushing him into a dangerous corner. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is rattled by all the American talk of war and, to Biden’s displeasure, is calling for calm.

Biden is betting that this alarmist approach would be a win-win gambit: if Russia pulls back, it is a strategic victory for him and if it invades, as he predicts, he would be seen as a farsighted strategist, who rejected appeasement.

But Europeans understand all too well that Putin’s Russia is no Nazi Germany, and reject any deceptive comparison between engaging Russia diplomatically and appeasing Germany during World War II.

The lesson from the 2014 Russian incursion into Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea is not that appeasement does not work, but rather that sanctions do not work when major nations defend their national interest. And lest Biden forget, Putin is a master geopolitical chess player.

Sanctions have largely failed against Iran and may well fail against Russia, too, where the support for Putin’s defiance is high.

In fact, none of the last three US presidents, Bush, Obama and Trump, were able to deter Russia from acting offensively in its immediate surroundings and beyond, notably in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, especially when the Kremlin claimed to act defensively or responsibly against Western adventurism.

Putin may be nostalgic for the days of the Soviet empire, but make no mistake, it was the Soviet Union, not “the allies” that actually defeated Nazi Germany, which “drowned in Russian blood”.

Russians have a long torturous history with the West and remain bitter about Western attempts to break up their country and sell it on the cheap after the Cold War. They feel betrayed by the US, which promised not to expand NATO beyond unified Germany, but ended up pushing for it all the way to Russia’s western borders.

So, no, it is not all about Putin, regardless of what one thinks of the populist strongman and regardless of what the US establishment and media have to say. In fact, both have a long history of reducing other peoples’ complex sentiments and grievances to the eccentricities of their leaders, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Saddam Hussain of Iraq, Fidel Castro of Cuba, etc.

Yes, Russia does have historic and legitimate reasons to ask NATO to stop its expansion, just as Ukraine has legitimate security concerns of its own and every right to be independent and free.

To end the Cuban Missile Crisis and avert the chances of a devastating war, 60 years ago, Moscow backed off its missile deployment to the Caribbean island and in return for Washington recognised the sovereignty of Cuba. They can do it again.

If they are serious about averting another major crisis, Biden should put a stop to NATO’s expansion eastward and Putin should recognise Ukrainian sovereignty.