Almost a year ago I asked “who killed the anti-war Democrats?” It’s safe to say that in the time since then, Joe Biden has done everything to make sure that they are now fossilized.
Sitting as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations is Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a defense hawk who recently echoed Joe Biden’s threats to impose the worst economic sanctions against Russia if its forces invade Ukraine, as the entire media seems to think will happen. As a result, the public is on daily alert for some new conflict with a nuclear power and without a real answer as to what America’s goals and interests are in the region.
Does the United States support NATO membership for Ukraine? How about EU membership? Some tone-deaf Republican politicians, like Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), figure Biden isn’t bringing about America’s ruin fast enough, so he recently and helpfully urged a nuclear strike against Russia. Thankfully, Biden has so far limited his commitments to economic sanctions and has ruled out sending U.S. troops.
If there was any theme that was constant during the four years of the Donald Trump presidency it was the notion that he was Vladimir Putin’s puppet, compromised by Putin, a devotee of Putin hoping to get loans from him, and most entertainingly that he was cultivated as a spy by the KGB in the 1980s and remained undetected throughout the next 30 years despite the downfall of the USSR. After being ignored prior to the 2016 election, such allegations exploded into the mainstream in 2017, becoming an almost constant refrain among Democratic politicians and corporate media.
When Biden took office in January his new policy toward Russia was a marked departure from previous administrations since the end of the Cold War. During the Clinton presidency Russia was so weak and seemingly cowed following the fall of the USSR that Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin purportedly wandered drunk and alone out of the Blair House guest quarters in Washington, D.C. seeking a cab to go get pizza. George W. Bush talked about getting a sense of Putin’s soul during their first meeting in 2001, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously brought a “reset” button in 2009 to her press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in hopes of bettering relations after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.
By the time Trump had taken office in 2017 the preceding Obama-Biden Administration in which Secretary Clinton served had brought U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest point in decades. This was owing to Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution of February 2014 and the subsequent Russian invasion of Crimea as well as tensions over U.S. support for rebel groups in Syria. The “Russian collusion” hoax saga consumed Trump’s first two years in office, causing him to take harder lines on Russia in the form of sanctions and lethal military aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia over the Donbas border region.
When the collusion narrative collapsed in the wake of the Robert Mueller report’s failure to yield evidence of a conspiracy, Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) immediately began a new one known as “Ukrainegate.” Schiff alleged Trump had leveraged U.S. military aid to Ukraine in exchange for political dirt against Joe Biden. This allegation led to the first Trump impeachment process and further dismantled attempts to peaceably resolve the U.S.-Russia tensions. True, the impeachment fell flat. But by then, three years of Trump’s term had been wasted over contrived controversies relating to Russia and Ukraine. The fourth year would be wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic response and the concurrent 2020 election cycle.
Team of Failures
Had Trump been re-elected it is difficult to speculate about where his Russia policy would have gone. As it happens, Joe Biden began his term doing his best to pick up where his old boss Obama had left off. His first conversation with Putin, while including an opening to renew the important New START agreement on nuclear disarmament, was otherwise an exercise of finger wagging. Biden even brought up the issue of media reports of Russian bounties on U.S. troops by the Taliban. Almost six months earlier when this salacious story had surfaced, U.S. defense officials had told the House Armed Services Committee that it was uncorroborated.
Since then, the Biden White House’s approach to Russia and its conflict with Ukraine has trended in the same downward spiral as his other policies. Russia is the world’s third-largest producer of petroleum, and under Biden U.S. imports of crude oil from Russia reached record levels, which is a strange way of treating the nation deemed by the media as the biggest threat to American democracy amid a spike in gas prices for U.S. motorists.
In the run-up to the final U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden had also pitched the idea of staging U.S. troops in one of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to Putin during a June 16 meeting. This proposal was unsurprisingly rejected as Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Wall Street Journal that his nation did not see how such a presence advanced the interests of any of the Central Asian states nor of Russia itself.
It is unsurprising that Biden has pursued a track that exacerbates Russo-American relations given the group of defense, intelligence, and foreign policy officials he has picked. In 2020 I wrote about the foreign policy group that Biden had kept in storage at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. Many of these persons have now been re-inserted into the Biden Administration:
- Former PBC managing director Antony Blinken now serves as Secretary of State.
- Alison Berengaut, Blinken’s former speechwriter when he was deputy secretary of state and who also served at the PBC in an executive capacity now serves as a senior advisor to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who himself was allegedly involved in the “Russian collusion” hoax.
- Colin Kahl, who served at the PBC as a “strategic consultant” while also being a professor at Stanford University, was previously assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East and national security advisor to Biden when he was vice president. Kahl now serves as the undersecretary of defense for policy. Kahl was an architect of the Iran Nuclear Deal and also a public proponent of the “Russian collusion” hoax through an editorial in December 2017 for Foreign Policy magazine.
- Michael Carpenter, Blinken’s successor as managing director of the PBC, is Biden’s recently confirmed ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. A former State Department official in the Office of Russian Affairs under Obama, in 2019 during a panel discussion at Penn’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, Carpenter was the primary speaker and used his time to accuse Russia of undermining western democracy including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
With many of these figures having already been involved in the previous failures with regard to Crimea and Syria under Obama, how much confidence should be placed in their steering of current policy? And these staffing issues are compounded by the Biden family’s Ukraine business dealings.
As with his infamous laptop, this issue of Hunter Biden’s flagrantly unethical and potentially illegal activities in Ukraine was dismissed by the media as an irresponsible conspiracy theory before the 2020 election. Yet Ukrainians are now being told in order to protect their nation against a shakedown by Russia they should trust a U.S. president who is using their crisis to his own advantage. The media’s coverup of the Biden-Ukraine saga was akin to a mother bird defending its nest. The Washington Monthly, a publication by D.C. insiders for D.C. insiders, even published a column stating that “former Vice President Joe Biden should be commended for what he did in Ukraine, not maligned.”
Lurching toward MADness?
Throughout November, the U.S. media has continued to hype reports that Russia is building up troop levels along the Ukrainian border and plans to invade its neighbor. This pattern of pointing at Russia in order to magnify its threat based on dubious intelligence was masterfully employed during the Trump years. Some examples that were absurd even at the time were the allegations of hacking into the DNC, a Russian plan to orchestrate the escape of Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and the use of the National Rifle Association as a “foreign asset” ahead of 2016 according to Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Given that all of these stories either turned out to be false, as in the case of Assange, or richly embellished, is it to be expected that Americans will believe the latest scare tactics regarding Russia?
Biden’s decision to remove sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline program with Germany raised more eyebrows as well, given how it supposedly poses such a threat to the West. Even Politico saw it as a major area where the White House had inexplicably shifted direction in relation to policy.
Yet thanks to the fickle nature of his camp, Biden’s pendulum shifts on Ukraine policy largely go unnoticed. Few Democrats are conscious of how ironic it is that they voted for a president willing to plunge Eastern Europe into needless conflict over geopolitical brinkmanship in the same way as the hated Bush Administration did with Iraq; a policy that many of them probably protested only 15 years ago.
It’s not as if this change has been an unintentional mistake. The New York Times on December 11 published a guest op-ed by Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman (Ret.), a former defense official best known as the face of the first Trump impeachment effort. It was an appeal for Biden to commit to more lethal aid to Ukraine, a “generational investment” that according to Vindman could help trigger Russians “to eventually demand their own framework for democratic transition.” For those of you slow to process the translation, this is the new and improved way to say, “regime change.”
After more than seven years of warfare in eastern Ukraine through three American presidents, the United States may be in a weaker position than ever. Twice in the past 20 years Ukraine broke with Moscow; in 2004 during the “Orange Revolution” that deposed pro-Russian incumbent President Leonid Kuchma and in 2014 when they toppled another one, Viktor Yanukovich.
The U.S. military is overstretched and with the public’s attention more devoted to economic woes and civil strife associated with vaccination mandates and criminal policing, there is nothing to indicate that it has the appetite for another dangerous foreign adventure on behalf of an ally. Lavrov, speaking at the OSCE conference in Stockholm on December 2, warned against the “nightmare scenario” of a hot war in Europe. This means that Biden’s ultimate move could be to blink and concede to Putin, possibly in the form of guaranteeing Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO.
The Associated Press reported that such a deal could already be in the works, with the United States urging Ukraine to grant greater autonomy to the Donbas region. Such an outcome could bring closure to a decades long struggle with nothing having been accomplished. It would be the perfect seal on Biden’s career of epic foreign policy miscalculations.