President Biden said the right things. The expected things. His words were blunt and unequivocal. On Thursday, hours after Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine had begun, the American President stepped into the East Room of the White House and condemned Putin for his “sinister vision,” his “naked aggression,” and his evil, unprovoked war of choice. He called him a bully and a liar and a tyrant. He vowed to make Putin and his outlaw Russian regime a “pariah on the international stage.” He announced sanctions that he claimed “exceed anything that’s ever been done.” But what words, really, could be equal to this moment, to this day when Europe faces what may be the most dangerous and consequential war on the continent since the Second World War?
As Biden spoke, Ukraine was fighting—alone—against overwhelming military odds. There was a pitched battle in the nuclear hellscape that the Soviet Union left behind in Chernobyl. In Kyiv, air-raid sirens sounded for what must have been the first time since the Second World War, and a military official warned that the Russians’ goal was to quickly encircle the capital and decapitate the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Across the country, there were thousands of men, women, and children cowering in subway stations and makeshift shelters, clutching their iPhones and wondering how their twenty-first-century lives had turned overnight into a replay of twentieth-century horrors.
The war, not yet a day old, seems sure to transform Biden’s Presidency. In many ways, it already has. It presents a generational challenge to the United States at a time when this superpower has become weary and increasingly unable and unwilling to bear the burden of global leadership. In an angry, divided capital that is struggling to preserve its own democracy, the President is now being called upon to rally not only the American people but the world against Putin’s aggression. “Make no mistake,” Biden said, “freedom will prevail.”
But will it? Our inability to answer the question with an unambiguous “yes” is one measure of the calamity that has already occurred.
At the least, the start of the war quickly clarified previously murky aspects of the situation: the two decades of failure by Washington to understand Putin, or to counter his revanchist designs; the bizarre transformation of large swaths of the Republican Party into the party of Putin apologists; the smug back-patting of diplomats and politicians who congratulated themselves on maintaining allied “unity” while delivering little but reassuring words and several hundred million dollars’ worth of antitank missiles and other “defensive arms” to the Ukrainians, whose cause they have claimed to support.
President Barack Obama used to chide his staff for admiring a problem rather than doing something about it. But, for more than twenty years, successive Administrations in Washington—George W. Bush’s, Obama’s, Donald Trump’s, and now Biden’s—have largely done not much more than that when it came to Vladimir Putin. The result is that now, when the crisis Putin has been building toward for years has finally hit, there are limited tools with which to respond—and little hope of shaping a better outcome than the violent dismantlement that Ukraine now seems doomed to face.
On Wednesday, hours before the invasion began, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called out Putin’s “very evil” aggression toward Ukraine and compared it to Hitler’s swallowing of the Sudetenland, in 1938—a tragic precursor, unanswered by European powers, that presaged the broader world war. “You cannot ignore what Putin is doing,” she said, as close to an inarguable truth as Congress gets these days.
But the stirring rhetoric and chilling historical parallels abounding in Washington seemed such a mismatch for what Biden and his fellow world leaders now propose to do about it. Sanctions, of course, will not deter an invasion that has already occurred. Despite pleas from Zelensky and demands from some Republicans on Capitol Hill, Biden refused to impose them before Putin took the step of recognizing the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which served as his prelude for the full attack. They were to be “leverage,” his aides suggested. But, on Thursday, Biden claimed that “no one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening.” So what is their purpose now? Simply punishment after the threat of them failed to stop the war, or perhaps deterrence from some future, unspecified bad act? It is not really clear. However, John Smith, the former director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said, “These are the most powerful sanctions we have seen in this modern era, given the size of Russia’s economy. And there’s still more to come.”
As for other punishments that await Russia—whether they be global condemnation or Putin’s inner circle of oligarchs being forced to give up their London apartments and super-yachts—Putin expected all of them, and he proceeded anyway. Biden ruled out American military intervention in Ukraine from the start, and, in any event, Putin very explicitly threatened extreme—potentially nuclear—retaliation should the U.S. change course.
In his appearance Thursday afternoon, Biden said he believed that Putin would “test the resolve of the West to see if we stay together,” and vowed, “we will.” But the fissures, in fact, were there to see in the measures he proposed—and those he did not. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, officials had pledged retaliatory measures, including possibly cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international banking system, but Reuters reported that Europeans were still refusing to take this step, even with Kyiv now under attack. When he appeared to announce sanctions, Biden confirmed that the Europeans had in fact balked. “That’s not the position that the rest of Europe wishes to take,” he said. Plenty of other measures have been left untaken, as well, including sanctioning Putin himself, which Biden said he was considering. What, exactly, is the President waiting for? He did not say.
The historical record will show that Biden had strong words after the invasion, and also that this confrontation with Russia was the last thing he wanted his Presidency to be about. When Biden came into office, he and his team warned of a dangerous new era of competition between democracies and autocracies, but the autocracy they planned to focus on was China. With Russia, Biden aspired to no more than a “stable and predictable” relationship, as he put it after his early summit meeting with Putin, in Geneva last May. He and his Administration hoped to put Russia in a box, knowing that the standoff over Ukraine, which had persisted since Putin’s initial invasion, in 2014, would continue. But they lacked the political, diplomatic, or military will to try to resolve it.
Virtually all Presidents face that moment of truth when their agenda, their long list of campaign promises, falls victim to the vicissitudes of fate and the news cycle. George W. Bush had 9/11, and it transformed his priorities and his Presidency. Donald Trump had the COVID pandemic, and no amount of whining and lamenting his bad luck could stop the virus from overtaking what remained of his tenure.
Here, Biden’s record is stronger. He did not deny the Russian buildup or pretend it wasn’t happening. He did not seek to accommodate Putin. He pivoted. For the past few months, in fact, Biden and his Administration warned of the exact tragedy unfolding now, despite pushback from many European allies, from Zelensky himself, and from skeptics on both the American right and left.
The gaslighting by Republicans was particularly egregious, considering that even after the cruise missiles started flying their leader Trump was on Fox News, praising Putin and the hell he had unleashed. Trump in recent days has hailed the Russian President, who intervened in the 2016 U.S. election on Trump’s behalf, for his “genius,” and called him a shrewd, smart, savvy warrior who would get Ukraine for the price of “two dollars worth of sanctions.” “And it all happened because of a rigged election,” Trump told Fox’s Laura Ingraham, his apparent point being that his good friend Putin never would have done such a thing had he, Trump, remained in office.
Trump continues to define brazenness in a world full of hypocritical politicians. But it was hard, on this invasion day, to take seriously the demands for even tougher action against Putin from Republicans who refused to draw the line with Trump even when he blackmailed Zelensky with the very military aid that Congress had approved to fight the Russians.
From the left, meanwhile, many questioned the Biden Administration’s intelligence about the impending war—analogizing it to the pre-Iraq War misuse of intelligence by the Bush Administration—while doubting whether Putin was really the threat the government said he was. “If I had a dollar for every inane comment I heard regarding failed intelligence in Iraq, as though mistakes meant that our intel and analytical community doesn’t get things right,” Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military who has been an invaluable source of accurate open-source intelligence, wrote on Twitter. “It got this one, 100%.”
The fact that the stark warnings from the Biden Administration were right, after all, has lent this tragic week the feeling of a long slow-motion car crash, perfectly visible and nonetheless horrible.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, appearing alongside Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, announced that diplomacy with Russia had not only failed but in fact never had a chance. Putin’s “plan all along has been to invade Ukraine; to control Ukraine and its people; to destroy Ukraine’s democracy, which offers a stark contrast to the autocracy he leads; to reclaim Ukraine as a part of Russia,” Blinken said. A little more than twenty-four hours later, just before 10 p.m. Washington time, the attack had begun—a tragedy foretold and no less tragic for unfolding as expected.