Russia-Ukraine crisis — It's time for Biden to surprise Putin

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Flashback: Biden said if he became president, Putin’s days of intimidation would end

Then-candidate Joe Biden boasts in 2019 that he would stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from taking intimidating actions toward Eastern Europe.

Under three of the last four presidents, including now Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin has chosen to take military action against Russia’s neighbors. There has been only one exception, namely Donald Trump. 

A big part of Biden’s pitch to voters in 2020 was that he would bring a return to foreign relation norms. America would be back, the adults would be in charge, etc., etc. Well, here we are, norms and all, and yet Putin is still on the verge of an incursion into a U.S. ally, Ukraine.

President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit on July 7, 2017, in Hamburg.
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Another way of saying normal is predictable. Norms are after all a set of tried and tested approaches to a problem. For the past several months this predictability has been at the core of the Biden administration’s approach to Putin. Biden has made clear that U.S. troops will not fight in Ukraine. He has also laid out the basic parameters of sanctions he will use to punish Russia. 

As a result, Putin has a clear blueprint of the consequences of invading Ukraine, and unfortunately, he seems fine with them.

Contrast this with the foreign policy approach of Donald Trump. In January 2020, for example, Trump ordered an attack on Iranian terrorist Qasem Soleimani, which killed him. The world was shocked. Warnings flew that Trump may have just started another Middle East war or at least a greater conflict. In fact, none of that happened. Trump didn’t spend months talking about what he might do, he just did it.

There is good reason to believe that this unpredictability from Trump was a big part of the reason Putin did not engage in any invasions under his presidency. Some of Trump’s own citizens thought he was a crazy man who wasn’t afraid of nuclear war; why would Putin be any different?

It is time for Biden to talk a little less and act a little more.

Some Biden supporters have attempted to explain why Putin didn’t act aggressively under Trump by suggesting Trump was Putin’s puppet, a favorite fevered fantasy on the left. But let’s be honest, this explanation makes absolutely no sense and flies in the face of credulity. Are we really supposed to believe that Putin held off on invading Ukraine because Trump was too nice to him?

Biden’s norms-based approach is an example of cultural lag from the post-Cold War period in which much of his career took place. A hegemonic superpower, which the U.S. was, can be predictable, it can afford to show its hand since its power and influence are nearly unchecked. But with the rise of both China, and to a lesser extent, Russia, as competing powers, that rubric simply makes no sense anymore.

There were certainly downsides to Trump’s bull in a china shop approach to foreign policy. It often left allies confused, or feeling left out; it could appear random and haphazard. And yet, first in the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, where Biden obeyed all the supposedly smart people, and now in Ukraine, the results of Biden’s cool and steady, predictable course have diminished, not enhanced, America’s role as a global leader. The norms have not produced normal results.

By taking so much, especially potential military action, off the table, Biden has handed Putin a geopolitical tasting menu. The Russian dictator knows that Biden is playing by “The Rules,” while everyone knows Putin is not. 

So far, the Russian leader has satisfied himself with the appetizers of separatist-held regions of Ukraine. In response, sanctions that will hurt both Russia and the West will be enacted, as was the plan. But why should we expect that those sanctions will blunt Putin’s appetite for further conquest? And what aspect of the predictable norms will stand in his way?

It is time for Biden to talk a little less and act a little more. It is time for Biden to surprise Putin, even if that means our allies get a little nervous. Norms are all well and good if your goal is to maintain the status quo, to keep things moving in their present direction. 

But the present direction of foreign affairs is trending much better for Russia and China than it is for the West. If it isn’t time to abandon norms, it’s certainly time to adjust them. Sadly, neither Biden, nor his top officials, appear to have the courage or foresight to understand this. 

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