The Wall Street Journal says Joe Biden blundered and effectively gave Russia permission to invade the neighboring country of Ukraine, as long as he doesn’t seize more than a piece of it. Biden did that in his clumsy and ill-prepared remarks yesterday, the Journal says.
As Jazz Shaw notes,
It was definitely one of the stranger moments during an already bizarre press conference given by the President yesterday. When Joe Biden was asked what we planned to do if [Russian ruler] Vladimir Putin goes ahead with an invasion of Ukraine, his ambiguous answer could easily be interpreted in the favor of Russia. He told the press corps, “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do.”
This appeared to stun even some members of the generally docile and supportive press pool. How would President Biden define a “minor incursion” for these purposes? And who is the “we” that would be “fighting” as a result?
The Wall Street Journal pointed out that Putin could easily take Biden’s comments as an invitation to invade, as long as he doesn’t go too far into Ukraine:
Mr. Biden didn’t help deterrence at his press conference Wednesday by suggesting that a “minor incursion” by Russia might not trigger a united response from the West. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do,” Mr. Biden said. Pressed on the point, he didn’t provide any clarity on what would be “minor,” and Mr. Putin may think he now has leave to take at least some territory.
This response fits the pattern that goes back to the weak Western responses to Russia’s previous aggression. In 2009, after Russia’s invasion of Georgia the previous year, Barack Obama called for a “reset” with the Kremlin and achieved little. In 2014 Mr. Obama and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia, but they were too weak to make much difference.
The Biden Administration is now promising “massive consequences” if Russia invades again, but why should Mr. Putin believe it? The U.S. has ruled out any direct U.S. military defense of Ukraine, so Mr. Putin knows he needn’t worry about that. But the U.S. has also failed to raise the costs of a Russian invasion by adequately arming Kyiv.
If the United States is supposed to be taking the lead in finding a peaceful resolution to this standoff, with our NATO and other European allies following our lead, everyone is pretty much in the dark at this point. Biden’s response to that question clearly implies that there is some level of incursion into Ukraine by Russia that wouldn’t be met with “massive consequences” and he anticipates infighting between our allies as to what to do about it. Why would anyone in Europe stick their necks out to defend Ukraine if the United States might not have their back?
Also, it’s unclear what Biden meant by a “minor incursion.” How is anyone supposed to define that? Does he feel that it’s okay for Russian tanks to roll over the border and seize some territory provide they don’t take “too much” of Ukraine’s land?….
Our reputation as a military power took a serious beating after the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. We left both our allies and our adversaries with the impression that we were retreating back to our own borders and wouldn’t be engaging enemies who become militarily aggressive. Joe Biden doubled down on that image when he essentially took a military response in the defense of Ukraine off the table, saying that we would only respond with economic sanctions. (The Russians are currently laughing at our sanction threats.)
If the U.S. lacks realistic options, Biden should keep his mouth shut, not effectively invite an invasion. A prudent leader knows when to keep his mouth shut.
But sometimes, U.S. officials do that, the way U.S. officials inadvertently led Iraq to think the U.S. would not retaliate if Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the way a Secretary of State’s speech in 1950 left the Russians with the false impression the U.S. might not do much if North Korea invaded South Korea (although North Korea probably would have invaded South Korea anyway, according to historians).