Biden's GOP critics on Ukraine won't admit that a stronger response could trigger nuclear war
Republicanssay that Putin invaded Ukrainebecause Biden is weak.
- These GOP critics ignore the risk of a direct conflict between the US and
Republicans are all over the place when it comes to their reactions to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but they are largely unified behind one message: President
In the process of attacking Biden over Ukraine, Republicans have rarely said how their approach would be different. Their criticism and calls for Biden to show "strength" reflects a dangerously reductive view of the crisis. Such rhetoric implies that Biden should take the fight to Russia — an exceptionally risky course of action.
The Biden administration has been extremely clear that it's not willing to go to war with Russia over Ukraine, and there are existential reasons for this. The US and Russia are nuclear superpowers, armed with the largest arsenals in the world. They have the two most powerful militaries on the planet. A war between them would be catastrophic, with the potential to kill more people than World War II.
"These are dangerous times. Russia has a large and very usable nuclear arsenal and is now using those weapons as a shield to carry out its invasion and subjugation of Ukraine, a sovereign European state," Jon Wolfsthal, a senior advisor at Global Zero and a former National Security Council official under the Obama administration, wrote in a recent blog post. "That is why I have been reassured by President Joe Biden's clear statements that he seeks to avoid a direct conflict between American and Russian troops in Ukraine."
The fear of nuclear war is also why NATO is not getting directly involved, because it could trigger Article 5 — the alliance's principle of collective defense enshrined in its founding treaty. NATO considers an attack on one member an attack on all. If NATO countries got entangled in a war against Russia, it pulls the US into direct confrontation with it, along with other nuclear armed allies like France and the UK. Ukraine is not a NATO member, which is why the alliance is not obligated to defend it.
But these realities have not stopped Republicans from banging the war drum. "It's no surprise to anyone that Putin invaded Ukraine," Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green recently tweeted. "Biden gave him the green light by saying the US is not going to war with Russia and will remain united with and only defend its NATO member nation allies. Ukraine was not allowed to join NATO."
Biden has also taken serious steps to support Ukraine and punish Russia over this attack. He's targeted major Russian banks and oligarchs with sanctions. The US has provided Ukraine with $650 million in military assistance in the past year alone. Biden has also bolstered the US military's presence in NATO countries near Ukraine, as a show of support to the alliance and a warning to Russia not to move beyond Ukraine.
That said, it's an open question as to whether Biden's handling of this, and the sanctions he's imposed, will be effective in terms of changing Russia's behavior. But criticizing him for not going to war with Russia reflects a profound lack of understanding of how globally dangerous such a conflict could be.
The GOP's suggestion that Biden's "weakness" emboldened Putin has also come in concert with the dubious claim that this wouldn't have happened under Trump.
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who in 2018 criticized Trump for having a "hard time pushing back against Putin directly," on Wednesday told Fox
"Because you got to be strong," Graham said. "When you're weak is when everything falls apart. And Biden is weak, and Trump was strong."
Indeed, Republicans seemingly believe that they are tougher than Democrats and that Putin fears them. But Putin was fomenting a war in eastern Ukraine before Biden was in the White House — throughout Trump's presidency. He also invaded Georgia in 2008 when George W. Bush, a Republican, was still president.
Not to mention, Trump in 2019 was impeached, in part, for withholding congressionally-approved military aid from Ukraine while pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter, over baseless allegations of corruption.
It's possible that Biden's handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, which was disastrous and saw the Taliban regain control of the country, factored into Putin's decision to invade now. "From Russia's perspective, America's domestic travails after four years of Donald Trump's disastrous presidency, as well as the rifts he created with US allies and then America's precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, signal weakness," Fiona Hill, who served as the top Russia advisor on the National Security Council under the Trump administration, recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
At the same time, Putin has made his designs toward Ukraine evident for years. He invaded in 2014, annexing Crimea in the process. And he's repeatedly suggested Ukraine is not a real country, calling Ukrainians and Russians "one people."
The US is a major player in global affairs, but the world does not revolve around it. Putin's calculations are not solely based off what the US does or doesn't do. As Hill put it, "Putin plays a longer, strategic game and knows how to prevail in the tactical scrum...Putin can act as he chooses, when he chooses."
Putin's assault on Ukraine is also linked to his ambitions of restoring Russia's hegemony in Eastern Europe, where the Soviet Union once reigned supreme. The Russian president is a former KGB operative, who doesn't hide his nostalgia for the Soviet era.
Russia launched its large-scale attack against Ukraine on Thursday. This war is not even a week old, and no one can say how long it will last. It's too early to tell whether Biden's response to this attack will bring it to an end soon. Republican criticisms may make sense politically but their comments ring hollow in the face of the new front to counter a Russia bent on dominating its democratic neighbors.
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