Biden The Cautious, Pt. 1- POLITICO
With help from Alex Thompson and Ryan Heath
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What we’re seeing from President JOE BIDEN, three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is how a non-militarist aims to defend the democratic world.
Biden has repeatedly said U.S. troops won’t set foot inside Ukraine and his team insists a NATO-enforced no-fly zone would incur more risk than reward. Biden couldn’t be clearer about why he’s pursuing a more cautious approach: “If we respond, it is World War Three,” he told House Democrats last week. “We will not fight the third World War in Ukraine.”
The president’s thinking is straightforward: Any move that increases the risk of the U.S. and Russia — the world’s two foremost nuclear powers — directly fighting each other could escalate into a much broader fight. Keeping Washington-Moscow tensions as low as possible, while overtly and covertly providing Ukraine with lethal weapons, is as far as he’ll go (for now, at least).
“The administration has a tight rope to walk—support Ukraine, keep the coalition (NATO/EU) together, and not provoke a mercurial Putin, knowing the Russian threshold for using nuclear weapons is lower,” JAMES CLAPPER, the former director of national intelligence, texted NatSec Daily.
Fourteen months into his presidency, how Biden has handled the crisis serves as a capstone to his national security leadership thus far. “He’s not averse to using military force, but he’s much more selective about it,” said KYLE HAYNES, a professor of U.S. foreign policy and conflict at Purdue University. “There’s clearly a higher bar.”
Biden has backed a plus-up in defense spending, authorized a raid to kill ISIS’ leader, ordered airstrikes on facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria — and has sent thousands of U.S. troops to NATO’s eastern front to deter further aggression from Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN. “The United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power,” Biden said last month, indicating that protecting the alliance is a core national interest.
But Biden reaches for the military option when both the chance of escalation and the threat to America’s interests are low. If there’s a risk of drawing Americans deeper into a conflict or starting a new one over an issue that isn’t a central concern of U.S. foreign policy, he backs off.
The greatest example, of course, was his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. In explaining his rationale in August, Biden said his choices were either ripping up a deal former President DONALD TRUMP made with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces by May 1, 2021, “or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict.”
Biden has shown similar caution when it comes to Russia. Ahead of the Biden-Putin summit in June, the White House had the Pentagon delay a hypersonic missile test. The White House also scrapped a Pentagon push to send a “few hundred” trainers into Ukraine in December, months before the war. And most recently, the president agreed with the Defense Department and intelligence community that giving European fighter jets to Ukraine wouldn’t help Kyiv so much while spiking tensions with Russia.
Biden has also overseen a dramatic drop in airstrikes since he entered the Oval Office. Per Airwars, a group that tracks bombings around the world, the U.S. struck targets 439 times during Biden’s first year compared to 951 times in Trump’s last — a stunning 54 percent decrease. Furthermore, the U.S. has nearly ceased strikes in Iraq and Syria in the president’s first year, aided mainly by the military defeat of ISIS during the Trump administration.
There are many more examples of Biden’s deprioritization of military means — the preference for sanctioning perpetrators of successful coups, the emphasis on diplomacy with North Korea and the quiet push for allies to protect themselves — we could go into. But the main point is that a lawmaker who didn’t shy away from large-scale military adventures during his five-decade political career is now loath to consider them as president.
People close to Biden, in and out of government, have long told NatSec Daily that he comes into the Situation Room typically skeptical of military options. It takes a lot to convince him that they’re worth executing, though the more limited the operation, the more likely he is to consider it.
The president still faces some criticism for this stance, even from allies. Clapper said the U.S. “should be a little bolder in providing weapons/support to Ukraine,” specifically citing Poland’s MiG-29s the administration doesn’t want to see transferred to Kyiv “or any other weapon system that the Ukrainians can quickly use.”
“The concern seems to be that giving the Ukrainians the MiGs would be provocative and not useful,” Clapper continued, “but we’ve given them thousands of Stingers and Javelins which are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers—which would seem to violate Putin’s ‘red line’ already.”
But Biden wasn’t always so selective about military use. The transformation happened slowly over the past two decades. How did this happen? For that part, you’ll have to read today’s West Wing Playbook. If you’re not subscribed, do so here.
Over to you, ALEX THOMPSON.
SITUATION REPORT: We will only cite official sources. As always, take all figures, assessments and statements with a healthy dose of skepticism.
War in Ukraine:
— Since the war began on Feb. 24, Russia has lost more than 13,500 personnel, as well as 404 tanks, 1,279 armored combat vehicles, 150 artillery systems, 81 aircraft, 95 helicopters, 640 vehicles, three ships, and nine drones (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— Russia spent most of the day “focused … on replenishing current losses, recruiting mercenaries from other countries, solving problems of” logistics (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— “Reporting suggests that Russia may seek to stage a ‘referendum’ in Kherson in an attempt to legitimise the area as a ‘breakaway republic’ similar to Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea” (U.K. Ministry of Defense)
— ”We continue to assess limited to no progress by Russian ground forces in achieving their objectives” (Senior U.S. defense official)
— “The Russians have approximately 90% of their combat power available to them; same for the Ukrainians” (Senior U.S. defense official)
— U.S.: The Biden administration sanctioned Belarussian President ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO and barred him, his wife and their children from entry into the U.S. America also sanctioned 11 senior Russian officials. (U.S. Treasury Department)
— Russia: Russia banned President JOE BIDEN and 12 other U.S. officials from entering Russia. The list includes Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN, HILLARY CLINTON and HUNTER BIDEN. Canada was also targeted, with Prime Minister JUSTIN TRUDEAU and 312 other Canadians placed on the black list. (Russian Foreign Ministry / Russian Foreign Ministry)
HOW KYIV STILL STANDS: Three weeks into the war, the Russians are closing in on Kyiv — but they’re still far from the city center and don’t look poised to capture the Ukrainian capital any time soon.
The Washington Post’s SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN has a brilliant piece explaining why. “For the Ukrainian forces, this war is one of attrition. They appear to be trying to slow and wear down the Russian military, creating conditions for a stalemate on the outer boundaries of Kyiv. That would buy the Ukrainians time for other pressures on Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Raghavan reported. “In interviews, Ukrainian soldiers also said they capitalize on the Russians’ own flaws, including the use of predictable strategies, a lack of knowledge of local terrain and even a surprising unpreparedness for a grinding conflict.”
“So far, Ukraine’s defenders have blocked Russia’s primary effort: encircle and seize the capital, using the airfield in Hostomel as an air bridge for more tanks, armored vehicles and other weaponry. Ukrainian forces have shot down several Russian helicopters and so far have prevented a major Russian armored column from pressing into the capital. Meanwhile, a solid air-defense system has been mobilized against airstrikes and missile attacks,” Raghavan continued.
Experts told the Post that Russia failed to prepare for a guerrilla-style war or even a fight that would take a long time to win — the same thing NatSec Daily has been hearing. Basically, Moscow is suffering a toxic mix of failing to plan and effective Ukrainian tactics.
But: “[M]ost military analysts and Western officials still predict that Russian forces will eventually encircle Kyiv and push into the capital, possibly aided by airstrikes. While this could prove true, it’s far from clear whether Russia will prevail.”
FOREIGN FIGHTERS AWAIT WEAPONS: Many foreigners who trudged their way to Ukraine sit impatiently waiting for weapons to fight Russia.
“Pure hell: fire, shouting, panic. And a lot more bombs and missiles,” Swedish volunteer JESPER SÖDER told the Associated Press’ SUSIDE BLANN and ELAINE GANLEY.
Söder — who led his ragtag group of Swedes, Brits and Americans across the border into Poland after Russia fired on Yavoriv — “said he didn’t know how many foreign volunteers were being trained at the base but estimated they were in the hundreds. Unlike Söder, who fought alongside Kurdish fighters in Syria against Islamic State group militants, many of the volunteers at Yavoriv had no previous military training, he said.”
The problem, per the AP, is that foreign fighters quickly “discover that there are no weapons, protective gear or proper training in a multilingual force short on organization and breeding a sense of chaos.”
“It’s chaotic right now. It’s disorganized, and you can get yourself in trouble very quickly if you’re not with a sensible switched-on group of people,” said MATTHEW ROBINSON, a British man ready to fight for Ukraine.
‘NO EASY SOLUTION’: European Commission Vice President MAROŠ ŠEFČOVIČ told POLITICO’s RYAN HEATH about the EU’s plans for common gas purchases, but admitted it will take months rather than weeks for the bloc to significantly reduce its reliance on Russian oil and gas (running at $700 million per day, according to the Ukrainian government). “There’s definitely no easy solution,” Šefčovič said.
“We are already starting to buy the gas to make sure that our gas storage is filled to 90 percent before the next winter starts,” he said. While “Europeans are ready to take on the big part of the (financial) pain,” per Šefčovič, even the best case scenario sees the EU reducing Russian gas purchases by two-thirds by end of year. Šefčovič admitted the EU was only able to keep the lights and heating on this winter via “a lot of swap operations taking place during December and January” with the U.S., Japan and South Korea — even with Russian gas freely available.
EU message to American companies: “We need more” LNG and “we are ready to work with you.” The EU is also working with Azerbaijan, Norway and governments in North Africa.
Get ready for EU-coordinated gas purchases: The move is inspired by the EU’s collective Covid vaccine response, and will see a heavy hand from the EU executive in Brussels. “We have to show the purchasing power of Europe, to show the financial muscle is there … that we just made this systemic and strategic shift that we want to have the gas from suppliers that are not attacking the neighbors. The European Commission will have a huge responsibility of coordinating these efforts of member states, of the key gas and energy companies,” Šefčovič said.
On Ukraine’s EU membership — first stop the bloodshed: A native of Slovakia, Šefčovič sees the war as a 360 degree wake-up call to Central and Eastern European countries who have long been skeptical of Moscow, but also of Brussels. “We should all be on alert, and be very united and very clear” that “we are not talking about Donetsk, we’re talking about the complete reset of the peaceful world order,” if Putin is allowed to get away with seizing Ukraine.
‘PLEASE STOP THE BOMBING’: A day before his address to America’s Congress, Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY made an impassioned plea for more assistance from the West in an address to Canadian leaders, per our own ANDY BLATCHFORD.
“It’s their attempt to annihilate Ukrainian people and there is nothing else to it,” Zelenskyy said in an 11-minute virtual address to hundreds of Canadian lawmakers who packed the House of Commons. “It’s an attempt to destroy everything that we as Ukrainians do. It’s an attempt to destroy our future, to destroy our nation, our character.”
“Close the airspace, please stop the bombing — how many more cruise missiles have to fall on our cities until you make this happen?” Zelenskyy continued. “When we talk with our partners … they say please hold on a little longer.”
If this was a test run before the U.S. speech tomorrow, the administration will have to directly respond to the Ukrainian’s message to Washington for more help.
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‘STOP THE WAR’ TV PROTESTER FINED: MARINA OVSYANNIKOVA, a TV producer who crashed the set of the state-run flagship Channel One evening news show chanting “stop the war,” was fined $280 and found guilty of organizing an illegal protest, the Washington Post’s MARY ILYUSHINA, ADELA SULIMAN and MAITE FERNÁNDEZ SIMON.
The fear is Russia will punish Ovsyannikova further for her defiance that captured the world’s attention. The Russian Investigative Committee, the country’s main government investigative body, started “a pre-investigation check” into her actions and DMITRY PESKOV, Putin’s spokesperson, said what the producer did amounted to “hooliganism.”
Ovsyannikova was certainly aware what fate awaited her, seeing as Russian authorities have detained 14,000 people protesting in roughly 140 cities across the country. Any dissent against the war or government meets swift dissent. She was seen with her lawyer following her detention.
But before appearing on TV with her protest sign, Ovsyannikova recorded a video explaining why she took action. “Unfortunately, I have been working at Channel One during recent years, working on Kremlin propaganda,” she said, per the Post. “And now I am very ashamed. I am ashamed that I’ve allowed the lies to be said on the TV screens. I am ashamed that I let the Russian people be zombified.”
BANKS FEAR SWIFT CYBERTHREAT: After disconnecting key Russian banks from SWIFT, the global payments messaging system, big banks fear Moscow will take an attitude that if Russia can’t use it, no one can.
“Senior executives responsible for cyber security at several banks told the Financial Times that the threat to Swift, which enables banks to send trillions in payments across borders every day, could escalate if more [of] Russia’s lenders are expelled from the system,” wrote the FT’s OWEN WALKER and IMANI MOISE. “The executives are concerned that Swift could be a more attractive target than individual banks as it is a pinch point in the global financial network.”
“Banks seem to be comfortable with their own cyber security levels, but a hit to Swift would be very detrimental to the whole banking system,” an unnamed financial regulator told the FT. “During warfare, it’s the most effective place to hit — it’s the nucleus of the global banking system, the node that connects everything,” a senior bank executive added.
Kremlin-tied hackers haven’t yet targeted SWIFT, preferring instead to focus their attention on Ukraine’s government and infrastructure. That could be because Russia’s biggest bank — Sberbank — remains on the system, as is Gazprombank. But should they get kicked off, Moscow may have little to lose, and a lot to gain, by targeting the messaging system.
WHAT $6.5B FOR UKRAINE BUYS: Pentagon spokesperson CHRISTOPHER SHERWOOD told reporters in an email today what the $6.5 billion the Defense Department will receive to help Ukraine actually buys.
“The $6.5 billion budget includes operations mission support, the deployment of personnel, and intelligence support in the U.S. European Command area of responsibility. Of the $6.5 billion, $3.5 billion is for replenishment of U.S. stocks for equipment sent to Ukraine through drawdown,” he wrote.
As for equipment DOD might “consider” sending Ukraine, Sherwood identified: anti-air capability, anti-armor capability, small arms and ammunition, tactical gear, meals ready to eat and military medical (think first-aid kits).
BIPARTISAN LETTER TO BOOST SOMALILAND TIES: Nine House members — eight Republicans, and one Democrat — wrote to SecState Blinken to push the administration to improve relations with Somaliland, the semi-autonomous nation that forms part of Somalia.
“Somaliland’s geo-strategic location on the Gulf of Aden, consistent support for democracy, cooperation on countering terrorism, piracy, and other security threats in the region, relations with Taiwan, and growing economic potential warrants that the United States explore additional opportunities to partner with Somaliland,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Rep. MICHAEL McCAUL (R-Texas), the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Republican, and Rep. CHRIS SMITH (R-N.J.). Rep. TOM MALINOWSKI (D-N.J.) is the lone Democratic signee.
“This is another example of Congress leading on the issue of Somalia and Somaliland. American policy towards Somalia is broken: we elevate the corrupt, anti-democratic, and feckless government in Mogadishu at the cost of Somaliland’s government that has been functionally independent for three decades and which presides over a relatively peaceful, democratic, and pro-American society. I’m glad that leaders in Congress recognize this reality and are trying to get our failed policy to a better place,” JOSHUA MESERRVEY, a senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at The Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., told NatSec Daily
During a Monday event at Heritage, Somaliland leader MUSE BIHI ABDI asked the world to recognize his nation’s independence. “The international community has a moral obligation to support Somaliland’s pursuit of international recognition,” he said.
Our own PHELIM KINE did a deep dive on how Somaliland has Congress’ ear.
CASE FOR A NO-FLY ZONE: TOM ENDERS, the former Airbus CEO and current president of the German Council on Foreign Relations, made the case in POLITICO for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over western Ukraine.
“Such a move would be both tactically and operationally feasible from air bases in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania — where existing forces could be reinforced by units from other NATO partners, including the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany, which already has Eurofighters stationed in Romania,” he wrote. “In addition, Patriot and French SAMP/T air-to-surface defense system batteries stationed near the border could cover large portions of western Ukrainian airspace. Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and, of course, the U.S. have Patriot systems, which have effective missile ranges of more than 100 kilometers.”
“Establishing such a no-fly zone over western Ukraine is not just feasible; it is necessary. It is time for the West to expose Putin’s nuclear threats for what they really are — a bluff to deter Western governments from military intervention,” he continued.
Enders has revived an idea that keeps popping up but for now has no traction within the Biden administration. JULIANNE SMITH, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, today told reporters how Russia’s struck Yavoriv in western Ukraine with an air-launched missile from a bomber flying in Russian airspace. It’s hard to see how a no-fly zone could really protect against that, she said.
But Enders isn’t the only one making this kind of case — which continually puts pressure on Biden administration officials to respond to the suggestion.
— KAVEH FARZAD has joined Finsbury Glover Hering (formerly the Glover Park Group) as director of international affairs. He was previously an international relations specialist in the U.S. Department of Energy.
— LAURA KIEFER started at the Nuclear Threat Initiative as director of operations. She first joined NTI as a receptionist in 2013.
— LEE HSI-MIN and MICHAEL A. HUNZEKER,War on the Rocks: “The View of Ukraine from Taiwan: Get Real About Territorial Defense”
— STEPHEN KALIN and SUMMER SAID, The Wall Street Journal: “Saudi Arabia Invites China’s Xi to Visit Kingdom Amid Strained U.S. Relations”
— JANAKI CHADHA, POLITICO: “‘No shortcuts in the rule of law’: The lengthy process behind seizing Russian real estate”
— The Government Executive Media Group’s Federal Computer Week, 8:30 a.m.: “Cybersecurity Summit — with CHRIS DERUSHA, STEVEN HERNANDEZ, ROBERT WOOD and more”
— The East-West Center in Washington, 9:00 a.m.: “U.S Commitment to Southeast Asia in the Indo-Pacific Shadow: Outlook Under Biden and Beyond — with PRASHANTH PARAMESWARAN and SATU LIMAYE”
— Joint Session of Congress, 9:00 a.m.: “Virtual Address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy”
— The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 9:30 a.m.: “The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression — with GIEDRIMAS JEGLINSKAS, JANIS GARISONS, MARK MONTGOMERY and more”
— The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, 10:00 a.m.: “Veteran Health Transition Training Act and other pending legislation — with STEVE BERG, JUSTIN HAUSCHILD, BRIANNE OGILVIE and more”
— The House Foreign Affairs Committee, 10:00 a.m.: “Early Signs of War Crimes and Human Rights Abuses Committed by the Russian Military During the Full-Scale Invasion of Ukraine — with ANTHONY CLARK AREND, MARC GARLASCO, BONNIE DOCHERTY and more”
— The House Judiciary Committee, 10:00 a.m.: “Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2021, Virgin Islands Visa Waiver Act of 2021 and amending title 36 to establish the composition known as ‘Life Every Voice and Sing’ as the national hymn of the United States”
— The Middle East Institute, 10:00 a.m.: “A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Saudi Struggle for Iraq — with KITTY HARVEY and GERALD M. FEIERSTEIN”
— The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, 10:05 a.m.: “Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Examining the Threat to Houses of Worship and Public Spaces — with MARCUS COLEMAN, CHRISTOPHER LOGAN, STEPHANIE DOBITSCH and more”
— The House Appropriations Committee, 10:30 a.m.: “United States Central Command (CLOSED) — with KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.”
— The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, 10:30 a.m.: “Bioenergy Research and Development for the Fuels and Chemicals of Tomorrow — with LAUREL HARMON, ERIC HEGG, JONATHAN MALE and more”
— Commerce Department; Bureau of Industry and Security, 11:30 a.m.: “Transportation and Related Equipment Technical Advisory Committee discuss status reports”
— The Organization of Iranian American Communities, 11:30 a.m.: “IRAN: The Nation Rises for Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights — with JOSEPH LIEBERMAN, ANN KELLY AYOTTE, JAMES L. JONES and more”
— The Atlantic Council, 12:00 p.m.: “China Standards 2035, data privacy and international technology standardization — with ASHEESH AGARWAL, PAM DIXON JANE K. WINN and more”
— The Brookings Institution, 1:00 p.m.: “How can democracies harness technology to promote inclusive economic growth and development? — with JOHN R. ALLEN, CHRIS BURNS, HANNES ASTOK and more”
— The Jewish Institute for National Security of America, 1:00 p.m.: “The Uncertain Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal — with STEVE RADEMAKER, JOHN HANNAH, GABRIEL NORONHA and more”
— Washington Post Live, 1:30 p.m.: “Latest developments in Ukraine, how Russia’s actions influence the future of warfare and how the conflict will impact future potential engagement with adversaries such as China — with DAVID H. BERGER”
— The House Armed Services Committee, 2:00 p.m.: “Energy, Installations, and Environment Program Update — with MEREDITH BERGER, PAUL CRAMER, PAUL FARNAN and more”
— The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, 2:00 p.m.: “Veterans Emergency Care Reimbursement Act of 2021 and other pending legislation”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2:00 p.m.: “NATO On The Line: The Views of Four Former SACEURs (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) — with JOSEPH RALSTON, WESLEY CLARK, JAMES JONES and PHILIP BREEDLOVE”
— POLITICO Live, 2:30 p.m.: “Recast Power List — with TIMNIT GEBRU and ALEX PADILLA”
— House Foreign Affairs Committee, 3:00 p.m.: “11 Years of War: The Humanitarian Impact of the Ongoing Conflict in Syria — with HARDIN LANG, JOMANA QADDOUR, NIRVANA SHAWKY and more”
— The Heritage Foundation, 3:00 p.m.: “2022 B.C. Lee Lecture — with MIKE POMPEO”
— The Senate Armed Services Committee, 3:00 p.m.: “Health effects of exposure to airborne hazards including toxic fumes from burn pits — with STEVEN PATTERSON, ADAM NEWELL, ROSIE TORRES and more”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 3:30 p.m.: “Agriculture and Food Security: Casualties of the War in Ukraine — with JOE GLAUBER, BETH BECHDOL and DOZBA TARAS”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to our editor, John Yearwood, who isn’t cautious at all about choosing the most aggressive editing options.
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