Biden talks tough on Putin, but European allies are less ready for a fight

“President Joe Biden has warned Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that his country will face severe sanctions if it once again attacks Ukraine. A key question looms, however: Will European countries really go along with serious penalties on Moscow?

On the surface, Europe appears willing. European Union officials and national leaders from across the continent have promised huge economic penalties against Moscow for any new military incursion into Ukraine, in lockstep with their American partners.”

“While much of Eastern Europe — especially Poland and the Baltic states — is on high alert, the issue is nowhere near the top of the political agenda across most of the rest of the continent, where battling the pandemic and its economic fallout remains the priority. In Brussels, EU officials are more focused on why they don’t have a seat at the table for the Jan. 10 talks between U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva than what’s happening along the Russia-Ukraine border. Some countries are reluctant to undermine their business links with Russia; that includes Germany, which relies on Russian natural gas and has backed the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.”

“Putin has amassed tens of thousands of troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine. If he orders his military forces to stage another land invasion, it will make it hard for most European countries to go easy on him. But if he takes steps that undermine Ukraine short of an invasion — cyber attacks, for instance, or incursions by mercenaries — that could complicate talks between Europe and the United States about how to react.”

“Another complicating factor for the Europeans is uncertainty about how long the tough U.S. stance on Russia will last, especially if Donald Trump returns to the White House after 2024. Although Trump’s administration imposed plenty of sanctions on Russia, Trump himself regularly sought better relations with Putin. Many European officials even question whether Trump would come to Europe’s aid if Russia were to attack a NATO ally, such as one of the Baltic states.

“If Trump wins the next election, we’re on our own,” one European official said. “And then what?”

Such concerns aside, some European leaders have at times given Putin the benefit of the doubt. In the wake of Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine in 2014, European powers, led by Germany, refused for months to bow to U.S. pressure to endorse sanctions against Moscow. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was particularly worried about the effect such a move would have on Germany’s substantial trade relationship with Russia.

Merkel insisted for months on fruitless dialogue with Putin in the wake of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea even as Moscow-supported separatists escalated the war in eastern Ukraine. President Barack Obama tried to win Merkel over when she visited the White House in May of 2014 — to no avail. It took the downing, several weeks later, of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with 298 people on board for Berlin to agree with U.S. demands to impose sanctions.”

“The U.S. could impose new or additional sanctions on Russian banks and energy firms. There also are potential targets in Russia’s mining, metals and shipping sectors, according to former officials who deal with sanctions. Another option is cutting Russia off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a critical global network for exchanging financial information. That would be a particularly tough move against Russia’s finance sector, though Russian analysts and others have downplayed the seriousness and note the country is developing an alternative.

The trick is to calibrate the sanctions in a way that doesn’t rebound in too harsh a way on the European economy or, in the longer run, the U.S. economy.

European leaders for now appear intent on deescalating the crisis with Russia, even if it means mollifying Putin with concessions. Just before Christmas, for instance, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said it would be “false to link Russia’s behavior in the conflict with Ukraine with the operation” of the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline. That was taken as a signal that Austria would not support any punitive action toward Russia beyond the cosmetic.”

“Biden and his aides have stressed that they are keeping European allies and Ukraine in the loop as the U.S. talks to Russia. Biden’s top aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, have been in touch with a range of foreign officials to discuss the Ukraine crisis, and U.S. officials will be in Brussels during the next week for a series of meetings at NATO HQ, including a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Jan. 12.

At this stage, however, the administration, like its European allies, is avoiding mentioning details about sanctions possibilities or new weapons shipments it says amount to negotiating in the open.

“We won’t telegraph the specifics publicly, but there is broad consensus between Washington and key allies and partners in Europe on the need for a high impact, quick action response” to Russian aggression, the U.S. official said.”

With Russian guns pointed at Ukraine, West and Moscow dive into talks

“Putin will not discuss his invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, which the West still views as a violation of international law that must be reversed. Putin also has never admitted, and won’t concede now, that active-duty Russian military personnel are operating in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, despite ample evidence to the contrary, including a recent Russian court ruling that discussed contracts for supplying food to Russian forces.

The U.S. and its NATO allies, meanwhile, have already said they will not accede to Russia’s demands that the U.S. remove troops and weapons from Eastern European countries that joined the alliance after 1997. They have already rejected a demand for the removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Europe, and also flatly ruled out Moscow’s demand for a guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia will never join NATO.”

“U.S. officials have identified just two areas in which they see the potential for fruitful discussions: on curtailing missile deployments and on scaling back military exercises.

Russia has long complained about existing U.S. “Aegis Ashore” missile defense capabilities based in southern Romania and has recently voiced concerns that Washington would seek to base missiles in Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO have previously dismissed the concerns about the missile interceptors in Deveselu, Romania, saying they were installed to protect against threats from Iran or elsewhere outside the Euro-Atlantic area. A second Aegis Ashore installation in the town of Redzikowo, in northern Poland, is nearly complete and projected to be operational by the end of this year.

The Poland site, not far from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, is likely of even greater concern to the Kremlin.”

“Given the inevitably high cost to Russia of an invasion of Ukraine — in casualties, which could run to the tens of thousands, and in economic and political sanctions imposed by the West — there is some hope in Western capitals that Putin might be willing to back off his threats in favor of negotiations that keep Russia at the center of the geopolitical stage.”

“Blinken said he saw limited opportunity for major advancements”

“While Moscow clearly prefers to speak directly to Washington, which it views as pulling puppet strings at NATO, in recent days, Blinken and other U.S. officials have stressed repeatedly that they will not allow Russia to use the bilateral talks in Geneva to make decisions that impact European allies or for that matter, Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.”

“If Russia has a gun to Ukraine’s head, the West, in its way, has sought to point its own soft-power weaponry back at Moscow — reiterating repeatedly that there will be high-impact economic sanctions. These likely included measures intended to cut Russia’s access to the global financial system.

A fourth EU diplomat said the West would go further than ever before to target not just wealthy Russian figures closely connected to Putin, but also their families — in an effort to severely limit travel to Europe, where Russians often love to spend holidays and shop. While such sanctions might be difficult to defend in court, the diplomat said EU officials were prepared to make the process of fighting the levies as lengthy and difficult as possible.”

‘Trust was gone’: Former Afghan official recounts his government’s collapse

“Afghanistan’s government lost trust in the United States because of the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban and the Biden administration’s insistence on withdrawing its forces, a former Afghan official said Sunday in describing his government’s collapse earlier this year.”

“Mohib told Brennan the decision was made to leave when it became clear that the military had largely melted away and the police had not shown up for work. “We had to make a decision that was right for Afghanistan,” Mohib said.
For his part, Mohib said the Afghan government expected more from the United States, but that his country was betrayed by the U.S. government negotiating with the Taliban independently.

“What happened was the rug was pulled under the Afghans’ feet,” he said, adding: “The decision to talk directly and engage the Taliban and make a deal with the Taliban that didn’t include the Afghan government was protested.””

A Big, Dumb Machine

“It is common to chalk up America’s failures in Afghanistan to incompetence, ignorance, or stupidity. Yet The Afghanistan Papers, by The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, shows an American government that, although it had no idea what it was doing when it came to building a democracy in Afghanistan, did an excellent job manipulating the public, avoiding any consequences for its failures, and protecting its bureaucratic and financial interests. The problem was a broken system, not a generalized incompetence.

In 2016, Whitlock received a tip that the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) had interviewed hundreds of participants in the war, including top American and Afghan officials, military leaders, and outside consultants. When the paper tried to get its hands on the results, SIGAR fought it every step of the way; it took a three-year legal battle to get the documents. The Post then published them on its website—along with some related items, such as memos from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—and those formed the basis of this book.

Ultimate responsibility must start on top. No matter what he told himself, President George W. Bush acted as a man who simply didn’t much care what happened to Afghanistan beyond how it influenced his political fortunes. One of Rumsfeld’s memos notes that in October 2002, Bush was asked whether he’d like to meet with Gen. Dan McNeil. The president asked who that was, and Rumsfeld answered that he was the man leading the war in Afghanistan. Bush responded that he didn’t need to see him. The president was presumably preoccupied with the Iraq war he would launch five months later. (That is, he was preoccupied with selling the war. He didn’t really think much about what the U.S. would be doing in that country either.)

The bureaucracy beneath the president comes across as a big dumb machine that was unclear about what it ultimately wanted, and whose different limbs sometimes worked at cross purposes. Many parts of that machine were extremely aware of how hopeless the mission was. As Gen. McNeil said, “There was no campaign plan. It just wasn’t there.” The British general who headed NATO forces in the country from 2006 to 2007 similarly remarked that “there was no coherent long-term strategy.” American military personnel would be sent to Afghanistan on more than one occasion over the two decades of conflict and, in Whitlock’s words, “the war made less sense each time they went back.”

To fight the Taliban, the U.S. empowered brutal warlords, who would often rape and terrorize the local populations. One of the most prominent of these, Abdul Rashid Dostum, was such a destructive force that one American diplomat offered to make him the executive producer of a movie just to get him out of the country. At the same time, the CIA was paying him $70,000 a month. Whitlock’s account includes an endless number of similar stories, in which one part of the American government was doing things that completely negated the actions of others. Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living documented this on the ground, showing how the same individual might be an ally to the CIA and an enemy to the military, and how ultimately this hurt the Afghan people more than anyone else.

As of 2006, Afghanistan had one successful industry: growing up to 90 percent of the world’s opium. Under pressure from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and members of Congress, and over the objections of the military, the Bush administration decided to start destroying those crops. This only fueled the insurgency, even as opium production increased. When the U.S. tried paying farmers not to grow opium, more had an incentive to start planting the crop—and many of them still sold the harvest on the open market anyway after taking American money. According to one official, “urging Karzai to mount an effective counternarcotics campaign was like asking an American president to halt all U.S. economic activity west of the Mississippi.””

“Each part of the American war machine had its own mission, and was going to do what it did regardless of the facts on the ground. The DEA wanted to destroy opium, the human rights bureaucracy pushed women’s rights, and the military wanted to keep the war going. Nobody was there to force these disparate parts to work towards a common goal in a way that made sense. Theoretically, the president should have done so, but the American system clearly rewards political competence more than it does the ability to build stable democracies on the other side of the world. Often extremely self-aware, American officials were not as stupid or incompetent as they were self-interested cogs in a system filled with misaligned incentives.”

“The transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump shows how flexible the Pentagon could be to keep the war going. When working for the former law professor, the generals used more rhetoric about human rights and became experts at manipulating statistics to show how they supposedly were making people’s lives better. Under Trump, they realized that they could maintain his support for the war by talking of victory and killing bad guys. In both cases, the generals successfully resisted a president who was skeptical about their mission. The military seemed relatively indifferent to whether it was spending its time building girls’ schools or undertaking a more expansive bombing campaign, as long as it could keep the war going. Joe Biden watched the generals box in Obama, and he came into the White House determined not to be similarly manipulated.”

U.S. Drone Strikes Plunge Under Biden

“Airwars, an independent nonprofit that tracks strikes and casualties in conflict areas like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, provides regular assessments of civilian deaths. And in their latest data which spans the first year of Biden’s presidency, civilian deaths and strikes plunged in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

The differences are striking, even keeping in mind we’re comparing just one year of Biden’s presidency with four years of President Donald Trump and eight years of President Barack Obama.

During the length of Trump’s four-year presidency, Airwars documented more than 16,000 air and artillery military strikes in Iraq and Syria, which itself was a decline of more than 1,500 strikes when compared to Obama’s second term. During Biden’s first year, there have been 39 total military strikes spread between both countries.

Alleged civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria skyrocketed under Trump’s four years in office to more than 13,000 compared to 5,600 during Obama’s second term. Thus far, Airwars reports only 10 under the Biden administration. There have been no reported civilian deaths in Somalia thus far during Biden’s term, compared to 134 under Trump and 42 under Obama over both of his terms. Strikes in Yemen, which had declined each year throughout Trump’s administration, have dropped to just four this year (Airwars did not provide civilian deaths for Yemen).

This follows reporting earlier this year that Biden had quietly imposed restrictions on the use of drone strikes outside of active war zones. Trump had eased restrictions and allowed the military and CIA to decide when to strike, thus explaining the dramatic increase in strikes and civilian deaths in Somalia during his term. Biden is now requiring the White House to vet and approve these strikes, for now, until the administration sets up new formal policies (about which we know very little, but observers hope will require more procedures to ensure that civilians aren’t killed).”

Around 28,000 Afghans Are Still Awaiting Approval To Come to the U.S. on Urgent Humanitarian Grounds

“Many people seeking an escape from Afghanistan do not qualify for the pathways available to Afghans who served the U.S. military effort in some capacity. Women and girls, human rights workers, journalists, judges, and others must now look instead to a little-used tool of the U.S. immigration system called “humanitarian parole.”

This measure, outlined by the Immigration and Nationality Act, allows certain individuals to enter the U.S. for a temporary period under the discretion of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), on the basis of “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.” There is no defined set of criteria as to who may qualify for parole, and anyone may apply for it.

Though humanitarian parole allows for faster processing of applicants, it still involves robust vetting. For Afghans, that has meant biometric screenings, cross-checking with intelligence agency watchlists, and other security and identity verification steps. Senior government officials must approve individual applications.

Since July, more than 28,000 Afghans have applied for entry to the U.S. on humanitarian grounds, and the Biden administration reportedly plans to use parole to evacuate up to 50,000 Afghans. But only about 100 applicants have been approved so far.

In large part, this is because this year’s application volume dwarfs the 2,000 parole applications USCIS would receive in a typical year. Staffing issues are also a factor.”

“Applying for parole carries a steep $575 filing charge as well—and an application is no guarantee of protection. USCIS has received roughly $11.5 million from Afghans in just the past few months, according to Al Jazeera, but it has approved few applications in that time.”

History Shows That Biden Is Handling Putin the Right Way

“In all three of the previous crises, the U.S. and its allies concluded that the territory in question was not vital. In Georgia and Ukraine, the U.S. did not have the military capability to engage Russia directly and made clear to partners it would not enter the conflict. In Syria, Washington was unwilling to continue supporting the opposition to Bashar Assad in the face of Russian military action, focusing more on de-escalation including a military hotline to Russian forces. These moves assured Putin that the geopolitical outcome he feared was not forthcoming, discouraging him from upping the ante.”

“At the same time, the U.S. took military steps to limit Russian success, hedge against further aggression or signal determination. The riskiest move was President George W. Bush’s order to airlift a whole Georgian brigade from Iraq to Tbilisi in 2008, while sending U.S. naval assets to the Black Sea. In 2014, the U.S. and NATO initially provided Ukraine with non-lethal military aid, but gradually expanded that to include lethal defensive systems, training and small rotational deployments. In Syria after 2015, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition indirectly put military pressure on Assad while avoiding confrontation with Russian troops.

In each case, the U.S. signaled that “no military solution” was not an absolute, underlining that although the U.S. did not seek direct conflict with Russia, a robust military response was on the table to defend vital interests, including treaty allies.”

“The U.S. and Europe have used sanctions to respond to Russian aggression by targeting top decision-makers, the Kremlin’s military-industrial complex, and the key sources and intermediaries for Putin’s personal wealth (in the Syria case, Damascus and Tehran were also sanctioned). Though sanctions could not undo actions Russia had already taken, they helped deter Moscow from pursuing more expansive aims.”

“In all three conflicts, the U.S. effectively mobilized allies. The Bush administration blessed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s lead on the 2008 negotiations that prevented further fighting between Russia and Georgia, and similarly backed France and Germany on the Normandy format talks that brought Russia—not just Russian-backed proxies—to the table with Ukraine. Syria crisis management was a cooperative effort by the U.S., EU states, the Arab League, and eventually Turkey and Israel under pro forma U.N. leadership.”

“Finally, U.S. administrations have used face-to-face meetings and calls between top leaders to convey this message of de-escalation backed by firm resolve.”

“Though critics often decry engagement with the Russians as a reward for bad behavior, the crisis management playbook shows that it is essential. Earlier this year, during the last Russian buildup along the Ukrainian border, Biden defused the situation with direct high-level dialogue, particularly face-to-face meetings with Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. With this week’s Biden-Putin call, and the launch of a follow-up dialogue on European security that will include U.S. allies, Washington is again choosing wisely to engage.”

The US’s refusal to accept reality in Ukraine could get a lot of people killed

“US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently met with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in Washington and declared that the US commitment to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity is “ironclad.”

The meeting between the two officials came as Moscow stationed 90,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, leading many to fear that a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent. Ukraine has been mired in a war with Russia and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region of the country since 2014.

Blinken’s comments are just the latest example of a top Biden administration official failing to accept the geopolitical reality of Ukraine.”

“Is Biden really prepared to send young American men and women to fight and die over Ukraine? This kind of rhetoric from the Biden administration does not serve US interests and counterproductively increases the risk of the United States being dragged into a war with Russia.

By continuing to provide quasi-security guarantees to Ukraine, Washington is playing a dangerous game of escalation with Moscow. Russia’s deployment of 90,000 troops near the Ukrainian border is likely Moscow calling Washington’s bluff.

The United States has provided $2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine since hostilities broke out. Despite this significant investment, the war has continued because the underlying geopolitical causes of the conflict have not been addressed — namely Russia’s concern that Ukraine will be granted NATO membership.”

“Russia has proven that it is willing to bear significant monetary and human costs to prevent a western-aligned Ukraine. Years of tough economic sanctions and the estimated loss of several hundred Russian soldiers has done little to change Russia’s objectives in Ukraine.

Unlike Russia, the United States simply does not have a strong enough interest in Ukraine worth risking a potential nuclear war over.

Ending the conflict will require a comprehensive political settlement that takes Russia’s geopolitical anxiety into account. One may not agree with Moscow’s security concerns; however, it is necessary to address them in pursuit of a peaceful resolution. Such a settlement should see Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty restored and position Ukraine as a neutral buffer state, neither aligned with Russia nor the West.”

“Working toward a realistic resolution in the form of a neutral and non-aligned Ukraine could provide an opportunity for the world’s two largest nuclear powers to form a stable and predictable relationship.”

Wait, is Russia going to invade Ukraine?

“Ukraine is central to this vision. Culturally and economically, Putin sees Ukraine as tied to Russia. Putin used his hot vax summer to publish an article about how Ukrainians and Russians “were one people — a single whole,” according to an English translation posted on the Kremlin’s website. For him, the ex-Soviet Republic is not really a sovereign state but belongs to Russia, or at least would if not for the meddling from outside forces (read: the West) that have created a “wall” between the two.

“Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia,” Putin wrote.

This issue of Ukraine being a “springboard” for military action against Russia is also unacceptable to Putin. He wants to recreate a “sphere of influence” for Moscow, and Ukraine is the buffer between it and NATO. As Ukraine moves closer to the West, that buffer crumbles.

“The reason there’s a war in Ukraine has a lot to do with Russia’s perception of the post-Cold War order in Europe, this notion that Western states have been moving closer and closer to Russia’s borders, and indeed, gobbling up its natural sphere of influence,” Oliker said. “Ukraine’s the front line on that.””

“NATO and member states within NATO like the US and Great Britain are cooperating with Ukraine on security, they’re helping in training and reforms, and providing (or selling) military equipment. But a close partnership is not the same as membership, as it doesn’t come with the obligation of mutual defense, and the NATO countries don’t exactly want to sign themselves up for a potential war with Russia.”

The U.S. Approach to Ukraine’s Border War Isn’t Working. Here’s What Biden Should Do Instead.

“U.S. policy has generally been to offer sticks to Moscow and carrots to Kyiv. Successive administrations have tried to use coercive instruments—largely sanctions or the threat of them—to incentivize Russia to withdraw forces from rebel-held areas of the Donbas and deter further incursions. In parallel, Washington supports Kyiv economically, politically and militarily. The assumption is that the U.S. can coerce Russia into backing down by threatening consequences while strengthening Ukraine’s defenses and anchoring it to the West.”

“But Moscow’s current military buildup has been accompanied by dramatically tougher rhetoric in recent months, suggesting that this time is different. President Vladimir Putin may believe Ukraine is at an inflection point and that it’s time to up the ante. The risk of a major war seems real enough to justify a new U.S. approach. The current policy of threatening punishments and bolstering Kyiv might be morally justified, but it is highly unlikely to alter Putin’s calculus. The Biden administration should accept the unsatisfying reality that it will likely not be able to coerce Putin to de-escalate if he is determined to act. America’s leverage is limited.

Where the United States does have significant leverage is with Ukraine—and this leverage is largely untapped. Rather than focusing only on coercing Russia, the Biden administration should also push Kyiv to take steps toward implementing its obligations under the Minsk II agreement, which Ukraine has shown little desire to do since the deal was brokered six years ago. Ukrainian steps toward complying with the agreement, flawed as it is, might actually invite de-escalation from Russia and reinvigorate the languishing peace process.

The threats against Ukraine implicit in Russia’s troop buildup are morally reprehensible and contrary to Moscow’s international commitments. But to avoid a war, persuading Kyiv to make the first move might be our best hope.”