Russia-Ukraine tensions unfold in shadow of Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal
Russia-Ukraine tensions unfold in shadow of Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal

By Naomi Lim, White House Reporter

President Joe Biden’s deadly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is haunting his response to Russia’s aggressive posture toward Ukraine.

But critics contend that Biden’s more proactive approach to intelligence, ally outreach, and warnings to U.S. citizens in Ukraine may not be enough for him to regain his reputation for competence.

The main link between Afghanistan and Ukraine is the timing of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s machinations, with Moscow taking advantage of Biden’s perceived weakness abroad, according to Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior adviser Rich Goldberg.

“He very much has had an air of ‘Putin is going to do what Putin’s going to do,'” Goldberg told the Washington Examiner of Biden. “They’ve allowed Putin to call the shots.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki used familiar language when telling reporters in Wednesday’s briefing that “it’s ultimately up to President Putin to decide what steps he’s going to take.”

And while Biden has blustered about U.S. strength, making a direct-to-camera diplomacy pitch as Russia amasses roughly 150,000 troops near Ukraine and in neighboring Belarus, the president has also been clear that his preference is not to deploy personnel to Kyiv, Goldberg said. Putin claims many of those service members and their weapons are returning to their respective bases, but Biden is adamant that he has not seen any verifiable evidence of a drawdown.

“The decision to walk away from Afghanistan the way the president did was a very public signal to all America’s adversaries and enemies that this is a president who does not want to get involved in anything difficult militarily outside of U.S. borders,” Goldberg said. “When the going gets tough, this president is going to cut and run.”

Two examples of Biden’s soft touch, according to Goldberg, include his opposition to imposing sanctions on Russia after cyberattacks on Ukrainian banks following his flip-flop on Nord Stream 2 pipeline measures under pressure from Germany, who would receive natural gas through the project. Biden is reliant on Putin’s assistance “in corralling the Iranians into another bad nuclear deal” as well when the Kremlin benefits from Tehran’s program, he said.

“There is this bizarre philosophical ideological commitment by the administration to the idea that bad actors can be shamed,” he added. “The irony being this is the party in power that campaigned for four years that Donald Trump was colluding with Russia.”

For Ambassador Nathan Sales, a former acting undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights and currently an Atlantic Council senior fellow, Biden has shown “some spine” in confronting Putin. Biden, for example, has engaged and consulted NATO allies regarding Ukraine more extensively than he did for Afghanistan. Biden’s Afghanistan inaction had “burnt” partners and resulted in “a loss of trust and goodwill,” according to Sales.

“That said, I think the administration is fighting with one hand behind its back,” he said. “Our Russia policy is being held hostage to our energy policy and our Middle East policy.”

Instead, Biden should be increasing domestic energy production in case Russian supplies decrease due to sanctions and leaning on the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, to do the same, according to Sales. The president has alluded to the possibility of a fuel price spike above the 14-year record of almost $4 a gallon if there is a conflict.

Biden is “playing reasonably well,” but it is too early to predict “whether the end game in Ukraine will be better than, the same as, or worse than Afghanistan,” Sales concluded.

“There are multiple scenarios in which a Russian invasion of Ukraine turns out even worse for the United States and our allies than Afghanistan did,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling across the border, massive civilian casualties, destabilization of NATO allies, Russia positioning itself for a next stage in which they are trying to destabilize Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Romania — the countries that would then be on the front lines of a renewed Soviet empire.”

Psaki has bristled at comparisons between Afghanistan and Ukraine, specifically the military-led “evacuation” of noncombatants from Kabul in contrast to the Ukraine advisory for U.S. citizens to leave, taking the threat seriously.

“We are not ending a 20-year war,” she said. “We are trying to prevent war here. We are trying to keep American citizens safe in Ukraine by encouraging them to depart, by providing them information about what the security circumstances are on the ground.”

Psaki, too, has defended Biden for rejecting Afghanistan allegations, insisting that “there weren’t a range of preparations done in advance over the course of last spring and last summer.” Those complaints were based on media reports of public information disclosure documents and interviews, as well as a U.S. Central Command assessment of the Kabul airport terrorist attack. Now, concerning Ukraine, aides have touted their “Tiger Team” tabletop exercises to game out Putin’s moves and declassified updates in the hope of deterring an incursion.

“He came into office without any plan,” Psaki said of Afghanistan. “There was a deadline — but without any plan for departure or for helping the Afghans who had served by our side for 20 years.”

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