US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have fumbled into a new world war. Photo: AFP / Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik

“America is back,” Joe Biden, the US president, proclaimed after his election. It hardly seems that way today, though.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine intensifies, as casualties mount and refugee numbers swell in central Europe, Biden has rid himself of any options. As is increasingly obvious, the Western response to this war depends alone on the will of the Ukrainian people to fight.  

More than a year in office, Biden’s foreign policy record is looking increasingly threadbare. Rather than emulating the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, Biden is reprising Jimmy Carter’s, historian Niall Ferguson wrote recently. 

“The Biden presidency is teetering on the verge of a foreign policy cascade of disaster as bad as — and potentially worse than — Carter’s in 1979,” the historian added, referring to two geopolitical disasters that year: the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

To a paranoid and isolated leader in Moscow — although Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, spent much of the pandemic even more isolated than usual in his Black Sea dacha — Biden’s first year in office must have seemed like an open invitation for aggression.  

In August last year, he ordered the chaotic and inhumane retreat from Afghanistan, a policy that Donald Trump, his predecessor, signed up for but which Biden didn’t have to enact.

By doing so, the US military also lost control of the Bagram Airfield outside Kabul, which had provided the US military and intelligence services easy access to the skies throughout the Middle East and South Asia. 

No doubt meant as an insult, at a Geneva summit last June, Putin reportedly offered Biden the use of Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, a sign of just how denuded US military strength had become. 

A US military helicopter flying above the US embassy in Kabul on August 15, 2021. Photo: AFP / Wakil Kohsar

All along, the administration was making clear that it was doubling down at speed on the Obama-era “pivot” to Asia, jettisoning its interests in the Middle East and Europe. 

Even in the Indo-Pacific, though, there would be problems. Important partners, including the ASEAN bloc itself, were without ambassadors throughout 2021 — and many still are today. 

Clunky talk of human rights wasn’t followed by any major actions. Some US officials arrived in the region to point out that American democracy wasn’t perfect, either. But some came depicting geopolitics as a battle between democracy and autocracy, a hard sell when America needs autocratic allies in Asia. 

Biden’s Summit for Democracy, held last December, went down like a lead balloon, criticized for not inviting some key US partners, like treaty ally the Philippines, and for inviting some questionable attendees, such as the DRC. 

In Europe, Putin was given repeated signals of a lack of US interest. In mid-May, Biden’s administration waived sanctions on the company behind Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, giving Moscow the free hand to increase its energy leverage over Europe. 

Deliveries of armaments to Ukraine slowed in 2021. Even the Washington Post put it thusly: “While the Biden administration has moved quickly since Russian troops began massing on the border in December, its response was sluggish to earlier Russian deployments in April.” 

Just weeks after retreating from Afghanistan, Washington seemingly went behind the back of its oldest ally, France, in agreeing to a nuclear pact with the UK and Australia. This exacerbated European anger still reeling after the Biden administration poorly communicated the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving their troops in the lurch. 

If there was one success in the buildup to the Russian invasion, it was Washington’s decision to publicly release its intelligence information that Putin was, indeed, planning on invading Ukraine. However, the Biden administration then acted like it didn’t believe its own intelligence. 

Granted, military exports to Ukraine increased in December, but not by nearly enough according to Ukrainians. Some cooperation with its European allies was made, but still it took several days after the invasion for the US and EU members, for instance, to agree to cut Russia off from the SWIFT payments system, an indication that this hadn’t been previously agreed. 

Was it necessary for Biden to get personally involved in the diplomatic talks with Putin? The US president could have left that task to other leaders — like the French president, Emmanuel Macron — and kept his distance so as to keep Putin guessing about how the US would respond?

It must also be asked if anyone in Washington has sat for a moment and considered whether the rush now to revive the Iran nuclear deal, since the West needs oil and gas, isn’t about to exacerbate problems a few months down the line.

Worse, the Biden administration from the get-go said unequivocally that it would not send troops to Ukraine — and almost as quickly said that it wouldn’t support a no-fly zone over the country. 

These are sensible, and rather obvious, positions to take. Yet the speed to which the Biden administration announced them left nothing for “strategic ambiguity.” Had Biden said he wasn’t sure whether to send troops to Ukraine or try to ensure a no-fly zone, Putin would have likely known that the US wouldn’t — but, at least, there may have been some doubt in his mind. 

US President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference after the NATO summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels, June 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

Rather than “strategic ambiguity”, Biden has followed a policy of “strategic transparency” with his adversary. Putin only had to glide a fingernail over the nuclear option earlier this month for the US and NATO to immediately repeat their opposition to a no-fly zone.  

Compounding all of this, Biden said as early as December that all the US would do if Russia invaded was impose sanctions. These have been far more severe and coordinated than many analysts predicted, but they were imposed too late. Washington could have enforced sanctions much earlier, before an invasion — as the Ukrainians also demanded. 

Any expert on sanctions will say that they should be wielded as “carrots”, not “sticks.” The point is to entice your adversary back to the negotiation table by showing him or her a glimmer of the consequences of their actions. 

Their purpose is also to create some degree of uncertainty in the ranks of the hostile nation’s political and economic elites, giving sensible-thinking people enough time to go to their leader and appeal to him for moderation. 

Had the ruble plunged by 30% and Western companies announced their departure from Russia before an invasion, Russia’s oligarchs might have had the opportunity to alter Putin’s thinking. 

After all, calling off an invasion you say you were never going to undertake is much easier than surrendering once that invasion has been launched.  

But by waiting until after an invasion, the US and its allies had to impose almost all of their sanctions at once. This now makes it not just hard to walk back from the punitive measures but also difficult to escalate the intensity of them. 

Cutting all oil and gas imports from Russia, now under discussion, would take time to kick in and is unlikely to change Putin’s mind.   

After all, by relying only on sanctions, Washington must have had to believe that Putin cares if the Russian people go destitute (which nothing in his decades in power suggests he does) or he has enough level-headed people around him to pressure him to de-escalate his war (which America’s own intelligence doesn’t think he does). 

Putin knows his history. Russian leaders fall if wars are waged poorly. Nicholas II, the last tsar, lost the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and World War I, triggering two Russian Revolutions, respectively.  

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has portrayed his war as a ‘special military operation.’ Image: Twitter

Sanctioning Putin personally, which the US did on February 25, is tantamount to saying that Washington wants regime change in Moscow — and a “palace coup”, however unlikely, now appears the only way of ending the crisis without the capitulation of the Ukrainian nation or escalation of bloodshed by Putin. 

Let’s be clear in all of this: The US has so far been fortunate. The Ukrainian resistance has put up a heroic and determined resistance, and Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has proved a deeply impressive wartime leader. 

Moreover, the Russian military appears inexperienced with logistics, thus hampering its invasion. Putin likely also made the situation worse for himself by reportedly delaying his attack out of politeness to Beijing so its Winter Olympics wouldn’t be overshadowed.

First, this alleged delay added extra strain on Russian troops amassed around Ukraine. Second, it gave Western capitals more time to coordinate their sanctions.   

The question now is what happens as the situation in Ukraine escalates. If Kiev falls, what does Biden do next? There are only a few more sanctions that can be imposed — and Moscow will soon probably find some ways of getting around them.

US troops on the ground have been ruled out. No-fly zones would be pointless. Russia would essentially have a lengthy border with NATO members.   

If Kiev is able to withstand the Russian siege, or moves its government to the western city of Lviv, will Washington change its tune if Russian forces also head westwards? There is no certainty that Putin won’t go further, possibly threatening NATO members Poland, Romania or the Baltic states. 

In essence, both Washington and Moscow are playing the waiting game, although only one has the initiative. Putin is waiting to see how long the Ukrainian people and military can withstand his siege. Biden is waiting to see how long the Russian economy can survive the sanctions. 

For Putin, enough military pressure must be applied to force Zelensky to capitulate. For Biden, enough economic pressure needs to be applied for Putin to backtrack and withdraw.

Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno