May 26, 2022

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Pandemic, insurrection and now a new Cold War? For Joe Biden, a presidency full of crises

Pandemic, insurrection and now a new Cold War? For Joe Biden, a presidency full of crises

Joe Biden began his presidency amid the worst pandemic in a century and in the wake of the most violent challenge to American democracy since the Civil War.

Now he faces a revival of the Cold War.

“Russia has now undeniably moved against Ukraine,” Biden said in a statement in the East Room of the White House, calling the incursion a “flagrant” violation of international law. His voice rising in outrage, he demanded: “Who in the Lord’s name does (Russian President Vladimir) Putin think gives them the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belong to his neighbors?”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the latest crisis in a presidency that has been full of them. Biden will be tested on his ability to deliver on the tough threats he made to Moscow in recent weeks and to hold together the NATO alliance. It is an opportunity for him to demonstrate to the world that he is a sure-footed leader – a reputation undercut last year by the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

He also has a selling job to do at home.

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In a USA TODAY/Suffolk poll taken Feb. 15-20, before new Russian troops had been ordered into eastern Ukraine, Americans disapproved by double digits of the way Biden has handled the situation there, 49%-34%. By nearly two to one, 63%-32%, those surveyed said he was not a strong leader, one of the core characteristics of successful presidents.

There is skepticism about the steps he has taken. Though almost half (45%) supported the idea of imposing economic sanctions on Russia, only one in four endorsed increasing military hardware supplies to Ukraine or deploying U.S. troops to the region to bolster NATO allies.

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Most Americans agreed the United States needs to respond in some way to a Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory. One in five, 19%, said the nation should “do nothing.”

The poll of 1,000 likely voters, taken by landline and cellphone, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

‘An invasion is an invasion’
The White House has been calibrating how to proceed.

At first, administration officials debated whether Russia’s movement of troops into areas of Ukraine controlled by separatists amounted to an “invasion,” the trigger for the crippling sanctions Biden has repeatedly threatened. That semantic question was finally answered Tuesday morning when national security aide Jonathan Finer said flatly on CNN, “An invasion is an invasion, and that is what’s underway.”

Russia and Ukraine explained: Inside the crisis as US calls Russian movements an invasion

Even so, when Biden spoke a few hours later, he didn’t announce the full set of sanctions the administration has devised. He has tried to walk a fine line: Sanctions seen as too mild could fail to adequately punish Moscow, not to mention raise questions about whether he is delivering on his threats. Sanctions seen as too tough could send a message that Russia has nothing left to lose if it launches a full-scale assault to topple Ukraine’s democratically elected president.

In his remarks, Biden outlined what he called the “first tranche,” including full sanctions on two major Russian financial institutions and on the Russian sovereign debt. In short order, sanctions on Russian oligarchs and their families will follow.

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“If Russia goes further with this invasion,” he said, “we stand prepared to go further as with the sanctions.”

Biden has applied lessons learned from last year’s messy withdrawal from Kabul. TV footage showed Afghans desperately trying to escape their nation, fearing the Taliban militia would take revenge on them for helping U.S. forces. Other countries that had been U.S. allies during the long war complained they hadn’t been consulted or even kept informed. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asserted in a speech Tuesday that Biden’s missteps in Afghanistan emboldened Putin to deploy Russian troops along the Ukraine border.

‘An unmistakable message’: Biden unveils US sanctions on Russia after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

This time, the president and his senior aides made an unprecedented decision to share extensive intelligence findings with the public, and they have made a round of high-profile meetings with allied leaders. NATO has become more unified in response to the Russia threat – a surprise to Putin, Biden jibed. On Tuesday, Germany halted the controversial Nord Stream 2 project, a natural gas pipeline from Russia that has long concerned the United States over the dependence it could bring on Russian energy supplies.

“Defending freedom will have costs for us as well and here at home,” Biden cautioned. “We need to be honest about that.” He promised to “limit the pain” in rising gas prices, but he didn’t promise there would be no pain.

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline was constructed in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of northeastern Germany.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline was constructed in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of northeastern Germany.
A standoff between Russia and the West could unsettle the global economy, struggling to deal with inflation and supply chain delays, and roil energy markets, increasing prices at the gas pump in the USA.

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Another complication for Biden is that many Americans view China, not Russia, as the biggest foe. In the poll, 52% called China the biggest threat to the USA, followed by Russia at 29% and North Korea at 8%. One in three called Putin a ruthless leader, narrowly trailing only North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

The Biden administration, which has tried to pivot to China and the Pacific as its foreign policy priority, has had its attention pulled back squarely to Europe.

Moscow’s move to challenge Ukraine’s sovereignty is the most serious disruption to European stability since the end of World War II. It reflects Putin’s desire to unwind the security arrangements forged since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is unlikely to be the sort of crisis that is resolved quickly or easily.

Consider this: The Cold War, the first one, lasted nearly a half-century