Primarily publicly, at times privately, the White House has attempted to convince the Kremlin that any kind of Russian military action into Ukraine will be met with severe penalties.
Count me among those who doubt that Vladimir Putin is afraid that Joe Biden will do anything to derail any of Putin’s military plans or deliver any meaningful response if they are put into action.
I will not pretend to understand Putin’s psyche. And I do not have any legitimate insight into the inner workings of the Kremlin. However, I do believe that two events are prominent in Putin’s mind, and both explain why he will continue to saber rattle over Ukraine and perhaps opt to invade knowing the United States will not be able to mount a potent reply.
To understand the first event, we need to go back to 2014, when the Russian military invaded Crimea. In roughly five weeks’ time, Russian forces took control of multiple political institutions and facilities in Crimea, dissolving various political entities and prompting the defection of key Ukrainian military officials. Remarkably, the death toll from all of this military activity would be counted on one hand. A referendum roughly three months later affirmed that Crimea would join the Russian Federation, which it remains part of to this day.
At the time, President Barack Obama talked tough, promised a legitimate response to what the U.S. deemed Russian aggression and…well, not much. The Obama administration orchestrated various economic sanctions, perhaps the most prominent being the suspension of Russia from the G8. Meanwhile, media in multiple Western nations tried to paint a picture of Russia being stuck with a proverbial white elephant: These reports claimed that the decline in tourism dollars and rampant human rights violations were just two reasons to doubt Putin and his country would benefit from the annexation of Crimea.
But public opinion was spot on. The Pew Research Center noted in 2015 that only 4 in 10 citizens throughout the European Union wanted military weapons sent to Ukraine. But more importantly, a separate Pew poll noted that by “a roughly two-to-one margin (56% vs. 29%), the public says it is more important for the U.S. to not get involved in the situation with Russia and Ukraine than to take a firm stand against Russian actions.”
In other words, neither European nor American citizens wanted their sons or daughters to die in a war over Ukraine. No one could blame Putin if he interpreted that as a sign of Western weakness.
The second event took place late last year when the U.S. had a pitiful evacuation at the end of its 20-year failed invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Chaotic scenes of U.S. military forces and private citizens, including Afghanis literally clinging to a plane as it lifted off, set in concrete a perception that Biden seemed unable to lead, no matter the circumstance. Unfortunately for him, that perception has solidified even more today; the White House is considered weak, ineffectual and unable to create or maintain policies that ensure America’s success at home or abroad.
Again, public opinion is important. FiveThirtyEight.com regularly tracks a president’s favorability rating in the U.S. Biden entered office with roughly 53 percent of Americans seeing him positively; 12 months later that figure is roughly 42 percent. One effect of such poor public opinion numbers: There is no way Biden would generate the public support necessary to send U.S. forces to Ukraine, should Putin choose to invade.
The reality is that Putin knows Biden’s hands are tied. Perhaps more importantly, any words spoken by Biden do not carry the gravitas that any of his recent predecessors did, no matter how strong or weak that leader appeared on the international stage.
Intertwine these two events – Russia’s success in Crimea in 2014 and a U.S. president in need of a life raft in 2022 – and one conclusion is obvious: Putin knows that the United States and its allies are impotent; they will speak the same old tired rhetoric about “demanding” Russia adhere to the Western-established rules of order, “promising” immediate and severe reprisals to any Russian military action and “affirming” that they stand with the Ukrainian people in their time of need. But those vacuous words will ring hollow.
Meanwhile, any promised “crippling” sanctions against Putin and other Russian elite will be met by a shrug by those same people. Most ominously, the Ukrainian people know that no Western government will authorize a military response in an attempt to oust the Russian forces.
The question at this point really is not whether Putin will authorize another invasion of Ukraine. Rather, it is why anyone in the U.S. would doubt the results this time would be any different from 2014