Picture Credit: Jim Watson-pool/Getty Images

Does Biden trust his generals?

As conflict threatens in Ukraine, the President is already at war with the Pentagon

Artillery Row

“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” former Defence Secretary Robert Gates wrote of Joe Biden in his 2014 memoir Duty. Then-Vice President Biden had been the primary antagonist in the Obama White House that some said created an atmosphere described as “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders”, with others saying that he personally “poisoned the well” against the military. 

President Biden is a rare, curious case of being both unsentimental and unconvincing on foreign policy

Biden may have alienated many of the top army brass, but the concept of the then-geriatric VP holding greater power was distant — barring any particularly terrible incidents, the chances of him becoming president were slim-to-none.

A decade on, and President Biden’s relationship with the generals now under his command has failed to improve, with many leaking against him and publicly maintaining that they warned him against the decisions that led to the failed withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the face of tensions with Russia over their seemingly-imminent invasion of Ukraine, does Biden have the relationship with his generals, the conviction — or desire — to successfully dissuade Putin?

The president’s justification of the Afghanistan withdrawal — done to, in his own words, “fight the battles for the next twenty years — not the last twenty” seemed to indicate that he was looking forward at wars to come. But his clear reluctance to engage in foreign intervention has cast this into doubt, and an ongoing pandemic increasingly divided along political lines in America has given Biden a clear justification for prioritising domestic crises above international ones. 

Russia’s demands are that Nato ceases its eastward expansion and that Ukraine never becomes a member. With Europe fragmented, America is in possession of an elderly, somewhat dithering president who has unsubtly signalled time and time again his lack of support for solid intervention, or even the positioning needed to maintain the illusion of solid intervention. 

An attempt to avert military action through diplomatic means requires nous, skill, and subtle mettle. President Biden is a rare, curious case of being both unsentimental and unconvincing on foreign policy, his confidence frequently misplaced on the international stage — an aspect of his presidency that has escaped neither Moscow nor the Pentagon. His one-note approach to foreign policy can border on the un-statesmanlike and openly indicate to those usually confident in U.S. protection that it may no longer exist for them. Putin is an opportunist, and such wavering support only indicates to him that his chances of achieving those aims with little backlash are as likely as they have been in recent years.

After all, what backlash is America willing to commit to? Despite now ostensibly considering the deployment of troops to Eastern European NATO allies, Biden’s original (and sincerely-meant) indication that America would broadly overlook a “minor incursion” cannot have left either the Pentagon or Kiev feeling particularly secure. The hasty removal of diplomatic families from Ukraine was a similar diplomatic misstep in the crisis, labelled by the Ukrainian government as “premature” and “excessively cautious.”

This early into the game, Biden has folded

President Biden’s strong rhetoric on the sanctions that an invading Russia would incur is equally unconvincing. Russia makes up 40% of Europe’s gas imports — gas imports needed to keep its citizens warm and happy in the winter months. Germany, particularly dependent on Russian gas, is keen that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is permitted to keep their industrial centre — and with it, economy — thriving, and free from sanctions; a pipeline that Biden refuses to sanction as part of congressional law. 

Comprehensive, damaging sanctions would badly destabilise global energy markets, in turn affecting the U.S. economy. Cementing Russia’s strategic power is its exchange reserve,  which is one of the strongest in the world, holding roughly $500 billion. It is this — consciously and dramatically built up in the last half decade — which allows Russia to withstand foreign sanctions.

Putin may well invade, but a weakened Ukrainian government would be an easy, bloodless coup. Ukraine needs strong allies — or at bare minimum, the illusion of strong allies — to stand up to its aggressor with any conviction. In 2014, Putin was able to seize Crimea with relative ease after correctly betting that western talk would fail to be backed up with hard action.

Eight years later, American leadership shipping diplomatic families out of Kiev, implicitly permitting a “small incursion”, and making it very clear how little they are prepared to commit to the region, does nothing to help Ukraine on the world stage. In truth, it is likely that both sides are less committed to war than even Putin might let on, and are simply waiting to see if the other will blink. This early into the game, Biden has folded.

Part of this reluctance to engage can be attributed to Biden’s midterm elections, and his acute awareness of the absence of interest the average American has over war with Russia for the sake of Ukraine, but most is simply innate to the President.

Biden has spent many years in the corridors of power, and has a long track record of being deeply sceptical of his military advisors, hawkishness on the international stage, and is fearful of becoming embroiled in another lengthy, unwinnable war. As a result, it is likely that the next few months will contain a greater focus on sanctions, leaks, and deteriorating relations with the Pentagon — leaving an emboldened Russia in a powerful position.

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