Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.
If a week is a long time in politics, then eight years is an even longer time in President Putin’s pursuit of “Novorossiya”. As the Prime Minister reminded the House yesterday, Russia’s incursion into the Donbas region led to the illegal annexation of 10,000 square miles of Ukrainian territory. Ukraine has lived in fear and without peace ever since.
The White House entered the New Year with an alarmingly long list of domestic priorities. Putin’s latest flirtation with international lawbreaking has upended that list and put international relations at the top of the political agenda. Over 100,000 Russian military personnel and assets have been deployed in Crimea and in the Voronezh, Kursk and Bryansk regions of Western Russia. Russian naval assets from the Baltic and Northern fleets have also been reported heading south.
Russia, of course, denies it has any plans to invade. Putin is seeking guarantees that Ukraine will not be admitted as a Member State.
The five statements posted on the White House Briefing Room website since the turn of the year have grown gradually more severe in language and tone.
On January 2, President Biden and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine “expressed support for diplomatic efforts, starting next week with the bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue”. On January 19, the President and Senators, who had recently returned from a Congressional delegation to Ukraine, “exchanged views on the best ways the United States can continue to work closely with our allies and partners in support of Ukraine, including both ongoing diplomacy to try to resolve the current crisis and deterrence measures.”
Later that day, the President warned that any Russian forces moved across the Ukrainian border “will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies”. Yesterday’s call with allied leaders across Europe warned of “reparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia for such actions as well as to reinforce security on NATO’s eastern flank.”
So, what next?
The President is scarred by his disastrous mishandling of the Taliban’s summer takeover of Afghanistan. “Biden warns Russia that if they invade Ukraine, America will evacuate and leave $86bn in weapons behind”, joked one parody Twitter account. The administration cannot afford to make such vast mishaps again.
The Biden administration, desperate to repair its reputation at home and abroad, held two classified briefings yesterday for congressional leadership aides and committee staff on the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. The remaining Members of the House and Senate will have to wait until Congress returns from recess next week. There have reportedly been nine inter-agency briefings for the national security committees and eight briefings for leadership, committee and personal office staff.
Washington is spearheading a pro-Ukraine defence alongside its NATO allies in the face of Putin’s parading. The Pentagon has put 8,500 troops on standby for possible deployment to Eastern European allies and Baltic nations. Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying F-16s to the region. France has expressed readiness to send troops to Romania under NATO command. If Russia invades Ukraine, Boris Johnson warned the UK “would look to contribute to any new NATO deployments to protect our allies in Europe”.
The diplomatic toolkit has not yet been fully deployed. Calls to eject Russia from the SWIFT global banking system are growing louder, whilst MPs on both sides of the House of Commons urged the Government to do more to limit the flow of Russian money in the City of London in a Ministerial statement yesterday.
Global Britain at work
This column is hardly the place to determine whether the bubbling crisis in Ukraine is a welcome or irrelevant distraction from the Prime Minister’s travails spearheaded by the Metropolitan Police and Sue Gray. But what is undoubtedly clear is that a muscular UK presence so far in efforts to deter Putin alongside our closest allies is a visible display of what “Global Britain” at its best could be capable of.
Indeed, the seriousness of the situation in Ukraine is such that there has been no room for domestic political point-scoring so far. But it must be recognised that the UK’s freedom from the shackles of the European Union means that it is free to tie itself as close to the United States’ position as possible. EU Member States, meanwhile, must balance their position delicately given Germany’s refusal to upset its main domestic gas supplier – Russia.
White House and NATO allies are not wasting time in preparing to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, initially via diplomatic routes (including sanctions) and then providing defensive weapons systems and readying troops. President Biden might have misspoken earlier this week when he said the expected the Russians would “move in” given White House spokespeople has spoken carefully to try and clarify those remarks.
Inflation is already causing policymakers headaches in the United States and the United Kingdom. Any ground conflict in Ukraine will only add to those pressures given the inevitable rise in gas prices or reduction is Russian-sourced supply. Democratic leaders must decide if that is a price they are willing to pay.