Less than a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, his determination to defend America’s friends around the world is being directly challenged by Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping.
Over the past months, Putin has engineered a buildup of 100,000 fully-equipped Russian troops along Ukraine’s border, in apparent preparation of a full-scale ground invasion early next year. At the same time, President Xi has ordered China’s air force to stage dozens of provocative incursions into Taiwan’s airspace, in apparent preparation for a long-feared invasion of the island, which the US has been committed to defending since the communist takeover of mainland China in 1949.
Both of these tests of Biden’s willingness to respond to deliberate provocations by America’s enemies were probably triggered by the questions raised over Biden’s incompetent performance as commander-in-chief in ordering the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan this summer. Not only was the execution of the withdrawal badly botched, Biden ordered it despite warnings from top Pentagon military experts as well as dozens of State Department personnel on the ground in Afghanistan, who foresaw its disastrous consequences.
AN INFORMAL ANTI-AMERICAN ALLIANCE
The twin crises over Taiwan and Ukraine also reflect the informal anti-American alliance that has developed between the China and Russia, who both see the post-Cold War international dominance of the Western democracies, led by the United States, as an ideological threat to their autocratic style of government.
Their alliance was announced following a video summit meeting between the Russian and Chinese leaders in a statement released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which said, “China-Russia relations have emerged from all kinds of tests to demonstrate new vitality. Russia will be the most staunch supporter of the Chinese government’s legitimate position on Taiwan-related issues.”
In a separate statement, Putin hailed “a new model of cooperation” between Russia and China, and announced plans to visit Beijing next year to hold further face-to-face discussions with his Chinese counterpart.
The alliance is more than just talk. Since 2014, when Putin staged a successful invasion of Crimea, violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia has been supplying China with its most advanced military equipment. More recently, the two countries have expanded their joint military exercises, in an effort to intimidate their next targets. Starting 2019, and as recently as last month, both China and Russia have been repeatedly violating the airspace of South Korea, which has been under the protection of the American military against the threat of invasion from communist North Korea since 1953.
In October, Russia and China held joint naval exercises off the coast of Japan. Japan’s leadership has become so intimidated by the combination of China’s aggressive moves in the Pacific and the weak US military response to those provocations, that they have double Japan’s defense spending, remilitarizing the country for the first time since its defeat in World War II.
GIVING DIPLOMATIC COVER TO IRAN
In addition, both Russia and China have been giving crucial diplomatic and economic support to Iran, helping it defeat US sanctions and violate its 2015 agreement to place its nuclear program under international inspection. China has given the Islamic regime a financial lifeline, defying US sanctions by increasing its imports of Iranian oil, while both Russia and China have used their UN vetoes to provide diplomatic cover for Iran’s support for international terrorism and military aggression against Israel and pro-Western nations across the Middle East.
By coordinating their efforts to intimidate Ukraine and Taiwan at the same time, Russia and China are presenting the Biden administration with the strategic nightmare of having to respond to two military threats in widely separated regions of the world at the same time, far from American shores. By taking advantage of the already badly overstretched US military forces around the world, America’s enemies are able to keep the Biden administration guessing by attacking at its most vulnerable points.
US MILITARY OVERSTRETCHED AND UNDERPREPARED
When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, the US downsized its military on the presumption that it would never again be challenged militarily by another superpower. Instead, the US military focused on fighting international terrorism and brushfire wars against rogue, relatively weak third world countries, such as Iraq.
As a result, the US Navy no longer has enough ships to project American power effectively on seas around the world, nor does the US Air Force have enough first-line aircraft to maintain air superiority. In addition, the US Army no longer has enough available combat troops or rapid transportation capabilities to respond to the large Russian and Chinese deployments now threatening to overwhelm both Ukraine and Taiwan.
As a result, if Putin’s troops do invade Ukraine next year, once the huge Russian buildup of troops and weaponry along Ukraine’s border is complete, Xi would then have a free hand to carry out China’s long-standing threats to take over Taiwan, and vice versa. In other words, if a shooting war breaks out on either front, it could easily trigger a conflict in the other, with the US unable to respond effectively to both of them militarily at the same time.
COUNTING ON BIDEN’S WEAKNESS
Both Russia and China are counting on Biden’s reluctance to defend US strategic interests abroad with military force, as demonstrated by his weak responses to their challenges to date. These include Biden’s acquiescence to the opening of a Russian natural gas pipeline that will make Germany dependent on Russian energy, and an escalating war of words between US and Chinese diplomats over a variety of issues, which began at a contentious March meeting in Alaska between senior Chinese and US government officials. China has pushed back vigorously at US complaints about its violations of the human rights of the native Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang province, its coverup of the source of the coronavirus, its cyberwarfare activities, and its aggressive military moves against US allies to claim disputed islands in the Western Pacific.
At the same time, the Biden administration has alienated some of America’s closest allies. First, he pulled the last of the US troops from Afghanistan this summer without giving NATO allies who were also defending the Afghan regime adequate advance notice to get their own troops and citizens in that country out of harm’s way.
Biden also managed to infuriate the French government by arranging for the cancellation of a lucrative sale of French-made conventionally-powered submarines to Australia, and replacing them with nuclear submarines built by the US and Great Britain.
HOW TRUMP SUCCEEDED WHERE BIDEN IS FAILING
The Biden administration has also disappointed longtime US Arab allies in the Middle East, by delaying the sale of the F-35 stealth fighter planes to the UAE, which had been approved by President Trump and which the UAE needs to defend itself against the threat of Iranian aggression. Biden is also eager to lift the Trump-era sanctions on Iran, and has failed to support and build upon the historic Abraham Accords that Arab states signed with Israel before Trump left office.
The mixture of rhetorical respect for Putin and Russia, with a firm refusal to make substantive concessions that would look like appeasement, allowed Trump to avoid either provoking Russia or encouraging Putin to try his hand. Because the US calculatingly played to Putin’s ego for the Russian leader’s domestic political purposes, Putin had no need to pick fights — and the US made clear that if he did, there would be a price to pay.
But since taking office, Biden has openly provoked and insulted Putin and Russia while giving no indication that he would do anything beyond applying a weak sanctions “slap on the wrist” if Russia actually does invade Ukraine next year.
In the Asian-Pacific region, Biden and the Obama-era foreign policy experts running his State Department seem helpless to respond the growing threat to the security of Taiwan from menacing air incursions from mainland China. It is also interesting to note that despite the punitive tariffs he imposed on Chinese exports, President Donald Trump never had to deal with a military threat to Taiwan’s security or autonomy, because China’s leaders knew he would respond forcefully to any such challenge. The menacing Chinese military maneuvers and threats to invade Taiwan only began after Joe Biden took office.
While Trump’s critics were merciless in accusing him of appeasing Putin and playing up to the Russian dictator’s ego, his policies were effective in avoiding any open Russian threats to the security of American allies in Eastern Europe or any escalation in the ongoing low-level conflict with Russian-backed forces in Ukraine, as long as Trump was in office. The current Russian threat only arose in response to the signs of Biden’s weakness both with respect to the Afghan withdrawal, and his willingness to give Putin a stranglehold over Western Europe’s energy supplies by allowing the Russians to complete their Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
HOW TRUMP DEALT WITH OBAMA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS FAILURES
While President Trump’s focus while in office, like Biden’s, was on domestic issues, Trump was more successful than Biden has been so far in dealing with the many foreign policy problems Trump inherited from the Obama administration.
During Trump’s four years in office, he achieved: A renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico (USMCA); four years of relative quiet in Eastern Europe and along the Ukraine-Russia border; a peace agreement between two warring provinces of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia, and Kosovo; the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and its former Muslim enemies, Sudan, UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco; initiating an effective response to China’s unfair trading policies without endangering the autonomy and security of Taiwan; the military destruction of the ISIS terrorist caliphate; the reimposition of tough economic sanctions on Iran; and the defusing of the growing threat of war with North Korea.
In sharp contrast, Joe Biden’s first year in office has been a catastrophe for America’s foreign policy and national security interests, beginning with the catastrophic consequences of Biden’s botched withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and extending beyond Russia and China to the national security crisis that Biden has created along the US-Mexico border, his misguided attempts to renegotiate the flawed 2015 Iran nuclear deal, catering to Palestinian demands in another hopeless attempt to force Israel to negotiate a two-state solution, and undermining America’s reputation as a reliable military ally and defender of democracies in times of crisis.
WHAT DOES PUTIN WANT?
At an annual year-end news conference with the Russian media, Putin revealed his demands for refraining from an armed invasion of Ukraine. Not only does he want NATO to reject Ukraine’s request for membership, he is also demanding the removal of NATO troops from the current Eastern Europe members of the alliance, including Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
In that regard, it is worthwhile to remember that during Trump’s presidency, he made personal visits to the free Baltic states to underline America’s commitment to their independence. Starting in 2019, Trump also sent more than 4,000 US troops to be stationed in Poland, to make his commitment to defend Poland’s independence crystal clear to Putin.
The Russian government’s position is that its military buildup along the Ukraine border is in response to the threat that NATO allegedly poses to Russia’s national security. According to a Russian foreign ministry official, “The line pursued by the United States and NATO over recent years to aggressively escalate the security situation is absolutely unacceptable and extremely dangerous. Washington and its NATO allies should immediately stop regular hostile actions against our country.”
The United States and its NATO allies have refused Russia’s demand that they rule out future membership of Ukraine in their alliance, but they have agreed to open talks with Russia in January to discuss its security concerns. Putin responded by declaring that granting NATO membership to Ukraine or deploying NATO weapons on Ukrainian territory would be a red line for Russia’s security that he would not allow the US and its allies to cross.
“We have nowhere to retreat,” Putin said. “They have pushed us to a line that we can’t cross. They have taken it to the point where we simply must tell them, ‘Stop!’”
PUTIN WORKING TO REBUILD RUSSIA’S EMPIRE
In fact, it is Putin who has been trying to reestablish the Soviet-era empire. In 2008, Putin sent Russian military forces, out of uniform, to invade the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which was a preview of the larger unannounced Russian invasion of the Crimea in 2014, as well as Russian military support for an armed insurrection in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass industrial region.
Putin has been ruthless in pursuing his long-term goal of reestablishing Kremlin hegemony over all of Central and Eastern Europe, including former Soviet states such as Georgia and Ukraine, as well as former Iron Curtain states such as Poland, Romania, and Hungary, which have thrived since joining Western Europe’s security and economic arrangements.
In addition to its overt military threat against Ukraine, Putin has also pressured the pro-Russian dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to destabilize his country’s frontier with Poland by dispatching thousands of refugees from the Middle East to storm its borders to gain entry into the EU. The Russians have also become expert at using the tactics of “hybrid warfare,” attacking its regional enemies, the US, and other international targets of opportunity with a combination of conventional military force, cyberwarfare, disinformation campaigns using social media and fake news, and the subversion of democratic elections.
The immediate Western response to Putin’s demands according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, was that, “There will be no talks on European security without European allies and partners.” However, the fact that the US is limiting the security dialogue with Russia to only a few European allies is not reassuring to those former Iron Curtain states most at risk to Russian aggression. Neither is the threat by Biden and other European leaders to punish Putin if he does invade Ukraine with the toughest sanctions on Russia to date seen as much of a deterrent to Putin, who has gotten away with so many acts of aggression already, including cyberattacks on targets in the US, without being forced to pay any meaningful penalty.
BIDEN RELUCTANT TO HELP UKRAINE DEFEND ITSELF
Biden has also failed to respond in the most effective way to the Russian threat of invasion, by sending Ukraine the modern weapons it has been asking for to defend itself. US media reports claim that Biden has been considering sending Ukraine the helicopters and other weapons it had earmarked for the pro-Western Afghan government before its sudden collapse this summer. However, Biden has been hesitating, reportedly due to fear of provoking a more intensive military response from Putin.
That is similar to the faulty logic that prompted President Obama to refuse Ukraine’s request for US-made Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine, to fight the pro-Russian insurrectionists following the 2014 invasion of Crimea. It was only after President Trump sent the Javelins that Obama had refused to provide that the military situation in eastern Ukraine was stabilized, without provoking any escalation from Putin.
PUTIN IS CLEARLY WINNING
So far, according to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Putin is clearly winning his confrontation with the US over the fate of Ukraine. He also seems to be holding the upper hand, as Western Europe enters the cold winter months short of fuel, and is relying on an uninterrupted flow of Russian natural gas, which Putin has used as a strategic bargaining chip with European countries during previous winters.
Putin now seems to be in full control of the crisis over Ukraine, which he has manufactured “out of thin air.” If he so chooses, the editorial says, “Putin can graciously step back from the brink, knowing he can always provoke new crises whenever it suits him. . . Putin has created a significant diplomatic and political asset for himself. Until the West finds ways to make the crisis-manufacturing business less profitable for the Kremlin, we must expect Russia to continue down this path.”
The re-Russification of Ukraine is also a popular issue with Russian voters who feel a much closer historical association with the Ukraine than most Chinese have to Taiwan. Ukraine has long served as Russia’s most productive agricultural breadbasket. It has also been an integral part of the Czarist Russian empire, and then the Soviet Union, for more than 300 years, before gaining its independence with the collapse of the communist system in 1991.
Putin has always seen Ukraine as an essential, historic part of Russia’s national heritage and identity. In a 2005 statement, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century,” and views Ukraine’s restoration to Russian control as a main part of his mission and legacy as Russia’s president.
PUTIN’S CLAIM TO RUSSIAN SOVEREIGNTY OVER UKRAINE
Putin has also published a 7,000-word essay describing the 1709 Battle of Poltava, a Ukrainian city 100 miles from the Russian border. During that battle, most local residents fought alongside the army of the Russian czar against invading Swedish troops and a band of Cossacks fighting under a Ukrainian leader named Ivan Mazepa.
To this day, Russian and Ukrainian historians disagree about which side won the Battle of Poltava. Putin insists that Russia won the battle, cementing its historic claim to sovereignty over Ukrainian territory. On that basis, Putin insists Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” However, Ukrainian historian Oleh Pustovgar insists that the Russian narrative is factually wrong. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Putovgar said that, “For Putin, the mythology of the Battle of Poltava is the foundation of the [false] idea that we are one nation.”
Putin also said last week that he blames Vladimir Lenin, the founding communist leader of the Soviet Union, for handing over historically Russian lands to the Soviet-era republic of Ukraine more than 100 years ago to “create a country [Ukraine] that had never existed before.”
In addition, Putin has argued that Ukraine’s future membership in the NATO alliance would pose a serious threat to Russian national security, by exposing its long eastern border to a potential invader. It is also widely believed that one of Putin’s motivations for the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 was his desire to protect the Russian navy’s Baltic Sea fleet, which was and still is based at the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
THE US RIGHT TO INTERVENE TO PROTECT UKRAINE
On the other hand, the US also has a right to intervene in the defense of Ukraine based upon the 1994 agreement that it signed with Great Britain and Russia under which Ukraine agreed to give up the nuclear arsenal that it inherited upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, in return for assurances that its territorial sovereignty and borders would be respected. While such an agreement is not as binding under international law as the formal NATO military treaty, it does at least imply a US guarantee that Ukraine would be safe from invasion.
Putin has denied US accusations that his military buildup on the Ukrainian border is a prelude to a full-scale Russian invasion, and accuses Ukraine, in turn, of planning a military offensive against the Russian-backed separatist militias which control the industrial area of eastern Ukrainian known as the Donbass.
Veteran US foreign policy expert Richard Hass notes that there is a precedent for a US military intervention to defend Ukraine in response to a Russian invasion. The First Persian Gulf war was preceded by similar military buildup by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein on Kuwait’s southern border. Rather than being just a bluff, Saddam Hussein then invaded the country, seizing control of its oil wells and threatening neighboring Saudi Arabia. That, in turn, prompted US President George H.W. Bush to organize a broad international coalition to oust the Iraqi forces from Kuwait and restore the country’s sovereignty.
Hass argues that Putin would be likely think twice before going forward with an invasion and occupation of Western Ukraine, for fear that it might lead to a disastrous extended guerrilla war much like the ill-fated Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s.
Hass also believes it would be a mistake for Biden to give in to Putin’s demands by permanently ruling out Ukrainian membership in NATO, because to do so would only encourage Putin to engage in similar attempts at military blackmail in Eastern Europe.
While some have criticized President Biden’s weak reaction to the Russia’s provocative buildup along Ukraine’s border, Hass defends Biden’s non-military response as the only viable option, given the practical difficulties the US military would face doing battle along the Russian border. Because Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the US is not legally committed to come to its defense in case of a Russian invasion, and its NATO allies would not be obligated and most likely unwilling to join in such an effort.
Therefore, Hass argues that Biden’s only practical option is to find ways to make the cost of a Russian invasion of Ukraine to Putin too high, by providing Ukraine with the arms it would need to defend itself, or by imposing sanctions on Russia’s already fragile economy — but without committing US military forces to direct combat. The next challenge would then be for Biden to find a way to enable Putin to back down without invading and without losing face with his supporters at home.
WHY BIDEN MUST DEFEND TAIWAN
However, allowing Taiwan to fall to an invasion from the mainland without a fight would be a more damaging blow to America’s international prestige. Because Taiwan has been under direct US military protection for more than 70 years, its abandonment would be seen as an unforgivable betrayal by Biden of longstanding US security guarantees to its main allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. In addition, not only is Taiwan one of the region’s most successful democracies, as well as a major American trading partner, it is also the world’s largest source for the computer chips now in such critically short supply.
China’s President Xi, who has been consolidating his absolute power in recent years, is also determined to turn his country into a global superpower by using its beefed-up military to intimidate its regional neighbors, and its enormous economic power to buy influence over poor third-world countries around the world. China’s communist government has sought to conquer Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa, ever since Communist Party forces led by Mao Zedong defeated the Nationalist government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, forcing him and his followers into exile on the island, about 100 miles off the mainland coast.
For the next 20 years, Taiwan often served as a flash point for tensions between the US and China’s communist government, with the US committing the might of its Seventh Fleet to the island’s defense.
THE CONTROVERSIAL “ONE CHINA” POLICY
Ever since the communist Chinese government won US recognition from President Nixon in 1972, the legal status of Taiwan has been in dispute. The US has adopted a deliberately ambiguous “One China” policy, which recognizes the sovereignty of the communist government in Beijing, while at the same time committing the US to the military defense of Taiwan’s pro-Western government.
For its part, Beijing has consistently protested against periodic sales by the United States to Taiwan of the modern weapons it needs to defend itself. At the same time, the regime in Beijing has always claimed that the pro-Western government in Taiwan is illegitimate, because the island is sovereign Chinese territory.
The existing tensions between the US and China were also recently aggravated by two questionable diplomatic decisions by the Biden administration. The first was a public statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken advocating for Taiwan’s “robust participation” in the UN’s international conference system, implying the island’s independence from the Beijing government. The second was Biden’s decision this month to invite Taiwan’s participation in the White House virtual “Summit for Democracy” while excluding the Beijing government.
WHY RUSSIA AND CHINA ARE CHALLENGING THE US NOW
According to an analysis by international security expert Andrew Michta published in the Wall Street Journal, another reason why Russia and China are creating this crisis now is because, in the long term, the leaders of both countries fear that the US will grow too strong to risk such a provocation unless they act relatively soon, within the next five years.
Michta cites several long-term trends which will favor the US if a confrontation with Russia and China is delayed. The first is an ongoing modernization of the US military to improve its ability to emerge victorious even in a simultaneous conflict with the Chinese and Russian militaries. The second is the fact that the US and its Western allies are temporarily weakened by a combination of factors, including the necessity to deal with the pandemic, massive incursions by illegal immigrants, and a divisive cultural battle between conservative and progressive inspired political ideologies which has challenged the legitimacy of their national democratic heritage.
However, Michta concludes, once the United States, in particular, has moved past these internal challenges, rebuilt its industrial base, and become more self-sufficient and less reliant on foreign supply chains, it “will present Beijing and Moscow with a far more formidable foe than today.”
Also, from a strictly military point of view, Michta believes that, “Beijing and Moscow are keenly aware that America’s research-and-development base can be mobilized to improve US capabilities. Time is on America’s side when it comes to the quality and sophistication of its weapon systems.”
Yet another long-term strategic concern for the leaders Russia and China are their chronically low birth rates, which project a shrinking of their labor forces, leading to declines in productivity and social instability.
Mark Katz, a government policy professor at the George Mason University, suggests that Putin may believe that he must make his move to seize Ukraine now or never because he fears that Russia will become progressively weaker going forward, particularly if the rest of the world moves away from importing Russian fossil fuels, which is its main source of foreign income.
Another problem facing both Russia and China are the inefficiencies which come with their notoriously corrupt political systems, which will also lead to the long-term decline of their economies.
It is clear that Ukrainian forces could not stop a cross-border invasion by the far larger and better equipped Russian army, and that NATO member are highly unlikely to commit their own troops in Ukraine’s defense. Furthermore, Putin must know that there is considerable division among NATO countries about whether to accept a membership application from Ukraine for fear of provoking exactly the same kind of invasion that Russian troop movements are now threatening.
PUTIN USUALLY DOESN’T RISK A FAIR FIGHT
At the same time, Putin’s prior military adventures, including the Second Chechen War (1999–2009), the Russian-Georgian War (2008), the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine (2014), and Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war (2015), were all limited engagements whose goals could be quickly achieved or which did not require an extended commitment or serious risk to Russian military forces.
But that would not necessarily be true if a full-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine will prompt the US and its NATO allies to send Ukraine enough modern weapons to enable its army to fight back effectively on its own. Even if Russian troops were able to quickly overwhelm Ukraine’s forces and occupy the country, there are enough militarily-trained Ukrainian civilians to mount a sustained guerilla war, similar to the disastrous Russian military involvement in Afghanistan during the 1980s. If Ukrainian fighters could inflict unacceptably high casualties on the Russian occupying troops, it would critically weaken Putin’s domestic political support.
So why would Putin risk the stability of his own government by mounting such an invasion? Katz suggests one possible answer — Putin’s greatest fear is that Ukraine’s corruption-ridden government will eventually evolve into a successful democracy with a thriving Western-style market economy. As happened at the end of the Cold War, such a development could also critically undermine the support of Russia’s economically-deprived citizens for Putin’s autocratic rule.
Despite these arguments on both sides, Putin’s risk averse history suggests that he is probably bluffing, and hoping to frighten Ukraine’s leaders and NATO into giving in to Russian military intimidation without trying to put up a serious fight, as happened seven years ago during the successful Russian invasion of Crimea.
CAN BIDEN’S THREATS BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY?
Another likely reason why Russia and China are now brazenly threatening two of America’s most vulnerable friends is Biden’s weakness and poor record to date as commander-in-chief. Until he can prove that his threats of US retaliation against Russian and Chinese aggression must be taken seriously, the fate and continued independence of both Ukraine and Taiwan will very much remain in doubt.