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When it comes to their understanding of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are generally two types of Republicans. The first type is basically siding with Russia. They may couch this by saying that Vladimir Putin has never done anything to me, that Putin is “smart” and “savvy,” or that Putin just feels cornered by an encroaching NATO.
The second type of Republican thinks it’s bad for Russia to invade Ukraine—and it’s all Joe Biden’s fault!
These two types are hardly compatible. But since it’s no longer feasible to pretend the invasion is just a figment of our imagination, some conservatives say blame must be assigned to “the West,” NATO, or Joe Biden; it cannot be assigned to Putin, Russia, or (least of all) Donald Trump.
Because neither “the West” nor NATO will be on the ballot any time soon, Biden is the most tangible and politically advantageous scapegoat. But is this fair? I have been a harsh critic of Biden (here, here, here, here, and here, just to cite a few examples). But blaming Biden for Russia invading Ukraine strikes me as a bad faith argument made out of political expediency.
That’s not to say that Biden has not made mistakes. His biggest was probably waiving sanctions on the company behind the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (a pipeline meant to transport natural gas from Russia to Germany). He recently reimposed them. Biden’s initial decision was the wrong one, but it was ostensibly made at the behest of Germany, who argued that the sanctions constituted “interference in autonomous decisions taken in Europe.” Biden also (wrongly, in my estimation) canceled the XL pipeline, demonstrated weakness with his disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal (this is Ted Cruz’s rationale for blaming Biden), and continued to reward Putin’s bad behavior with summits, phone calls, and meetings. There was also his weird gaffe about a “minor incursion,” which did not matter in the end.
Biden was also part of the Obama administration, which made huge mistakes such as Obama’s “red line” in Syria and a post-Crimea invasion response that did nothing to tame Putin. But it’s fairer to focus on things that happened on Biden’s watch; some of these things (Nord Stream 2 and the Keystone XL pipeline, for example) reversed Trump administration policies.
This brings us to the million-dollar question: Would this invasion have happened on Trump’s watch? This is a more interesting question than you might, at first, think. The Bulwark’s Will Saletan argues that Putin didn’t have to invade other countries during Trump’s presidency because “Putin didn’t want to mess with a bigger catch: an ally in the US who was trying to weaken NATO.” Trump’s long history of praising Putin (the lowest point being Helsinki, when he sided with Russia over the U.S. intel community) makes it difficult to imagine that he would have risen to the occasion.
On the other hand, others argue that Trump’s erratic, capricious style (consider the killing of Iran’s Qasem Soleimani) might have served as a deterrent, similar to the “madman theory” of politics that was cultivated by Richard Nixon. Additionally, because Trump is an egomaniac (who prizes the appearance of toughness), he might have felt compelled to overcompensate during an invasion. This, ironically, increases the odds of both Putin not invading and/or of Trump starting World War III to demonstrate his manliness. Having said that, when it comes to his administration’s actual policies, Trump deserved more credit than he got. Unlike Obama, Trump provided critical aid to Ukraine. He also approved the Keystone XL pipeline, approved sanctions over Nord Stream 2, and supported a larger defense budget.
In other words, it’s messy and confusing. The best analogy to explain Trump’s management of Russia may be Homer Simpson’s assessment of alcohol as “The cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems.”
As conservative author and writer Matthew Continetti has pointed out, “Joe Biden is now the fourth U.S. president to take office with the desire to improve relations with Russia.” Bush looked into his eyes and didn’t see a KGB agent, Obama got rolled, and Trump sucked up. And the truth is that none of it worked.
Biden is merely the latest to fail at managing Putin. And while we might fault Biden for failing to learn from his predecessors (who thought they could charm or outmaneuver Putin), he’s also saddled with the bad hand he inherited from them. Putin is also stronger today than he was during previous presidencies.
It should also be noted that in the last month or so, Biden has done things correctly. He has preempted Russia’s attempts to create a bogus pretext for the invasion, clearly condemned Russia’s “unprovoked and unjustified” invasion, built a broad international coalition of support, and imposed sanctions (including sanctions on the company behind the Nord Stream 2 pipeline).
But just for fun, let’s pretend for a second that Biden was somehow to blame for the invasion. Let’s assume that Biden’s show of weakness did influence Putin. Would now be the time for Americans to air that dirty laundry and point the guns inward? As the invasion begins, wouldn’t the patriotic thing be to focus on the people of Ukraine and focus our passionate anger on the man who is actually responsible?
No, not Joe Biden. Vladimir Putin.