Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine has shocked the world, producing an unprecedented opportunity for the Biden administration to use global public opinion, primarily in the West, to buttress the solidarity between the United States, NATO, and EU against Russia, its long-term adversary. Biden knows that the November midterm elections will determine his political standing and the war’s course. Most importantly, the economic and financial tools available, especially the sanctions regime, are going to become more important as the war grudges on into a stalemate of sorts, with no clear winners on either side.
Firstly, the war will be utilized by the Biden administration, at the international level, for its own political standing and accrued benefits. This is to be expected. Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine has shocked the world, producing an unprecedented opportunity for the Biden administration to use global public opinion, primarily in the West, to buttress the solidarity between the United States, NATO, and EU against Russia, its long-term adversary. This is a golden opportunity not to be missed at all. The Biden administration, to its credit, is quickly transforming America’s initial reactive posture into an active leadership role of putting together an impressive coalition supporting its war aims. The obvious aim is to increase the overall standing of the United States as the sole power and increase Biden’s own standing as a strong world leader.
Therefore, again to its credit, the Biden administration quickly made the most of the public outrage and the sway of public opinion, both inside the country and outside, to swiftly put in colossal amounts of military spending for the war. Consider that America has spent $13.6 billion on military aid to Ukraine. On August 24, 2022, Biden announced a $3 billion package of military assistance to Ukraine, which is the clearest evidence of his intent to support the country’s long-term defence. American aid for Ukraine remains by far the largest.
Meanwhile, Putin signed a decree authorizing a sizeable expansion of the Russian military. Both signs indicate that the war is going to be a protracted one which means all understand that there will be no clear military outcomes anytime soon. Given Putin’s enduring rationale for a demilitarized Ukraine and removing perceived security threats to Russia, he is not likely to give up conquered territory. Therefore, the argument for American restrain makes sense, to the Biden administration and the Realists at least.
The greatest long-term political challenge is that both China and India have increased their energy imports from Russia since the war began. Also, Russia is using Turkey, a NATO member, to evade sanctions. Meanwhile, China has joined Russia in accusing America of responsibility for the war. The timing is bad as there is a marked deterioration of bilateral relations between the United States and China. America’s increasing concerns about the Russian Chinese axis are affecting the war’s outcome. All these challenges will be met by greater restrained behaviour by the Biden administration. No adversarial or punitive action is to be expected forthcoming in the future. The Biden administration is pragmatic enough to show restraint, despite its own public rhetoric to the contrary.
In sum, lesser emphasis on the military tool, outside Ukraine itself, can be expected to be forthcoming from the Biden administration in the future.
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Secondly, domestic politics is a far more significant factor to decide the war policy than the international realm. This is based on the premise that all politics is local, and that war is only politics by other means, as Clausewitz famously stated. Most importantly, the Biden administration knows where to focus, and that is not war in Europe but on the country itself. Meaning that its primary consideration shall always be local politics and not the Ukraine war, or any other one for that matter. Biden knows that the November midterm elections will determine his political standing and fate and, obviously, the war’s own course. The actions he is now taking will benefit the overall standing of the Democratic party so that it wins in the coming November mid-term elections, and general elections thereafter. Biden’s approval ratings have already improved, but for other reasons.
President Biden, a clever and experienced politician, will play the game of politics by continuously balancing domestic political forces and agenda. Like all other politics, Biden will continuously try balancing the public demands of American Hawks/Conservatives/Republicans and Liberals/Doves/Democrats on the war issue.
Consider that Biden is painting the war in simplistic ideological terms meant to attract strong public support for his war policy. Americans have only outrage for Russia. Republicans are clearly fueling militarism while liberals are advocating restraint.
To placate the hawks and Republican conservatives, Biden announced an overly ambitious objective which is the permanent weakening of Russia through a proxy confrontation with it. Conservatives argue that America must further build up its defence capability. Biden does what he must: Spur a new era of greater European defence capability. President Biden will try to placate the Conservative/Hawks/Republican citizens by announcing further attempts to build the already formidable NATO military alliance. Consider that increased defence spending assists the local American defence industry which is now poised to gain further from the war efforts. Plus, Republicans and Conservatives have always wanted greater defence capability for the United States against Russia and China, perceived adversaries. He will enthusiastically deliver here.
But to placate the Doves/Liberals, Biden also expresses the hopes that the war will eventually settle down into a stalemate with a much-weakened Russia forced into a negotiated peace deal with Ukraine. Therefore, Biden will not provide Ukraine with offensive weapons capable of striking Russia. Thereby, showing restrained behaviour.
Like all good politicians, President Biden will hedge his bets in either direction.
The outcome of the war is unpredictable. But if the uncertainty increases, which is more likely, there will be accelerated calls for its end. President Biden, being a smart politician, will respond to the call and will shift American foreign policy in that direction. Meaning the United States will seek peace with Russia through a negotiated deal. In other words, the war policy is flexible and restrained enough to achieve the end of a negotiated peace deal, if necessary. In sum, the Biden administration is also considering ending the war. It all depends on local politics sways inside the country.
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Thirdly, the salience of non-military tools will be accentuated, as never before. Knowing that the war is going to be a protracted one, President Biden will now shift focus further to the other non-military tools available to be employed against Russia. The sanctions regime, although unglamorous, is the best economic and financial tool available to further the Biden administration’s own standing, both domestically and globally. Consider that the United States has already enacted one of the most comprehensive, stringent, and unprecedented sanctions regimes against Russia. Biden promised to exact pain to Russia through it. Russian banks were removed from the global payment system and the economy contracted. American corporations are withdrawing from Russia. But Russia’s economy is also showing resilience. This is to be expected and known well enough. Notwithstanding the rhetoric, the sanctions regime is not designed to completely wreck the Russian regime, only to dent it in some manner. It is more symbolic than substance.
Given America’s own economic problems, inflation remains high, and GDP has reduced, the Biden administration will only do so much in the Russian sanctions regime area. For it knows that any sanctions regime, if not all, can be double-edged swords. It is well known that millions of supplier relationships with Russian entities exist globally, and American businesses rely on them. The war is resulting in supply chain troubles, surging commodity prices, and rising shipping costs. Cutting off the Russian commodity trade is increasing prices. The war is even causing widespread disruption of critical minerals supply affecting America’s national security. Therefore, Americans are angry. The Biden administration will try placating these angry citizens by softening the Russian sanctions regime. This means that placating angry citizens is far more important than hurting Russian adversaries. Consider that the Biden administration is currently looking at the China trade deal with the same lens. This is smart politics.
The sanctions regime tool has a more symbolic value which is known to all. Therefore, since these sanctions carry symbolic political value, they will continue unabated.
Most importantly, the economic and financial tools available, especially the sanctions regime, are going to become more important as the war grudges on into a stalemate of sorts, with no clear winners on either side. It all depends upon domestic politics, which is the real driver of all policies, including the war.
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About the author
Sohail Mahmood is an independent global affairs analyst and the author of several books, monographs, and research articles on the Middle East and South Asian politics, governance, and development issues. He has taught for about 30 years in various universities of Pakistan and the US and has worked as a consultant for the World Bank, CIDA, SDC, IUCN, and UNDP. Sohail lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States.