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Opinion With Biden standing firm, Putin must wonder: Where’s Trump when I need him?

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin give a joint news conference in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
5 min

If Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to gobble up another chunk of Ukraine at little or no cost to his own interests, he should have done it while Donald Trump was still president. With President Biden leading the response, Putin’s potential costs are rising — while his hoped-for benefits have evaporated.

To be clear, Putin can send his tanks across the border whenever he wants, and nobody can stop him. His recognition of the “independence” of two separatist regions in Ukraine, which call themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, is an ominous development. But his threat to invade has not divided and weakened the Western alliance. Thanks largely to Biden, it has had the opposite effect.

Opinion: Biden’s resolute campaign of deterrence against Russia in Ukraine

Even in this era of scorched-earth politics, Biden’s Republican critics are at pains to formulate specific complaints about his leadership on Ukraine. A few, such as Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), have said he should have ordered a full-scale evacuation of American citizens. But others, including Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), agree with Biden that such a step would be premature and unwise. Some Republicans have attacked Biden’s energy policies, arguing that the United States should be maximizing oil and gas production to curb Putin’s coercive power, which hardly seems on point. The most common GOP criticism is the most amorphous: Putin is supposedly emboldened because he sees Biden as weak.

The precise opposite appears to be true.

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Putin might have hoped that amassing nearly 200,000 troops along the Ukrainian border and coastline would split the transatlantic alliance and perhaps extract a pledge that Ukraine, or what remains of it, will never join NATO. Instead, this demand was met with a flat no. And all of NATO’s major players are on the same page.

The Russian president, a former KGB agent, might have thought he could secretly fabricate a “justification” for invading by having his operatives stage “false flag” attacks against Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine. The Biden administration countered with transparency, making public U.S. intelligence assessments of exactly how Putin was concocting such a pretext for war. The administration also shared intelligence that Russian forces would target a specific hit list of pro-Western political leaders and influencers.

Putin might have assumed he would be believed when he claimed his troops were simply conducting exercises and had begun to head home. Biden and his aides responded with more transparency, reporting that Putin was actually adding to his potential invasion force, not subtracting from it.

U.S. claims Russia has list of Ukrainians ‘to be killed or sent to camps’ following a military occupation

Contrast all of this with what possibly, or probably, would have happened had Trump still been in office. His “America First” foreign policy was infused with a heavy dose of the kind of neo-isolationism that is nightly given voice by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who argues that Putin is justified in insisting that Ukraine be firmly within Russia’s orbit and never join NATO.

You will recall that Trump spoke admirably of Putin as “a tough cookie.” At a meeting in Helsinki in 2018, Trump famously took Putin’s word over that of the U.S. intelligence community on the question of interference in our 2016 election. “President Putin says it’s not Russia,” Trump said. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

You will also recall that Trump’s posture toward NATO was to hector the allies for not spending enough on defense, leaving the United States to bear a disproportionate burden in funding Europe’s defense. This critique is not without merit — Biden, too, wants rich and powerful alliance members such as Germany and Canada to spend more. But remember how haughtily Trump lorded it over the other NATO leaders at summit meetings — and imagine him now trying to hold the alliance together in the face of Putin’s threat to Ukraine.

And recall how Trump tried to extort a bogus investigation of Biden from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — which led to Trump’s first impeachment. Contrast that with how Biden and his team have sought to bolster the inexperienced Zelensky through this crisis, including a face-to-face meeting between Zelensky and Vice President Harris on Saturday in Munich.

The result is that an invasion — and U.S. officials say they believe the Russians will indeed invade — will be much costlier for Putin than he calculated. Planned international sanctions, which include mothballing the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, might be secondary. The biggest impact could be the forging of a new sense of unity and purpose among NATO allies — and even, possibly, new interest among non-NATO nations such as Sweden and Finland in joining the alliance.

Putin’s openness to French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a Biden-Putin summit might be a “tell.” No, Putin hasn’t blinked. Yes, the U.S. assessment that he has already given the order to invade might be accurate.

But even as Russian forces strike, Putin will have to ask himself one question: Where’s Trump when I need him?