I’m not a praying man, but if I were, I would be on my hands and knees thanking the Almighty that during the worst crisis in Europe since 1945, the United States is led by Joe Biden, not Donald Trump.
There was much skepticism on all counts, with Russia and its apologists denying until the last moment that the invasion would occur. But Biden was dead right. This is the opposite of the Iraq War, when U.S. intelligence and leadership was discredited. American credibility has been enhanced by Biden’s deft handling of this crisis. Today it is Moscow, not Washington, that is acting based on bad intelligence: Russian dictator Vladimir Putin massively underestimated Ukrainian resistance.
While publicly calling out Putin, Biden and his aides were working furiously behind the scenes to unite the West behind an agenda meant to support Ukraine, punish the Kremlin — and, implicitly, to deter China from an attack on Taiwan. Their efforts were more successful than anyone could have imagined a few weeks ago, with Western countries uniting to evict some Russian banks from the SWIFT system of inter-bank transfers, to impose sanctions on the Russian central bank and to rush arms to Ukraine.
Admittedly, part of this mobilization is due to factors beyond Biden’s control: Putin’s reckless aggression has shocked the world, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s stout resistance has inspired it. But there would not have been this degree of unity absent strong American leadership.
As my Post colleagues reported, the Biden administration mounted “a months-long campaign … to share intelligence briefings, pressure powerful countries that they might need to make sacrifices, and coordinate among a disparate group of 27 E.U. member states.” Some of those countries, e.g. Hungary, have been friendly to Russia, while others, e.g. Italy and Germany, have been fearful of breaking business ties. But ultimately, they went along with the kind of draconian sanctions that previously have been applied only to rogue regimes such as Venezuela, Syria, Iran and North Korea.
Biden has hardly been flawless. He should have sent more military equipment earlier to Ukraine, particularly Stinger missiles, without worrying about provoking Putin. But he has generally been sure-handed in this crisis, knowing just how far he can go — and no further. The White House, for example, has rightly rejected calls for a no-fly zone that would bring the United States into direct conflict with another nuclear-armed state. And, in the face of Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling, Biden has wisely de-escalated by not increasing U.S. alert levels. It is a great comfort in this dangerous time to know that, while Russia might be led by an unhinged egomaniac, the United States no longer is.
The one thing missing from Biden’s response has been a prime-time address to explain the stakes to the American people. Biden’s central flaw is that still thinks like the senator he was for so many decades, preferring behind-the-scenes persuasion to stirring oratory. But the State of the Union address on Tuesday night fills that gap.
Undoubtedly, Trump could read similar words from a teleprompter, but they would have no credibility because, despite his incessant lying, he has always been transparent about his true feelings. Even if he were still president, he undoubtedly would have called the Russian invasion an act of “genius” and rhapsodized about how much he likes Putin.
Imagine what that would have done for Western unity. The Europeans are willing to stand up to Russia, notwithstanding their reliance on Russian energy and their fear of Russian military power, because they know that Washington has their backs. Without staunch U.S. support, the unprecedented Western resolve we now see would melt as quickly as the last snow of spring.
The Ukraine crisis further raises the stakes for 2024, when Trump is likely to attempt a comeback to assuage his bruised ego. If Trump returns to the White House — no doubt with Russian help, as in 2016 — Putin could yet find a lifeline to rescue him from the dire straits into which he has plunged his country and the world. If, however, Biden can win another term — or even if he is defeated by an anti-Putin Republican — then this could be a turning point. The misbegotten Ukraine war could well mark the beginning of the end of Putin’s monstrous regime, and also, more generally, a reversal of fortune for the democratic world after 16 years of authoritarian expansion. If this is the beginning of an unexpected democratic resurgence, one can only regret the terrible price paid by the Ukrainian people.
Zelensky rightly earns international adulation for his courageous resistance to a Russian invasion that may yet cost him his life. But don’t forget the critical role that Biden has played in supporting Zelensky and his embattled people. Biden isn’t rushing to claim credit — which he deserves — because, unlike Trump, he knows it’s not all about him.