The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden faces no easy options on Ukraine — and Democrats fret he could look weak

The president’s aides insist that domestic politics are not part of his calculation on the unfolding crisis.

President Biden answers questions during a White House news conference on Jan. 19. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden’s aides insist that domestic politics are not part of his calculation in managing the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. But Democratic strategists increasingly worry that Biden faces no easy options to avert a seemingly imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine — and that no matter how he handles Russian President Vladimir Putin’s escalation, he could end up looking weak.

“There’s a lot to lose politically, but there’s not a lot to gain,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and strategist. “I think the administration is doing a great job with this, but the Russians are the ones who are going to decide in the end whether to invade or not. If they decide not to invade, there are not going to be ticker tape parades for Joe Biden across America, and if they do decide to invade, people are going to wonder if the administration handled it correctly.”

While answering reporter questions, President Biden added on Jan. 25 that a decision by Russia to invade Ukraine would have “worldwide consequences." (Video: The Washington Post)

In some ways, Biden’s domestic head winds — a job approval rating mired in the low 40s, not to mention lingering memories of last year’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan — offer Putin an advantage. No matter which direction the crisis unfolds, if the ordeal ultimately undermines Biden and makes him seem feeble, Putin will have achieved at least one of his strategic aims.

“Clearly an objective of Putin is to make the Biden administration look weak, especially in the wake of the Afghan withdrawal,” retired admiral James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO, said in response to emailed questions. “Creating division here in the U.S. and influencing American elections is part of his calculus. For Team Biden, a strong, resolute, and successful response to Putin is an important outcome of the Ukraine crisis.”

As Biden considers his options, the Pentagon on Monday put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for a potential deployment to the region as part of a NATO “response force.”

“He wants to manage this crisis and he’d like to find a way to de-escalate it, but he’s not very confident that he can de-escalate,” said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a global risk consultancy.

Former president Donald Trump and some of his fellow Republicans are already positioned to capitalize on any perceived misstep by the Biden administration to help buttress their political narrative that Biden is weak and feckless. They have signaled that they intend to use the situation in Ukraine as just one more example of what they claim is his overall incompetence.

“What’s happening with Russia and Ukraine would never have happened under the Trump administration,” Trump said in a statement Monday. “Not even a possibility!”

In fact, Trump’s presidency was marked by a personal reluctance to forcefully take on Putin, at times praising the authoritarian Russian leader — even siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies, to the dismay of senior members of his national security team.

“It’s hard to imagine someone having less credibility on Russia or Ukraine than the previous president,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in an email. “Donald Trump undermined NATO, excused Russia’s seizing of Ukrainian territory, feuded endlessly with our allies, publicly sided with Vladimir Putin against American law enforcement, compromised classified intelligence, cancelled sanctions over their complicity in using chemical weapons against civilians, and even withheld military aide to Ukraine in an unprecedented political blackmail attempt.”

For Trump, the current conflagration has proved a particularly delicious feast of geopolitical schadenfreude. Trump and his allies have barely been able to contain their glee to finally offer the same critique — that the current president is unable to stand up to Putin — that Biden and other Democrats leveled against him for four years.

A January NBC poll found 54 percent of Americans disapproved of how Biden was handling foreign policy, while 37 percent approved. The survey found 50 percent disapproving of Biden’s handling of the relationship between the United States and Russia, and 37 percent approving. The poll also asked voters to rate Biden on “having strong leadership qualities” and found that 49 percent rated him negatively, and 32 percent rated him positively.

And on Tuesday, Gallup released a measure of Biden’s leadership: 37 percent of Americans said he was a strong leader, down from 46 percent in September 2020.

At the White House, officials say Biden and his team are in no way weighing partisan politics as they scramble to handle the situation in Ukraine. “We are not,” Bates said.

Biden and his team have been discussing how to proceed, including soliciting the advice of outside advisers, lawmakers and diplomats. Administration officials have also worked to include members of Congress in their discussions, holding dozens of briefings and phone calls with lawmakers since December.

In the past week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman have spoken with nearly 20 members of Congress, a White House aide said. The administration held two bipartisan classified briefings Tuesday for House and Senate leadership, as well as relevant committees, with additional briefings planned for all members in the coming days.

A bipartisan group of senators traveled to Ukraine earlier this month and briefed Biden by video the day after they returned.

“I’ve never felt better briefed by an administration than before our trip to Ukraine,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the lawmakers on the trip. “This is a moment where it pays off to have a president with this depth of knowledge on Russia and broader national security policy.”

In some ways, the aftermath of the Trump presidency — in which Democrats used Russia as a cudgel against Trump — has scrambled the domestic political landscape. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had previously criticized Biden as being passive and weak on Ukraine, said Tuesday that the administration “is moving in the right direction” on the issue.

As Bremmer noted, “I can’t remember the last time there was a major foreign policy issue where the Democrats and Republicans actually are so aligned on the actual policy.”

But because Trump’s base remains aggrieved by Democrats’ attacks on Trump over Russia, and because Republicans generally are eager to find fault with the Biden administration, partisan politics will roil the debate nevertheless, he added.

“It’s truly unfortunate that this country is so politically dysfunctional — and I use that term carefully — that it doesn’t matter the issue,” Bremmer said. “We are going to find a way to make it us versus them.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Air Force veteran, said he recently “unleashed hell” in a text message chain with fellow Republicans serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee after a colleague shared an article about the United States approving the dispatch of Javelin missiles from the Baltic to Ukraine and asked, “Why is Biden being allowed to provoke Russia?”

Surprised that a Republican would not support mobilizing to protect a fellow democratic nation, Kinzinger said he pushed back. “I think the vast majority of Republicans would certainly support Ukraine, but there is a very loud minority” who do not, he said.

That sentiment is being fanned by some in conservative media, including Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson, who on his show Monday asked, “Why is it disloyal to side with Russia but loyal to side with Ukraine?”

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said that his district staff director had fielded four calls within an hour on Monday from people who said they believed Russia was making reasonable offers after listening to a recent episode of Carlson’s show.

“I knew he had been putting out what I consider to be propaganda out there for weeks, but I was struck that it was now being reflected in phone calls to my office,” Malinowski said.

The New Jersey Democrat added that while his constituents are not following daily developments in Ukraine, they “care about America being strong, America standing up for what’s right, doing right by our friends and allies in the world, and rising to the occasion in moments like this.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the co-chair of the Ukraine Caucus and a former FBI agent once based in Kyiv, agreed on the imperative that Biden stand up to Russia, and said the stakes to show competence and resolve are heightened in the wake of the messy Afghanistan withdrawal.

Afghanistan, Fitzpatrick said, “gave a green light to a lot of these bad actors, and Russia just happens to be the first. They will not be the last.”

Still, that challenging dynamic could provide Biden with a political silver lining.

“It’s not like his presidency has been marked by his strong leadership skills,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “If anything, voters think he’s kind of waffling or a compromiser. What this does is it provides him with an opportunity to show strength and stand up to Putin — something he criticized Trump for not doing.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.