Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Divides Washington

While Biden’s response to the Ukrainian crisis was firm and well-calibrated, the latest Russian advance has exposed and deepened divisions in the United States.

Vladimir Putin is inscrutable, but his actions in Ukraine appear to serve three broad purposes: to reconstitute Russia’s historical greatness, weaken the only great power that can stand in his way, and sow division in the Atlantic Alliance.

The invasion of Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine fits well with the first objective, but the immediate response in the United States seems to show that the invasion also serves the second purpose quite well. As for the third, time will tell.

Aggression and Division

One would have to be quite naive to buy Putin’s convoluted justification for his latest troop incursion into Ukraine. It was an invasion, pure and simple. The question now is whether Russia can continue to occupy its neighbor with impunity.

In Washington, the opposition fully blames President Joe Biden. Yet, since the beginning of this crisis, the Biden administration has clearly and firmly articulated the United States’ intention to severely sanction any further Russian incursion into Ukraine, and has helped strengthen cohesion among NATO members.

While the United States has historically spoken with one voice in such circumstances, this crisis exposes deep partisan divisions. Although Republicans unanimously blame Biden, they are taking rather contradictory positions.

The more traditional Republicans believe that Biden should have initiated sanctions long ago, which goes against the very logic of sanctions. Isolationists in the Trumpist camp blame Biden for escalating the situation by meddling in a conflict that does not involve the United States.

Trump Flat on His Back

The reaction of the former president speaks volumes. After Russia invaded the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Donald Trump praised the Russian president. For Trump, recognizing the “independence” of these regions and sending “peacekeeping” troops was a stroke of genius by Putin, whose expansionist goals Trump is careful not to criticize.

Trump, of course, claims that none of this would have happened if he had been in office. In fact, when Trump was president, Putin did not need to intervene abroad to strengthen his position. He could wipe out what was left of the opposition in Russia with impunity while Trump was busy weakening American democracy and splitting NATO. The invasions could wait.

Pressure on the Alliance

While Russia’s actions divide the American political elite, Russia is facing off against a fairly united front of European allies for now, despite their dependence on Russian hydrocarbons. With prices already high and economies already weakened by the pandemic, Putin is probably banking on the fact that Western countries will not have the political will to maintain costly sanctions. Some European reactions are surprisingly strong, notably the German decision to suspend the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a big blow for Russia. All Western allies, including Canada, will have to bear part of the cost of the sanctions and the strengthening of NATO in Europe.

It remains to be seen how long the allies will hold out. Putin does not seem to be intimidated by the threat of sanctions, and he seems determined to play this game for a long time.

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