It’s crunch time for leaders around the world to thwart a Russian attack on Ukraine. But Republicans in Washington seem to think the entire situation is President Joe Biden’s fault—at least, that’s what they’re trying to convince voters.
Republicans spent much of the week lashing out against Biden, blaming the president for not being tough enough on Russia and ridiculing how the administration is handling evacuations from Ukraine.
The curious part of their criticism is that emergency evacuations from Ukraine aren’t currently needed, both because Russia hasn’t yet attacked and, more importantly, there are still regular commercial flights into and out of Ukraine.
Still, that didn’t stop Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and several other Republicans from writing a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken this week urging him to reverse course on the administration’s stated plan of not running military evacuations of Americans should they get caught in Moscow’s crosshairs in Ukraine.
“This response is wholly inadequate,” the letter said. “This response is a failure of the Commander-in-Chief to keep his law-bound requirements to safeguard American citizens traveling and living abroad and a failure of the Department of State’s leadership to de-escalate conflict or plan and execute a coordinated evacuation effectively.”
Other Republicans are straight up insulting Biden as a way to blame him for Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine.
“He talked tough but Putin doesn’t respect statements, he only respects strength,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), who sits on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said on Fox News. “He views President Biden as weak and ineffective and indecisive.”
Barrasso even invented a scenario in which he knows exactly what Putin is thinking, which intelligence and military analysts say is a fool’s errand.
“Putin has to make the calculation, and I think he’s already done this, ‘what’s it gonna cost me to go in, to invade, how much is the price I’m going to have to pay?’ And he thinks with Biden in the White House… that price is going to be relatively low,” Barrasso said.
Republicans have been going after Biden for months, putting in the footwork to be able to blame him and the Democratic Party should things go catastrophically awry in Ukraine. They’ve frequently claimed that President Donald Trump was far stronger on Russia than Biden, ignoring a number of ways in which Trump was soft on Putin.
But the GOP’s latest launchpad for haranguing Biden—the evacuation debacle—isn’t the one-two punch Republicans might think it is. And it isn’t cut and dry, experts say.
The decision to announce there are no plans for military evacuation might actually be quite prudent. The driving force behind the move might be to avoid getting troops accidentally involved in an all-out war with the Russian military, former Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor suggested.
“There’s value in what the president said, which is he doesn’t want to put troops in possible contact [or] conflict with Russian troops and so he wants everybody to get out so he doesn’t have to send troops in,” Taylor told The Daily Beast.
The Biden Administration has vowed to not send troops to Ukraine, in order to avoid war with Russia. If Russia does attack in Ukraine, allowing troops or equipment to work on evacuations from Ukraine could leave them in the crosshairs and ratchet up the possibility that the U.S. would have to respond.
U.S. officials have been warning that Moscow is looking for a way to claim aggression from Ukraine or the west in order to justify invading Ukraine for weeks now. Sending in the U.S. military for evacuation at this point could give Russia just what it wants: A potential pretext for invasion, according to Doug London, a former CIA Senior Operations officer.
”If you start sending in American C-17s” to evacuate Americans, “the Russians are going to say we’re using it to disguise our ‘invasion plans’ and say ‘we’ve got to act before the Americans,’” London told The Daily Beast, adding that you don’t employ U.S. forces until absolutely necessary.
”You don’t use U.S. forces because, any time you use and put U.S. forces on the ground, there’s a chance for engagement,” said London, who recently published a memoir on his time in the CIA, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence. “You don’t go from 0-60… It’s a powder keg. Why would you serve this up to the Russians?”
In a speech at the United Nations Security Council meeting this week, Blinken warned about just that, reiterating warnings that Russia has plans to “manufacture a pretext” to attack Ukraine.
The Pentagon, for its part, has suggested that Americans have had numerous warnings to get out, just in case the drumbeats of war arrive.
“It’s not a war zone… there’s been plenty of time and opportunity” to leave, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said in a recent press briefing, pointing to warnings from Biden and the State Department to leave Ukraine for weeks given Russia’s stance.
In times of crisis, the U.S. government might not be able to intervene, Biden warned.
“It’s not like we’re dealing with a terrorist organization. We’re dealing with one of the largest armies in the world,” Biden told NBC News’ Lester Holt in an interview last week. “Things could go crazy quickly.”
The State Department, which has been steadily drawing down its staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, ultimately moving it to another location in Ukraine in case of conflict, has been providing guidance to Americans on how to leave the country in the interim, including on how they can travel overland, specific crossing instructions at borders, available commercial flights, and emergency financial assistance.
A State Department spokesperson also pushed back on the idea that the State Department hadn’t done enough.
“In the case of Ukraine, as the security situation has degraded, the Department has fulfilled its obligation to U.S. citizens,” the spokesperson told The Daily Beast when reached for comment.
The State Department spokesperson added that the Biden administration has established a welcome center in south-east Poland and that State Department teams are prepared to receive Americans in Romania, Hungary, Moldova, and Slovakia. The Pentagon has also indicated it is within U.S. troops’ remit to help Polish authorities with evacuation flow should it come to that.
In recent days, the picture on the ground in Ukraine has been looking grim.
On Thursday, Russia informed the State Department that Putin would be expelling the United States’ deputy ambassador, Bart Gorman, a move which the State Department called an “escalation.”
Russian-backed forces have also been shelling innocent targets in Eastern Ukraine, the largest attack on separatist areas in Ukraine since 2018, and concerns are mounting that evacuation orders in the Donetsk People’s Republic amid reports of an explosion could form a pretext for invasion. And Russia warned in a letter this week that it would be “forced” to use “military-technical measures” if it doesn’t get security guarantees from the west.
Although Russia seemed to claim earlier this week it would be conducting a troop withdrawal, no such evidence has materialized, and instead, satellite imagery has revealed the opposite, as The Daily Beast reported. Russia has also been sending thousands more troops towards the border, according to U.S. intelligence.
It’s not all bad score cards for the administration, though. Intelligence analysts are applauding Biden’s efforts to call out Russia’s internal planning publicly in an attempt to destabilize their plotting efforts. The administration’s work to rally the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other allies in the face of Russian aggression has also been getting high marks as well.