The logic behind Biden’s gaffe on Ukraine

Biden strongly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against a large-scale invasion of its much smaller neighbor, but he also said that if the attack were a “minor incursion,” it would not result in the same serious response from the US and its allies.
US President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference on the eve of his first year in office, from the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on January 19, 2022. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN / AFP)
US President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference on the eve of his first year in office, from the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on January 19, 2022. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden laid out his thinking, perhaps, inadvertently, on the threat to Ukraine posed by the massive concentration of Russian troops along its border, and, since earlier this week, on Belarus’ border with Ukraine, as well.

Avoiding Confrontation

Biden strongly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against a large-scale invasion of its much smaller neighbor, but he also said that if the attack were a “minor incursion,” it would not result in the same serious response from the US and its allies.

That prompted a bitter complaint from Ukraine. “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,” President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted—in English, as well as Ukrainian.

“Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” Zelensky’s tweet continued.

The Biden administration was quick to recognize that the President should not have spoken as he did, and senior officials immediately began recanting the statement. The effort to walk it back culminated in Biden’s assertion on Thursday, “If any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.”

However, “They can’t really erase what Biden said,” Col. Norvell De Atkine (US Army, Retired) advised Kurdistan 24.

De Atkine, who long taught Middle Eastern political-military affairs at Fort Bragg, where he instructed Special Operations Forces, continued, “All the parties involved, including Ukraine, Russia, and our European partners, know that’s how he really feels.”

US Stuck in Industrial Age Warfare, Underestimating Russian Challenge

Biden’s unusually candid remarks were unusually revealing as to how he and his senior officials see the issue. Their thinking appears to involve some dubious assumptions, including that Russia is a secondary challenge compared to China.

That reflects a US tendency to “mirror image” and assess threats in terms of the size of a rival’s economy.

Biden and many of his top aides served in the Barack Obama administration, and Obama saw Russia as a “regional power” and little more. Yet as a lawyer and one-term senator who then ran for—and was elected—US president, Obama’s grasp of international affairs was always questionable.

Sun Tzu (or those who wrote in that name) famously authored the oldest extant military manual, “The Art of War.” Composed some 2,500 years ago, it is still in use today. That is a remarkable achievement: to write a book that endures for millennia.

As Sun Tzu famously wrote, “The nature of war is constant change.” But the US establishment has yet to fully absorb that point.

Hybrid Warfare

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has coined the term “hybrid warfare” to describe hostile actions that do not involve conventional military force. Generally speaking, hybrid warfare does not require a large industrial base or expensive, sophisticated military equipment.

It includes cyberattacks, as well as the manipulation of perceptions and opinions through various formats, including the internet, social media, and traditional media.

It might also involve manipulating large numbers of refugees and migrants to pressure others. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done that to gain leverage, and money, from the European Union (EU.) Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko just did that, misleading, and exploiting people from the Middle East, including the Kurdistan Region, to pressure the EU.

In fact, after having drawn thousands of people to its border with Poland, Belarus’s intelligence agency turned around and used Facebook to discredit Polish authorities.

Read More: Belarus spy agency producing Kurdish-language fake news about migrant crisis: Meta

That is hybrid warfare, and terrorism is another form. On 9/11, al Qaida carried out the most lethal single assault in US history. But al Qaida has no industrial base.

Nonetheless, the US tends to judge the seriousness of its foes by their Gross National Product (GNP). Thus, China, with the world’s second-largest GNP, was seen as the major threat—what the Pentagon regularly called “the number one pacing challenge.”

The European perception was different. European leaders tended to see Russia as the bigger, more immediate danger.

Speaking on Wednesday, Biden reflected the US view that Russia was a secondary threat, while China remained the bigger challenge.

Putin “is trying to find his place in the world between China and the West,” Biden said.

Yet it is doubtful that Putin sees himself that way. Indeed, it would seem that European leaders were more correct than Americans in their view that Russia was the more immediate, if not more serious, challenge.

Thus, GNP is not determinative. History, culture, and the nature of a regime matter as well.

What are Putin’s Objectives?

“I think that [Putin] is dealing with what I believe he thinks is the most tragic thing that’s happened to Mother Russia,” Biden said on Wednesday. “The Berlin Wall came down, the Empire has been lost, the Near Abroad is gone, et cetera. The Soviet Union has been split.”

Thus, even in Biden’s view, the current confrontation is not limited to Ukraine.

Leaders often have a range of goals: minimal to maximal. If they achieve their minimal goals with relative ease, they reach for more.

Writing in The Washington Post last week, John Bolton, former National Security Adviser to Donald Trump, suggested that Putin likely has in mind a far broader strategy and one that does not necessarily involve the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, which would trigger a strong US response.

Moscow might seek to topple the current Ukrainian government, replacing it with one oriented toward Russia, rather than the West, Bolton suggested.

Putin might also target other countries through his form of hybrid warfare, while his ultimate goal could be to “further erode NATO’s deterrence and its entire collective defense rationale,” Bolton wrote.

Fiona Hill, who worked under Bolton as the senior Russian expert in Trump’s National Security Council suggested something similar.

Putin’s strategy, Hill suggested, is to “hold Ukraine hostage for something much bigger: the final retreat of NATO and an attempt to drive the US out of Europe,” as The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

In the view of Norvell De Atkine, even if nothing further happens, Putin has already gained a great deal without suffering any meaningful US or NATO response.

“Ukraine is already intimidated,” De Atkine said. “They will be a fake independent state ruled by fear of Russia.”

Biden Offered Putin an Off-Ramp?

During Wednesday’s press conference, Biden appeared to offer Putin a way out of the confrontation.

“I think [Putin] still does not want any full-blown war,” Biden said, even as he suggested that events have proceeded so far, that Putin “has to do something,” and “my guess is he will move in.”

“If [the Russians] actually do what they’re capable of doing with the forces amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia,” Biden said, warning Putin of the consequences of a major attack on Ukraine.

However, “If it’s a minor incursion,” Biden also stated, “then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et. cetera.”

Thus, Biden seemed to offer Putin a face-saving way out of the crisis that he, himself, had created: make it a minor incursion.

Moreover, in that case, not only would there be no serious punitive response from the US and its allies, but some of Putin’s demands could be met.

That is, there would be more face-saving.

Among Putin's demands that could be met, Biden said on Wednesday, include, essentially, the denial of Ukrainian membership in NATO

That would not happen in a formal way, Biden explained, but “in the near term,” it “is not very likely, based on much more work they have to do in terms of democracy and a few other things.”

As for Putin’s opposition to placing “strategic weapons” in Ukraine, “We could work something out,” Biden said.

Despite the US administration walking back those concessions after Biden’s press conference, Putin understands well the US position. However, unlike Biden, it does not seem that Putin is really interested in working anything out.