Confused call for Putin to lose power mars Biden’s bid to show improvement since Afghanistan debacle

WARSAW — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has created a “test case” for President Joe Biden’s administration that could doom or rehabilitate the reputational damage done by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“Biden’s administration suffered, really, a credibility setback when it comes to Afghanistan,” a senior European official told the Washington Examiner. “For Biden, it’s also extremely essential that Ukraine’s independence is not destroyed, simplistically saying, because imagine what kind of shockwaves it would send to other parts of Europe: ‘Yeah, we didn’t want to have [a] third world war, but we don’t have Ukraine anymore.'”

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Biden’s team has improved, according to some European officials, since the searing experiences in Kabul — “the greatest debacle that NATO has seen since its foundation,” as one prominent German politician put it. The outcome of U.S. efforts to support Ukraine, and Biden’s reputation, may depend on whether the allies can remain unified around a severe approach toward Russia that requires many European officials to abandon their traditional open-handed approach toward Moscow.

“For the Germans especially now, this might become, domestically, extremely difficult now to keep this situation where they are, because I think they believe these sanctions against Russia have been too tough,” the senior European official said. “They definitely would be happy if there is some kind of a peace agreement which would allow at least to remove a part of those sanctions imposed on Russia. … It’s not very easy to change your mindset during one month.”

The fall of Kabul, Afghanistan, occurred less than two months after Biden and other NATO allies held their first summit of his presidency — an assembly dedicated to platitudes about Biden’s restoration of American leadership, with little public attention on the soon-to-be doomed conclusion to the trans-Atlantic alliance’s mission in Afghanistan. The failures of imagination that characterized those choices, a second senior European official said, should not mar the U.S. and European plans for the current crisis.

“It’s direct pressure because of that, because that was a certain behavior which probably should not be repeated in the future,” the second senior European official said. “The mistake was to trust an enemy which could not be trusted. … We need to be very cautious and [prefer] to rely on our friends and allies [rather] than to the words of [the] other side. That could be simply applied to Russia, you know, where the Russians repeated that they would not invade Ukraine, and what has happened?”

That second official credited the United States for its accurate forecast of the Russian attack, even as Ukrainian officials and European allies downplayed the threat. “So here, definitely, we see a huge improvement in perception of threats, in perception of enemy behavior,” the second official said.

The president didn’t miss a high-profile opportunity to remind other European powers of their mistake during his landmark address on Saturday. “I know not all of you believed me and us when we kept saying they are going to cross the border, they are going to attack,” Biden said from a dais at Warsaw’s Royal Castle. “It’s an example of one of the oldest human impulses: using brute force and disinformation to satisfy a craving for absolute power and control.”

Biden touted that foresight after a series of meetings, including an emergency NATO Leader summit, that his team described as an effort to ensure that European allies don’t waver in their determination to punish Putin.

“Unity can be carried forward by momentum and inertia and adrenaline, but this could go on for quite some time. And to sustain that unity as costs rise, as the tragedy unfolds, that’s hard work,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week. “This is a tough situation, and it takes an American President coming over to really try to drive this forward to keep the ball rolling and keep us all very tightly aligned and united.”

Yet Biden’s attempt to demonstrate resolve against Putin also led the administration into a dramatic and self-contradictory moment. “Putin must end this war. The people of America will stand with you,” Biden said. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

His team scrambled to claw back the statement. “The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a White House official said in a statement distributed to the press. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”

Biden’s team has made a point to coordinate more closely with Eastern and Central European governments living under the shadow of the Russian threat. “I think the administration learned actually from its Afghanistan experience of not consulting, not sharing, not involving all European allies into the decision-making and coordination,” a Slovak official in another capital told the Washington Examiner. “So, they learned internally, and we’ve been actually quite involved in this process.”

Those dialogues reflect an improvement from the traditional Democratic penchant for dealing with the largest Western European states while excluding the more recent additions to the alliance, the official added. “One would assume that this is like a standard practice,” the Slovak official said. “But it wasn’t really at the beginning of the administration.”

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If that coordination fails to produce a happier outcome for Ukrainians than the fate that befell Afghanistan, the first senior European official surmised, Biden could pay not only a strategic price in Europe but also a political one at home. Biden projected confidence about a hypothetical rematch against former President Donald Trump — “I’d be very fortunate if I had that same man running against me,” he said Thursday at NATO headquarters — but an ugly defeat for Ukraine could shake European confidence in his ability to win reelection.

“Famous Mr. Trump [would be] out [saying], ‘if I were the president, I would have done it differently,’” the first senior European official said. “And then, so, it might get very much also [into] the domestic political scene.”

Such political concerns might pale in comparison to the security threats that Biden would face if Putin proves victorious. “Against Ukraine or wins the third world war?” the second senior official replied when asked about the consequences of a Russian victory, chuckling darkly. “Because now we should consider this in these terms. If Ukraine will fall, Putin will not stop … especially when Russia is under sanctions. … He will put all his possible strength to do whatever possible to do some nasty things.”

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