WASHINGTON: The White House is grappling with a U.S. population weary of foreign wars as it weighs a response to a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.
With 100,000 Russian troops poised near the border of Ukraine, President Biden must work with European allies and balance diplomacy with force as he attempts to stave off a bloody incursion, all while keeping focus on a myriad of pressing stateside issues.
The commander in chief also must account for domestic politics characterized by rare bipartisan support for a free Ukraine as well as a public hesitant to be caught up in another overseas conflict following the disastrous end to the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
That hesitancy could significantly factor into what decisions Biden ultimately makes as he seeks to manage the unfolding crisis, according to experts.
“I do think there generally is an American disinterest in fighting another war,” said Robert McConnell, a cofounder of the nonprofit U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.
For example, only 31 percent of likely American voters said that they think U.S. forces should be sent to help if Russia attacks Ukraine, according to a poll from the conservative Rasmussen Reports released last Wednesday.
Though he has been clear that no American forces will be sent directly into Ukraine, Biden is weighing soon sending upwards of 8,500 U.S. troops to Eastern Europe to stave off a bellicose Kremlin. Those forces were put on high alert last week.
“I’ll be moving troops to Eastern Europe in the NATO countries in the near term,” Biden told reporters Friday at Joint Base Andrews upon returning from a trip to Pittsburgh. “Not too many.”
The administration on Friday also released its strongest message yet on Russia, calling on President Vladimir Putin to stand down on Ukraine.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, both urged Moscow to choose diplomacy over invasion.
“There's no reason that this situation has to devolve into conflict,” Austin told reporters at the Pentagon. “He can choose to de-escalate. He can order his troops away. He can choose dialogue and diplomacy.”
Austin added that whatever Putin decides, “the United States will stand with our allies and partners.”
The United States for months has watched the Kremlin amass tens of thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border, including some recently placed in neighboring Belarus under the claim of war drills set for next month.
Russia’s movements follow its 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Moscow's backing of a separatist movement in the country in a conflict that has claimed more than 14,000 lives after eight years of fighting.
Though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the alliance sees an invasion on the country as dangerous to wider European sovereignty and has moved to send forces to nations nearby.
In lockstep with that action, Biden has promised allies that Washington considers its obligations to fellow NATO countries “sacred,” and that an attack on one member must be consider an attack on all of them.
But until recently, the U.S. has been hesitant to trumpet military force as a deterrent to Moscow’s aggressive moves, instead pressing diplomacy and vowing to unleash “swift and severe” economic sanctions should Russia invade its ex-Soviet neighbor. Those financial measures including those that would affect Moscow’s financial institutions, critical industries and oligarchs.
After weeks of largely unsuccessful talks between the West and Russia, however, NATO has moved to bolster its security forces along the eastern flank, as Ukraine shares borders with four alliance members.
The Kremlin has denied any intention of seeking to invade Ukraine and instead claims it is responding to perceived aggressions from NATO.
The fraught situation has already been seized on by former President Trump and other Republicans, who have sought to capitalize on any possible mistake by the Biden administration to help bolster their claims that Biden is a weak and ineffective commander in chief.
“What’s happening with Russia and Ukraine would never have happened under the Trump administration,” Trump said in a statement last Monday. “Not even a possibility!”
But the White House has staunchly pushed back on any scrutiny that the administration was hedging any decisions based on political winds and other challenges.
“The President makes national security decisions based on the national security interests of the United States, period,” a spokesperson told The Hill on Friday.
The Pentagon has equally defended its response to the threat, with press secretary John Kirby on Thursday, pointing to the $200 million lethal aid package for Ukraine the administration approved in December.
“I take issue with the idea that this is sort of eleventh-hour, Hail Mary pass-throw and stuff,” Kirby said. “We’ve been talking about this now for a couple of months, what we’ve been seeing on the ground. And there have been lots of conversations with us and our NATO allies, as well as our Ukrainian counterparts.”
Kirby added that though there is “a lot on our plate” regarding national security, “we’re focused on all of it.”
“Just because right now, one issue obviously is certainly capturing the attention of the world community doesn't mean that we're not equally pursuing and focused on other threats and challenges to the country,” Kirby added.
And while the public may have little taste for the conflict, “Congress does have an appetite for getting genuine military lethal aid to Ukraine,” a necessary step to deter Putin, McConnell said.
“There a very high likelihood the Ukrainians can take care of Putin’s war against Ukraine if they – the Ukrainians – are fully equipped with the weapons that would make a further invasion a very bloody encounter,” he said.
Former State Department counselor Eliot Cohen said one positive outcome of the standoff is “there's pretty much bipartisan consensus” on helping Ukraine defend itself.
The administration has “done all the right things there,” said Cohen, who is now a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
“They've been reasonably firm [with Putin], they're shipping arms there, they're alerting troops to deploy, they're making clear that they're going to be pretty severe sanctions if the Russians do this and I think they've done a reasonably good job of mobilizing the allies.”