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Biden Is Right About Minor Incursions

To the dismay of reflexively hawkish Republicans, the president is correct about at least one thing in Ukraine.

Republicans are still making hay about yet another gaffe from President Joe Biden last week, this time regarding the ongoing situation in Ukraine. But rather than Biden’s all-too-common slurring and stumbling Republicans tend to “pounce” on via social media, last week’s major gaffe was substantive.

While Biden addressed members of the press from the White House on Jan. 19, the president had the gall to answer a question by suggesting the United States and its allies would respond differently “if it’s a minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine. In his answer, Biden reiterated that “Russia will be held accountable if it invades,” and “our allies and partners are ready to impose severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy,” if Putin decides to take action. Regardless, Biden’s line about a “minor incursion” is what stuck.

To the dismay of  reflexively hawkish Republicans, Biden is correct.

Almost as if the Republican Party’s public relations machine sent out an email blast directing its members on how to capitalize off of Biden’s “gaffe,” several Republican legislators began putting out tweets and statements that Biden had given Putin the “green light” to attack Ukraine. Sens. Marsha Blackburn, Tom Cotton, and Ted Cruz all tweeted that Biden had given Putin the “green light to invade.”

Cruz, who has a record of contacts with Ukrainian lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and recently failed to pass a bill imposing further sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 project, was the most verbose of the three in objecting to Biden’s remarks on social media. “Biden’s speech tonight was shockingly reckless and out of touch,” Cruz said. “He shocked the world by giving Putin a green light to invade Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians will see his comments and lose hope that the West will stand against Russian aggression.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R.-Oklahoma), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also tweeted his concern, though he omitted the GOP’s newest buzzword for Ukraine. “This administration must be clear that ANY Putin move into Ukraine is unacceptable, and we should do more to impose costs on him.”

On the House side, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R.-New York) tweeted that Biden’s comments about a minor incursion constituted “a dangerous train wreck.” House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R.-Texas) also tweeted, “Biden’s remarks on #Russia’s buildup near #Ukraine tonight were nothing short of a disaster. He shared the potential disunity of Western nations on tough sanctions and clearly gave Vladimir #Putin the green light to launch a ‘minor incursion.’”

Another House Foreign Affairs Committee member, Representative Mike Gallagher (R.-Texas), shared a statement via Twitter with strikingly similar language. “By greenlighting ‘minor incursions,’ President Biden invites major incursions in Ukraine, Taiwan, and around the world.”

Representative Mike Rogers (R.-Alabama), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a statement in response to Biden’s remarks and zeroed in on his “minor incursion” comments. “Let’s be clear, Mr. President: an invasion of another country is an invasion. There is no such thing as a ‘minor incursion’ into another country, especially when Russia already occupies large portions of Ukraine,” Rodgers said. “We’re staring down the barrel of an Afghanistan-in-Europe disaster,” the Alabama congressman proclaimed. Rodgers may be proven right, but for all the wrong reasons.

Dan Caldwell, vice president of foreign policy at Stand Together, told The American Conservative that though he believes “Biden‘s comments were poorly delivered,” he thinks “it’s a mistake for Republicans to take a reflexively hawkish position on Ukraine, not just because it’s bad policy but it’s also bad politics.”

A recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Charles Koch Institute that Caldwell referenced in his interview with TAC found that a majority of respondents either “strongly” or “somewhat” oppose going to war with Russia over Ukraine. Just over a quarter answered in the affirmative.

“It’s better for Republicans to hit the Biden administration for continuing to keep the door open to NATO expansion in Ukraine, and for these muddled messages that are coming from the Biden administration, which gives the appearance that the United States is guaranteeing Ukraine territorial integrity when we have no such commitments in treaty form,” Caldwell said. 

Unfortunately for America’s sons and daughters who might find themselves shipped off to Ukraine to fight in the regime’s latest war of choice, Republicans heard Biden’s comments, rather than the voices of the American people who’ve grown weary of perpetual warfare halfway around the globe.

Biden’s comments also caught the ears of Ukraine’s leaders, who are constantly seeking further defense commitments from the United States and its NATO allies.

“We should not give Putin the slightest chance to play with quasi-aggression or small incursion operations,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in response to Biden’s comments in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also weighed in on Twitter. “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” Zelensky tweeted, “as the President of a great power.” Greatness, it seems, is in the eyes of the beholder.

Zelensky has since changed his tune on Biden, and publicly thanked the president for his “unprecedented… diplomatic and military assistance.”

Biden was soon forced to clarify what he meant by “minor incursion,” which he suggested could be a cyberattack or other actions short of Russia’s “major military forces” crossing into Ukraine. However, even if Russia were to cross the Ukrainian border, it is still quite possible that a territorial encroachment could be perceived by other Western powers as a minor incursion. These minor incursions vary in size and scope, but fall short of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Aside from cyberattacks, “a minor incursion on the ground would, for example, be a move to drive Ukrainian forces out of all or some of the Donbas region. It’s almost forgotten that the separatists didn’t even take all of the Donbas,” Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft Senior Research Fellow Anatol Lieven told TAC.

As it stands now, Russian separatists control the eastern portions of the Donbas, which encompasses the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of Ukraine. Russia also controls the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014 in the aftermath of the Maidan revolution. A majority of the population in each of these regions, according to Ukraine’s latest census in 2001 (which was scheduled to take place in 2011, but has been delayed every year since), reported Russia as their native language. More than a decade prior to the Crimean annexation, Russians made up nearly 60 percent of the population.

With the forces it has amassed on the Ukrainian border, Russia could attempt to swiftly take the remaining portions of the Donbas, “then basically stop and try to negotiate again,” said Lieven.

But Russia could decide to continue moving further into Ukraine without causing more than a minor incursion. After taking the Donbas, Russia could look south and capture the Zaporizhzhia Oblast, which nearly a quarter of its population reported being ethnically Russian in the 2001 census. The Russians could also consider taking Kherson, the oblast between Zaporizhzhia and Crimea. Though Kherson’s 2001 census data shows less than 15 percent of its inhabitants claimed to be ethnically Russian, 20 to 50 percent of the oblast’s inhabitants reported Russian as their language. Taking Kherson and Zaporizhzhia would connect Crimea to the Donbas, putting the most eastern portions of Ukrainian territory under Russian control. Russia could also move on the Kharkiv Oblast, another Ukrainian region whose population is about a quarter ethnically Russian, and then move into Dnipropetrovsk, where the Russian minority amounts to nearly a fifth of the population.

However, regardless of how the west responds, the Ukrainians are also more prepared to make the Russian’s sally much more difficult, and more bloody, than the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, which saw six deaths. Ukraine’s experience fighting the separatists in the Donbas that has resulted in the current stalemate could slow Russia’s efforts to take the entirety of the region. They are also better armed and have a more sophisticated domestic weapons-manufacturing industry than they did in 2014.

One problem to consider, Lieven told TAC, is that “if the Ukrainian army were to retreat into the major cities of eastern and southern Ukraine and fight street by street then the Russians would be in a very difficult situation.” Russia is, according to Lieven, “passionately anxious to avoid causing massive civilian casualties, not because they’re humanitarians, but because they have to rule these areas afterwards, and beginning by blowing towns to pieces and killing large numbers of civilians isn’t particularly a good start.”

Thus, it seems unlikely that Russia would consider moving beyond Ukraine’s eastern Oblasts, much less consider a full-scale invasion of the country.

“There’s absolutely no chance of Russia actually trying to seize Kiev or western and central Ukraine because they couldn’t possibly run it. They wouldn’t be able to find the local collaborators they need,” to establish stable governance in these regions like they might in the East, Lieven told TAC.

“What would make things really difficult for the Russians, which they haven’t faced in Crimea or the Donbas, is if very large parts of the population, or a majority of the population, in the areas they conquered was bitterly discontented or continually protesting and supporting rebellions,” Lieven went on to say. “That would be a nightmare for Russia.”

“I would assume that the Russians have seen the challenges that the United States has faced in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and they also faced similar challenges in Syria, and so I think they would be wary of trying to invade Ukraine,” Caldwell suggested. “Whether they expand their control outside of the Donbas region or Crimea, that’s another story.”

Given the reported resources Russia has stationed on Ukraine’s border, Russia seems to understand the reality of a possible invasion, and is still mulling over how far they should intrude on Ukraine, if at all. “If Putin has made up his mind to attack, he would have attacked by now,” Lieven said. He’s correct: Why would Putin give America’s domestic politicians, as well as Russia’s other western adversaries, time to reach a consensus on how to respond to a minor incursion in Ukraine?

Nevertheless, the Republican war drums are providing the background music to a Squid Game round of red-light green-light. “There are still a lot of Republicans in Washington, D.C., who don’t understand where their base is on foreign policy and are disconnected from not just Republican voters, but the American electorate as a whole,” Caldwell went on to say. “This is not 2005 anymore.”

But the GOP of 2005 is very much alive—lurking in the swamp, waiting to strike.



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