The State of the Union was meant to be parochial. U.S. President Joe Biden intended his speech to Congress on Tuesday to celebrate US$1.2-trillion of infrastructure spending and make a final attempt to push through a stalled expansion of the social safety net.
Now, the address is an opportunity for Mr. Biden to rally his country and the world against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It will mark a further turn to foreign affairs after a year in which the White House has been mostly consumed with domestic policy. It will give the White House a chance to show its strength abroad after its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer. And it will cast a spotlight on the President’s handling of one of the worst international crises in decades, which threatens to become the largest war in Europe since 1945 and has already included Russian President Vladimir Putin putting his nuclear arsenal on standby.
Mr. Biden is framing U.S. support for Ukraine as the return to liberal internationalism he promised last year when he took over from the nationalistic and isolationist administration of Donald Trump.
“In the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake,” the President said last week, “freedom will prevail.”
In the face of Mr. Putin’s invasion, Mr. Biden has imposed an ever-escalating series of sanctions on Moscow: cutting off banks and government from debt markets and financial reserves, stopping the flow of high-tech goods such as semi-conductors, and freezing the assets of officials and oligarchs. He has also kept up a steady stream of military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
His penchant for relationship-building and behind-the-scenes negotiation – honed during 36 years in the Senate and on overseas trips as Barack Obama’s vice-president – has been central. He worked to persuade reluctant European countries such as Germany and Italy to join the sanctions regime and provide weapons of their own to Ukraine.
“We’re seeing unprecedented unity on the sanctions, and sanctions going much further than anyone expected. People have to give Biden credit for working with European allies on this,” said Yoshiko Herrera, an international relations professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And countries like Germany really have quite dramatically changed their foreign policy standpoints on military aid.”
The President has taken some criticism for not imposing sanctions pre-emptively. In a December letter issued by the Atlantic Council think tank, a group of former U.S. military leaders and national security officials urged the White House to unveil a package of sanctions ahead of time in a bid to deter Mr. Putin.
Mr. Biden opted instead to gradually scale up his response based on Moscow’s actions. The calculation appeared to be that hitting Mr. Putin before he sent in troops would ratchet up the tension rather than change his mind.
“Putin will find anything he can hang his hat on as an excuse to escalate,” said Nicole Ford, a political scientist and Russia expert at the University of Tampa. “We save face by not playing into his hand, by making sure he can’t just say he’s doing what he’s doing in reaction to us.”
Mr. Biden learned from Afghanistan, when the Taliban’s rapid advance caught the White House off-guard and led to a desperate scramble to evacuate Afghan allies at the Kabul airport.
This time, the Biden administration spent weeks warning publicly that Mr. Putin was planning an attack and laying out in detail how he would conduct it. This strategy was also designed to pre-empt Kremlin efforts at disinformation by making clear that Mr. Putin was looking to fabricate a “false flag” incident as a reason to conquer Ukraine.
Mr. Biden has also drawn lessons from his vice-presidency. The West responded with relatively small sanctions after Mr. Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatist organizations in the Donbas, emboldening Moscow. Mr. Obama also backed down on punishing Syria’s Russia-backed government for using chemical weapons in its civil war.
One former adviser to the pro-Putin United Russia political party said the U.S., German and French response to Crimea and Donbas led Mr. Putin to his current invasion of Ukraine by showing him that the costs of such aggression were minimal. The policy in 2014 amounted to something of an appeasement of Mr. Putin, said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Mr. Obama wasn’t alone in failing to push back on the former KGB agent in the Kremlin. In 2001, then-president George W. Bush said he found Mr. Putin “trustworthy” after getting a “sense of his soul.” In 2008, when Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia, Mr. Bush responded with tepid sanctions.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, accepted Mr. Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election – over the assessments of the U.S.’s own intelligence officials – and last week praised Mr. Putin as “pretty smart” for invading Ukraine.
Mr. Trump was impeached in 2019 after U.S. diplomats and national security officials said he withheld $400-million in military aid to Ukraine in a bid to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky into tarnishing Mr. Biden with an investigation into his son’s business activities.
“Between Biden and Obama, and definitely Trump, Biden has taken this far more seriously from the beginning. He’s shown that in actions, and not just words,” Prof. Ford said.
The sanctions announced so far have devalued the ruble, driving inflation. They have also cut off the Russian treasury and central bank from sources of funds by freezing their assets in the West. This means the Kremlin will have less ability to intervene to prop up the economy with government spending.
“The measures imposed on Russia are unprecedented. There is no historical example we can use to estimate what’s going to happen,” said Laura Solanko, an economist with the Bank of Finland who specializes in Russia’s financial sector.
Other countries in recent years that have faced comparable levels of sanction, she said, are Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, all international pariahs with much smaller economies than Russia’s.
The move, along with Russian reversals on the battlefield, certainly seem to have rattled Mr. Putin. He put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert over the weekend. Mr. Biden has so far chosen not to escalate the U.S.’s own alert status.
On the home front, Mr. Biden has so far achieved the most unanimity he has seen in his presidency. With the exception of Mr. Trump and Tucker Carlson, the popular Fox News host who has consistently played down the significance of Mr. Putin’s invasion, the American political spectrum is united in its condemnation of the attack.
When he stands before Congress to deliver the State of the Union address, the President will have a chance to further cement a democratic alliance both in the United States and abroad.
“It marks that distinction between him and Trump … that America is back on the international scene, as an international leader,” said Barbara Ann Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “This is Biden’s opportunity to draw the world together.”
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