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Biden Must Do Better Than Obama on Ukraine

Russia’s 2014 invasion distracted Washington and delayed the Asia pivot—something the West cannot afford to repeat.

By , a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden meet for the U.S.-Russian summit in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden meet for the U.S.-Russian summit in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden meet for the U.S.-Russian summit in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16, 2021. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

The Winter Olympics are just around the corner. Russian President Vladimir Putin has Ukraine on his mind. In Washington, the Pentagon is preparing a new defense strategy that looks beyond the Middle East to focus on the Pacific and China. The White House, meanwhile, is concerned about costs and wants to rein in military spending.

Sound familiar? Well, this is exactly what the world looked like once before—in 2014.

When the Obama administration’s defense strategy was released in March 2014, the document was obsolete the day it was published. It did not mention Ukraine, even though Putin’s little green men had already seized Crimea. It did not mention the Islamic State by name, though the group’s fighters had already captured Fallujah. With the defense budget under spending caps and the threat of sequestration, the Pentagon had to spend tens of billions of dollars in contingency funds to rebuild European deterrence following Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine and to defeat the Islamic State in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s attempt to pivot to Asia stalled, and the U.S. military edge over China continued to shrink.

The Winter Olympics are just around the corner. Russian President Vladimir Putin has Ukraine on his mind. In Washington, the Pentagon is preparing a new defense strategy that looks beyond the Middle East to focus on the Pacific and China. The White House, meanwhile, is concerned about costs and wants to rein in military spending.

Sound familiar? Well, this is exactly what the world looked like once before—in 2014.

When the Obama administration’s defense strategy was released in March 2014, the document was obsolete the day it was published. It did not mention Ukraine, even though Putin’s little green men had already seized Crimea. It did not mention the Islamic State by name, though the group’s fighters had already captured Fallujah. With the defense budget under spending caps and the threat of sequestration, the Pentagon had to spend tens of billions of dollars in contingency funds to rebuild European deterrence following Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine and to defeat the Islamic State in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s attempt to pivot to Asia stalled, and the U.S. military edge over China continued to shrink.

As history threatens to repeat itself, U.S. President Joe Biden—who served under Barack Obama as vice president—looks perilously close to following in his predecessor’s footsteps. Biden faces the same question as in 2014: How can the United States stay focused on China while dealing with the crisis in Ukraine?

Just as it was then, prioritizing the Indo-Pacific and countering China will not be strategically effective or politically sustainable if it is premised on sacrificing the commitment to credible NATO deterrence and defense. But given finite resources, the United States cannot confront China, the most powerful adversary it has ever faced, without substantially changing how it achieves strategic ends in Europe—especially when it comes to military power. That’s not just an urgent strategic question to answer now, as Washington decides how to deal with Russia’s threatened invasion of Ukraine. It also needs to be at the core of the Pentagon’s strategy that is set to be published as early as March.

The administration must resist calls for a return to a strategy designed to win on two fronts simultaneously or in sequence.

Right now, the United States can do a lot to support Ukraine, impose costs on Russia, and assure NATO allies without compromising its strategy to counter China. At the top of the list are accelerated deliveries of defensive military equipment to Ukraine—especially anti-armor, anti-ship, and air defense capabilities—as well as intelligence support and humanitarian assistance.

If Russia does invade, Biden should get much more serious about sanctions than Obama was in 2014. Washington should target the wealth of Putin’s cronies in Western financial hubs, terminate Russian access to the SWIFT global payment system, prohibit transactions in Russian sovereign debt, sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and cut off access to U.S. technology critical for industries favored by Putin, including defense. The Trump administration’s technology sanctions that have seriously hobbled the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei are an excellent precedent for this.

The United States should also join NATO efforts to reinforce its eastern flank, including contributing U.S. troops to support the temporary activation and deployment of NATO’s Response Force. For this eventuality, the Biden administration has placed up to 8,500 U.S. military personnel on alert.

But even as Washington reacts to Moscow’s threats to overturn the European security order, China and the Indo-Pacific must remain the primary focus of the United States’ strategic calculus. To that end, the administration should ensure sanctions do not inflict collateral damage on Indo-Pacific allies and partners. In particular, ensnaring India in Russia-focused sanctions for New Delhi’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 air and missile defense system would be a mistake. Sanctions won’t stop the S-400 deal, but they would play into the narrative pushed by Moscow and Beijing that Washington is not a trustworthy partner for New Delhi.

To keep its focus squarely on the Indo-Pacific, the United States must exercise restraint in what forces it sends to reinforce NATO should Putin invade Ukraine, and from where. Forces should not be taken from the Pacific. They should be relocated within Europe, from the United States, or from lower-priority theaters. For example, air and ground forces stationed in the Middle East could be moved to southeastern Europe to bolster NATO while remaining close enough to respond to any contingency. Deployment of an additional U.S. Army brigade combat team—of limited utility vis-à-vis China—may be sensible. But the Pentagon should avoid new, long-term deployments of assets in low supply, such as missile defense systems and advanced platforms for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

The Biden administration should also remember that allies provide the bricks, while the United States provides the mortar. NATO allies should contribute the bulk of any new forces deployed to guard the alliance’s eastern flank while the United States provides key military enablers such as command and control, logistics, and combat medicine. The good news is that allies are in fact stepping up: Denmark, France, Spain, and the Netherlands have all recently announced or proposed reinforcements of ships, fighter aircraft, and ground forces.

Even as it responds to the crisis in Europe, Washington can take parallel steps to bolster deterrence in the Pacific—so that the current attention on Europe is not interpreted as a sign of weakness and distraction, as it was in 2014. For example, the Biden administration could announce plans to station a fifth and eventual sixth attack submarine in Guam. It could also back legislation on Capitol Hill to increase security assistance to Taiwan. Taking these steps during a crisis in Europe would send a powerful signal to Beijing and allied capitals that the United States’ priority on the Pacific perseveres.

The Biden administration’s new defense strategy needs to confront the question of overstretch head-on. Given limited resources and the strength of the United States’ adversaries—especially China—the U.S. ability to prevail in a great-power conflict cannot be taken for granted. That’s why the administration must resist calls for a return to a strategy designed to win on two fronts simultaneously or in sequence. Such a force sizing is simply not realistic and would dilute the U.S. military’s focus on the Indo-Pacific as its priority theater, China as its pacing threat, and Taiwan as its pressing scenario.

Critically, staying on track in the Pacific requires matching any new military commitments in Europe—even temporary ones—with new resources. The United States must not ask its military to do more with less or pretend that China and Russia can be deterred and confronted on the cheap. Now is not the time to cut defense spending as the Biden administration has proposed. Not when the U.S. military edge relative to China has so dangerously eroded. Not when inflation, aging platforms, rising personnel costs, and the failure to pass a budget on time are sapping the Pentagon’s buying power. The Biden administration and the U.S. Congress must provide the military with the sufficient, timely, and predictable funding demanded in these perilous times, and which U.S. service members deserve.

Dustin Walker is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he advised Sen. John McCain. Twitter: @dustinrwalker

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