President Vladimir Putin has officially recognized two breakaway regions within Ukrainian borders. On February 21, the Russian leader announced that his government formally acknowledged the “independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic [DNR] and the Luhansk People’s Republic [LNR].” This is the move that has pushed the Western response from a diplomatic reaction to one involving sanctions and possible reprisals.
President Joe Biden released an executive order soon after Putin’s decision that sanctioned trade and relations with the DNR and LNR but has yet to impose full-scale sanctions on Russia. Although further orders from the president are expected later today, Feb. 22, Biden’s earlier equivocation on what would constitute an “invasion” has left many wondering how far the next set of sanctions will go.
During a background briefing at the White House Press Room, an unnamed senior official fielded questions from journalists. A recurrent query was whether Putin sending in “peacekeeping forces” would be regarded by the administration as an “invasion” or incursion. The spokesperson responded that as the Russian military had already been present in the two breakaway regions for up to eight years, the administration’s response was to see what happens next. The official said:
“I do also want to remind you and everyone on the call that the Russian troops moving into Donbas would not itself be a new step. Russia has had forces in the Donbas region for the past eight years. Their narrative has been that they do not; our, you know, certain knowledge has been that they have. And they are now — they’re apparently now making a decision to do this in a more overt and open way. But this has been the state of affairs in that region and a big part of why it has been so unstable since 2014.”
So does this mean that if Russia moves more troops into the DNR and LNR, it would not be considered a red line for the president? And how much of the unfolding affair could have been avoided if – as the administration insists – it were prepared for this move?
To figure out the full implications of Putin’s decision and the U.S. response, we talked with Liberty Nation’s military affairs analyst, former deputy undersecretary of defense comptroller, J. David Patterson.
Mark Angelides: Dave, the Kremlin announced that Vladimir Putin said he would recognize the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, two areas within Ukraine. What does this mean?
J. David Patterson: The short answer, Mark, is that the Russian president is calling Joe Biden’s and NATO’s bluff. Biden’s personal commitment to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty, reaffirmed to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky as late as last Sunday, is being tested. Who knows what the White House will do? These are the same folks who gave us the Afghanistan debacle.
MA: In your opinion, does this signify that Putin is willing to send troops into the region to “protect” the two republics’ newfound independence? In essence, was this a pretext to claim the higher ground?
JDP: Yes, that is exactly what he’s doing. He attempts to back up his intentions with ludicrous disinformation and historical claptrap. In his statement to the Russian state-owned network, the Russian leader had the unmitigated chutzpah to boast, “The modern Ukraine was completely created by Russia. To be more exact, by Bolshevik communist Russia.” Unfortunately for the Kremlin leader, there are few Ukrainians or their families left who could validate the assertion. At a minimum, 3.9 million people in Ukraine were purposely starved to death between 1931 and 1934 thanks to the Bolshevik creative efforts.
MA: We’ve already heard from people representing French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. But what position are they now in politically and diplomatically?
JDP: Putin’s decision makes them look like naïve fools – not to put the point too bluntly.
The chief failing of the West and the Biden national security team especially is that the White House team and NATO believe as a core value that everyone is after the same thing, “peace in our time.” And that the Putins of this world can be reasoned with, and a mutually agreed-to position is possible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Typical of the discourse you get with Moscow’s foreign minister is, “[Sergey] Lavrov, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, uses aggression and sarcasm as tools to demonstrate his scorn for his interlocutor, to frame negotiations as useless even before they begin, to create dread and apathy … put other diplomats on the defensive,” as Anne Applebaum rightly put it in The Atlantic.
MA: What was the initial reaction from President Biden and his administration? And how does this impact further negotiations? Does this cross Biden’s line in the sand? Or is it a manipulative workaround?
JDP: The knee-jerk reaction from the White House was to “issue an Executive Order that will prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine.” If you were trying to drive the breakaway regions into the arms of the Bear, you couldn’t do a better job. To add insult to the situation, “We have anticipated a move like this from Russia and are ready to respond immediately,” was the White House press secretary’s reaction. So, gee, Secretary Psaki, if you had been “anticipating a move like this,” why didn’t you slap sanctions on two weeks ago?
Nonetheless, further negotiations will probably go on. But instead of just having the 180,000 Russian troops to talk about, now the negotiators can discuss the blatant abuse of Ukraine sovereignty with the new wrinkle of Putin recognizing the independence of the DNR and LNR. On whether Biden has a line in the sand, he was former President Obama’s VP, so probably not. And whether this gambit is a “manipulative workaround” is hard to say. But what we can be reasonably sure about is, as Liberty Nation pointed out not so long ago, “The Biden administration was played like Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances on Stradivarius.”
MA: Are there any good options for President Biden now? And is there a time limit on when he needs to have his strategy in place?
JDP: There just aren’t good options for any effective proactive responses. That time has passed. Biden is outmatched, and the best the U.S. and NATO can hope for is to outlast the Russian Bear. The sanctions on Donetsk and Luhansk are feckless tilting at windmills. As far as a strategy goes, Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and the entire national security team have had a year to develop a strategy. But unfortunately, nothing indicates that they will materialize one now.
MA: What about Vladimir Putin? What are his next steps?
JDP: Vladimir Putin has the advantage of leading this orchestra and driving the narrative, while “President Biden on Monday was monitoring development out of Russia,” according to the Washington Times. Joe Biden is an onlooker from the grandstands. He monitors world events and activities. He doesn’t drive them.
MA: I think we’re going to be hearing a lot about NATO allies working together, but by Russia recognizing two new states within a non-NATO member country, does this effectively block NATO’s ability to get involved?
JDP: NATO is in no different position after the Kremlin recognized the Russian-backed separatist region than it was before. In terms of a greater geopolitical power struggle, these two areas that Russia recognizes as independent fall into the “so what” category. They have no internationally recognized status. As far as Russia using some made-up threat to Donetsk and Luhansk, the persecution of ethnic Russians or something similar as a pretext for aggression, that is a concern.
MA: Dave, I think the question everybody wants to know the answer to is whether this means actual conflict is more likely to happen?
JDP: It depends on how the Biden administration, NATO, and E.U. members face down Putin. The Russian president cannot have the hint of doubt regarding the resolve of the NATO members to stand tall against the Kremlin’s menacing threats.
MA: It seems to me that the Biden administration did everything wrong here. That may be a little unfair, but it’s no coincidence that when American leadership appears weak, Russia makes moves. We saw this in Georgia in 2008 when President G.W. Bush was at a low point, as well as the annexing of Crimea in 2014 when President Barack Obama was essentially a lame duck. Did Joe Biden open the door to this with his weak withdrawal from Afghanistan?
JDP: It was not coincidental in the least. Putin had the measure of Joe Biden the day the American president took office. The U.S. commander-in-chief showed himself willing to make concessions before anyone asked.
Biden was suspected of being indecisive. After all, he was reluctant to take down Osama bin Laden. And he has surrounded himself with equally indecisive, feckless bureaucrats. Afghanistan proved the suspicions true.