The Hedgehog and the Fox—The Biden Administration Leads in Dangerous Times
By Ambassador (ret.) Cynthia Efird, Member, Foreign Policy & National Security Task Force
Since the February 24th invasion of Ukraine, the growing evidence of Russian defeats on the ground, in international standing, and in economic viability has caused some pundits to suggest that President Putin is deranged, perhaps as the result of COVID isolation or his inability to see beyond his own illusions. In fact, a closer analysis of Putin’s actions since 1999, argue instead that he has carried out a consistent strategy to create chaos in the countries’ bordering Russia to prevent them from consolidating democracy or rooting out corruption. At the same time, as I wrote in an earlier Newsletter, he has orchestrated ideological campaigns in countries beyond Russia’s borders to encourage right-wing revanchism, fighting inclusive cultural policies, immigration inflows, and individual freedom measures. The US fallout from Russian meddling along these lines remains top-of-the-fold news.
Fortunately, President Biden has had decades of experience—as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Vice President, and now President—combatting Putin and his predecessors’ attempts to create international chaos both through military action, malign misuse of diplomacy, and ideological warfare. His Administration has shown quiet competence in confronting Putin by building and reinforcing alliances, making full use of the United States’ ability to be the arsenal of democracy by providing weapons and humanitarian assistance, and countering Russia’s weaponizing of energy supplies. Biden has demonstrated mastery in his groundbreaking use of US superiority in intelligence=gathering to counter Russian disinformation. He has rallied support in the United States and abroad by his public expression of a straightforward and very American embrace of democratic values.
Isaiah Berlin once cited an ancient Greek philosopher: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Today, we see Putin, the fox, confronting Biden, the hedgehog. Putin is wily and frenetic on many fronts, shoring up Russian domestic support for his regime by creating provocations to undermine the post-Soviet world order. President Biden, however, has kept his Administration focused on steps to counter Putin, preventing him from taking even more extreme measures, while consistently providing leadership and comfort to our allies and others recoiling from the horror of a “might-makes-right” world. The hedgehog will win this conflict eventually, because of his single focus on humanity’s hope for stability, prosperity, and freedom.
This is not to say, unfortunately, that Ukraine will easily emerge intact from the current attack by the superior and morally unconstrained Russian invasion force. Its infrastructure and citizens have already sustained horrendous tragic destruction that will not be swiftly reversed, although the valor and determination of Ukrainians argue that that nation will eventually triumph, reclaiming its sovereignty and democracy, perhaps with a stronger commitment to common values. But Putin and other autocrats, determined to attack sovereign neighbors, are on notice that the cost for such crimes against humanity are high.
Putin has transgressed the boundaries of his neighbors under a slogan of recreating a “Russian World” and avenging the West for the break-up of the Soviet Union. During his reign, alternatively as Prime Minister or President of Russia from 1999 to the present, he and his cronies have looted Russia and denied its citizens human and civil rights. He has diverted attention from these power grabs by stirring up trouble in Chechnya, in the so-called Transnistria region of Moldova, in Nagorno-Karabakh, in the invasion of Georgia of 2008, and the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. In each case he has taken territory from sovereign neighbors when possible and then retreated leaving “frozen conflicts” that lay the foundation for future Russian attacks, while preventing democratic forces from coming to the fore.
This time, however, he has paid a heavy price. NATO is re-energized; Finland and Sweden are exploring membership in the alliance. Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states have sought and received assurances that their territory will be defended. Germany has agreed to provide offensive weapons to Ukraine in a reversal of its long-term reluctance to provide arms to belligerents. Recent elections in France and Slovakia repudiated pro-Putin forces. Russia’s effort to weaponize energy deliveries have led European nations not to cave to demands, but instead to move toward an end of reliance on Russian sources. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, due to be certified by Germany last November, is frozen and repudiated. The European Union, in addition to a slew of other sanctions, is now working toward a total ban on Russian oil and removing Russian Sberbank, Russia’s biggest lender from the international SWIFT transaction system. The best of Russian experts are frantically trying to escape sanctions by moving abroad, Germany is offering special visas to attract them.
All of these sanctions and countermoves have been led by the United States, The Biden Administration, as a good leader should, has not taken credit, either for the remarkable Ukrainian military performance nor for the economic courage of our European allies. Instead, it has quietly worked diplomatic and military channels, with important statements, meetings, and visits in many capitals, at the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, and at the UN. As the United States assumes the leadership of the UN Security Council for the next month, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called for isolating Russia until it ends its invasion of Ukraine. China has felt compelled to reaffirm the inviolability of sovereignty, while not naming Russia as an aggressor; India is looking to the United States as an alternative source of military assistance.
The Biden Administration continues to work with Congress to provide additional assistance. President Biden is working on securing support for a new $33 billion package, on May 3 traveling to the Lockheed-Martin plant in Alabama that produces Javelin missiles. The CIA is providing disgruntled Russians with detailed cyber instructions on how to join the free-world fight by providing intelligence to the United States. Throughout the war, the United States has astutely provided access to intelligence in real-time to preempt Russian efforts to launch false-flag operations and to reveal the truth about Russian crimes and military losses.
In short, to make Putin pay a high cost for his criminal actions against Ukraine, the Biden Administration has taken advantage of the strength of the US economy, the empathy of the American people for brave people fighting for freedom, and strong US intelligence, cyber, informational, diplomatic, and military assets. We will have to see if this throwback czar is willing to adjust a strategy that may have increased Russian power in the past two decades, but now is clearly isolating and impoverishing his country. Can this fox learn one more thing? This hedgehog knows how to prevail effectively when democracy and stability are threatened.