Biden’s Russia warnings come to pass – what does the US president do now?

For weeks, Joe Biden has issued urgent warnings that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen at any moment. The moment came overnight, when Russian troops began attacking Ukraine by land, air and sea.

For the US president – increasingly embattled at home by a resurgent Republican party – it was evidence that the White House had largely assessed the Ukraine crisis correctly, even though their preference would have been to be wrong about their predictions of a disastrous war in Europe.

Now the conflict has dumped a huge foreign policy crisis into an already difficult second year in office for Biden, with a likely backlash looming in November’s midterm elections. With few exceptions, though, he largely has the Democratic party behind him and the Republicans are split, with many backing Biden even as others take various potshots at his presidency.

But, for the moment, there is the immediate invasion to deal with.

On Thursday morning, Biden met in the Situation Room with his National Security Council to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine. He then met virtually with the leaders of the G7, where they agreed to move forward on “devastating packages of sanctions”. Biden was preparing to deliver remarks from the East Room of the White House this afternoon.

“President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” Biden said in a statement. “Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable.”

Biden has pledged that the US would not send troops to Ukraine, warning that to do so would risk a wider war in Europe. But the US has provided arms supplies and sent additional troops to the Baltic states as part of his promise to “defend every inch of Nato territory”.

“Sacred” was how the US president described the US commitment to Nato’s article 5, in which an attack on any member nation triggers an allied military response.

Domestically, the Biden administration has so far been praised for its decision to quickly declassify intelligence, revealing Putin’s secret plans in real time. Though it was not enough to deter Putin, it helped Washington forge a united front against Moscow in the shadow of the administration’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan last year that left the US weaker in the eyes of many allies and foes around the world.

But after multiple high-profile intelligence failures, the US’s assessment proved largely correct. And when Biden said he believed that Putin had already made the decision to attack, it appears he was right. The accuracy of the intelligence shared by the US, and the unity of the transatlantic alliance, may help give the US renewed credibility on the world stage, where Biden has repeatedly warned that democracies are under threat.

In Congress, members have broadly condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine and urged the Biden administration to implement the long-promised paralyzing sanctions. Many Republicans have criticized the administration’s response so far as too little too late, even though senators failed to agree to a bipartisan sanctions package against Russia before leaving Washington for a week-long recess. They settled instead for issuing a strongly worded statement.

Underscoring the deep polarization Biden faces at home, a number of Republicans tried to blame him for enabling Putin, including many of the same officials who remained silent as Trump praised and flattered the Russian president.

“I have earlier criticized the president and I will repeat some of that,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday. “I think the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August … was an invitation to the autocrats of the world that maybe this was a good time to make a move.”

McConnell nevertheless claimed to be united with Biden. “We are where we are… We’re all together at this point and we need to be together about what should be done.”

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, however, made no mention of the US president in a statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “reckless and evil”.

“Putin’s actions must be met with serious consequence. This act of war is intended to rewrite history and more concerning, upend the balance of power in Europe. Putin must be held accountable for his actions,” he said.

An image of Mitt Romney looking downcast.
Mitt Romney said: ‘The ’80s called and we didn’t answer.’ Photograph: Jon Cherry/Reuters

In a bizarre interview on Fox News, Donald Trump mistakenly stated that it was the US, not Russia, invading Ukraine. He was quickly corrected, but spent much of the appearance airing old grievances and attacking his successor. Repeating the baseless claim that the election was stolen, Trump concluded: “It all happened because of a rigged election.”

US stock markets dropped sharply on Thursday as investors waited to hear more about what sanctions Biden would impose on Russia. After the assault began, the price of oil passed $100 a barrel for the first time since 2014, a rise that will drive up fuel prices even as the US wrestles with the worst inflation in decades.

Investors were reassured by Biden’s comments that sanctions would not affect the oil and gas markets and stocks recovered their losses as the oil price fell. US trade with Russia is relatively small but the conflict’s impact on oil prices was driving up gas prices even before the invasion and there will – no doubt – be more troubling days ahead.

In a press conference last week, Biden warned Americans that war in Europe would have consequences for US consumers, already suffering from soaring inflation. “I will not pretend this will be painless,” he said.

The federal government has also warned government agencies and operators of critical infrastructure to take proactive security measures against potential cyberthreats from Russia.

Biden said he would do everything to alleviate the economic pinch, including to tap the US national oil reserves, which he has already done in his effort to combat the fastest increase in US inflation in three decades.

Higher prices pose an immediate political and economic challenge for the president, whose approval ratings have slumped amid rising gas and food prices. Republicans have blamed Democrats for inflation, which is top of mind for voters ahead of this year’s midterm elections in November.

Additional reporting by Dominic Rushe

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