If there’s an underlying political message in the Biden administration’s handling of Russia’s threatening position near Ukraine, it’s a simple one: This won’t be like Afghanistan.
President Joe Biden and his aides have engaged in robust diplomacy with other nations, Congress and the American public as they try simultaneously to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine and prepare the world for worst-case scenarios.
Biden frequently addresses the situation publicly, even as it has been fluid. His diplomats have been continuously engaged not only with NATO countries but with allies outside the region, such as Japan, that may be able to help diminish Putin’s leverage. And high-ranking administration officials have provided briefings and talking points to members of Congress.
The response so far contrasts with last fall’s handling of Afghanistan, when detractors say the administration should have better warned Americans of worst-case outcomes — including the possibility, however remote it appeared to the White House, of a swift Taliban takeover.
“Not having that conversation with the American public probably left us ill-prepared for what happened in August of last year, the fall of Kabul,” said Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., who sits on the Committee on Foreign Affairs. “This go-around, you’re seeing the president speak on television, as well as his Cabinet members and others on the Security Council, I think preparing the country and being transparent with what might take place and what our role is, along with our allies in Europe.”
A Biden administration official defended its Afghanistan response and said it worked with the best intelligence, as well as a vow by the Afghan president at the time that he would put up a fight, though that didn’t happen. The official also rejected the notion that the administration’s handling of an Afghanistan exit last year is helping shape its response in Eastern Europe.
Its transparency efforts are intended to warn Americans of the high stakes of Russia’s build-up on Ukraine’s border as well as expose Russian disinformation, said the official, who was granted anonymity to be able to speak freely about the administration.
In interviews, however, experts say there are clear signs that Biden is embracing lessons learned not just from Afghanistan but from 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and Biden was vice president. Then-President Barack Obama was criticized for not working harder to deter Putin at the time. Today, Biden has repeatedly warned Putin of international repercussions, including stiff sanctions, if he invades.
“There is no doubt that the Biden administration was conscious of the critique that emerged in the wake of the withdrawal of Afghanistan,” said David Rothkopf, a former senior Clinton administration official and author of “Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power.” “I think the administration said, ‘We need to get ahead of the public diplomacy side of this in a better way.'”
With Ukraine, the administration communicated better and more frequently, and pushed the president and other top officials to speak directly to the public, he said. He argued that messaging the diplomatic efforts also turned out to be “the best way to outflank Putin.”
P. Michael McKinley, a former longtime diplomat and four-time ambassador, including in Afghanistan, said the administration’s handling of the crisis has strengthened relations with key partners.
“The administration has used the period to actually deeply strengthen and intensify dialogue with key NATO allies,” McKinley, a onetime top adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said.
Still, there’s evidence that the White House has additional work to do in rebuilding trust among American partners and humanitarian advocates after the U.S. was caught flat-footed as Kabul fell. It brought searing images of desperate Afghans clinging to planes, falling to their deaths. The U.S. was forced to rush a mass evacuation effort that left behind Afghans who feared Taliban retaliation.
The military community felt betrayed that the United States would risk leaving behind the people who aided them during the 20-year conflict. Members of Congress were incensed by the chaos that erupted as Kabul unexpectedly fell, which included contending with a flood of requests for emergency assistance from people looking to get out of the country.
Months later, as the administration confronts a new foreign policy test, fresh questions about missteps in Afghanistan have cropped up. A pair of Washington Post reports shed new light on indecisiveness within Biden’s team in the run-up to the Afghanistan exit and described a haphazard evacuation operation.
The miscalculations in Afghanistan have meant the administration has been met with added skepticism even as it builds its case against Russian aggression.
Jeremy Butler, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said veterans groups are among those pushing the administration to allow reporters to embed with troops based in places like Poland.
Though he acknowledged a difference in the administration’s approach to Ukraine, Butler called for “as much independent analysis, reporting and information coming in this situation, so that we are not completely reliant on what the administration is telling us.”
And last week, Biden found himself at odds with humanitarian advocates after he signed an executive order that evenly divides $7 billion in frozen assets meant for Afghans between the nation and the families of victims of 9/11 who are suing the Taliban for the 2001 terror attacks. Biden’s move enraged and perplexed a segment of the foreign policy and humanitarian communities that challenged the validity — and morality — of taking funds that had been set aside for Afghans. It also served as a reminder of the bleak economic conditions in Afghanistan, which has been ravaged by famine and starvation since America’s exit and the Taliban’s takeover.
The White House said in a statement that it was “designed to provide a path for the funds to reach the people of Afghanistan, while keeping them out of the hands of the Taliban and malicious actors. The United States has sanctions in place against the Taliban and the Haqqani network, including for activities that threaten the safety of Americans such as holding our citizens hostage.”
But Vali Nasr, who served as a senior adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the executive order erodes the administration’s credibility in the international arena.
Nasr said Afghans see it as, “First of all, ‘They dumped us, they left all of us who worked with them behind. Now, they’re also taking money out of our mouths and giving it to somebody else,’” Nasr said. “It just doesn’t make us look good.”
Bera said the administration is doing a better job with its handling of Ukraine than it did with Afghanistan in preparing for and communicating the worst-case scenario, which is helping rebuild trust.
“Certainly the folks that were briefing us on Capitol Hill never once said the Afghan government could fall quickly, even after we repeatedly asked that question,” Bera said. “I do think the unambiguous, strong response of strong democracy in Ukraine is exactly what we needed to turn that corner.”
The strength of the U.S. response lies in its ability to project unity with NATO partners and beyond, experts say. That sends a message to the international community but also to Putin.
“Communications with allies and partners is critical to the American strategy, and the administration has been flawless,” David Wade, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State John Kerry said. “To play a diplomatic tune that reaches the Kremlin, you need an orchestra, not a solo act. Putin’s entire strategy is to find a weak spot in Western resolve and exploit it. He’s looking to see if anyone is singing off a different sheet of music. The scores of phone calls that the White House and State Department have shared publicly underscore cohesion, and underscore unity.”
Evelyn Farkas, who served as the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the Obama administration, said there have been “lessons learned from each time we’ve dealt with Russia.”
“I would not necessarily compare this to the Afghanistan withdrawal because this is so much more akin to when we had to deal with Russia in 2014 and the same people were in the administration then.”
Farkas said it’s better for Biden if he can deter Putin, but that the more dangerous scenario for the president and America’s standing in the world would be if Putin invades and the U.S. didn’t follow through with a tough response.
“The risk is there if we don’t then punish him as we’ve promised,” she said. “Then we would suffer because no one else would pay attention to us, including the Russians.”