Leadership in a Crisis: Joe Biden and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

As Russian forces matched into Ukraine on February 24th 2022 beating war drums, US president, Joe Biden emerged from the White House to announce a wide range of sanctions against Russia. He had just attended a meeting with G7 leaders, which, to the consternation of an eager world had drugged for longer than most would have had it. The press conference was underwhelming to many.

“Why haven’t you sanctioned Putin directly?” shot one reporter.

“Why don’t the sanctions include the expulsion of Russia from SWIFT?” another questioned.

The president answered some questions, evaded some, and even ignored some others. The responses he gave—though most were short of a real answer and at times convoluted—were quite telling. Biden was working with other world leaders to wage a major economic war on Putin, the latter’s cronies, and Russia in general. This was to be evident in a matter of days.

For now though, all one could do was try to decipher Biden’s answers and half answers. If one thought keenly, one could guess that some of the European powers were not on board with some of what the US was proposing yet. Perhaps one could also tell that sanctioning a nation like Russia and an individual like Putin is probably easier said than done. The US and Europe heavily rely on Russia for gasoline. Russia is also a superpower with nuclear weapons in its possession. Its president is rumored to be someone who makes decisions based on emotions rather than logic. Additionally, he is said to have no bank account!

But there was a different angle of interpretation among Biden’s answers’ decoders. Biden must have been a weak leader. That was why he had neither sanctioned Putin directly nor expelled Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (S.W.I.F.T.), the Belgian cooperative society that provides services related to the execution of financial transactions and payments between banks worldwide. After all, even the sanctions that had been announced had come too little too late.

Photo courtesy of Business Insider

Had Biden just been lenient on the bully? He and his government had, before the attack, declassified intelligence regarding the then impending attack on Ukraine. This was unusual. He had also been tough in his talking, warning that Russia would face rough consequences in case it invaded Ukraine. Had he been bluffing? And why had the sanctions been so slow to come?

As hours dragged into painful days, sanctions on Russia increased in volume and severity. Russia was pushed off SWIFT and its assets as well as those belonging to Putin and his close allies were frozen. Russia’s economy came to its knees instantly with the nation’s stock market remaining closed by the fourth day of the invasion.

All this was possible because Biden and his administration worked tirelessly to gather intelligence, share it with other governments, and then to rally the support and cooperation of Europe, Japan, and other key global players. This was not easy. Germany for one had a lot to lose if it cancelled Nord Stream 2. Judging from reactions pre and as the war raged, Germany and the rest of Europe seem to have thought that Uncle Sam was crying wolf when the US claimed that Russia had been planning an attack. Either that or they were hoping that Russia would reconsider. As things seemed to get out of hand though, there were attempts at diplomacy. It proved useless.

Some would probably say, “I knew it! Putin can’t understand diplomacy.” They may suggest that the sanctions should have come the moment war was smelled. I share this opinion. But if that were to happen, the US would most likely have had to do it alone. Most of Europe took time to get on board. And perhaps for good reason—they had the most to lose by cutting ties with Russia.

It would not have been impossible for the US to go it alone with the sanctions. But wouldn’t that have minimized the impact to the Kremlin? Alternatively, the US could have somehow forced Europe to comply. What kind of leadership would that have been for a nation priding itself in the principles of democracy though? And what kind of a relationship would the White House be crafting between the US and its allies?

It couldn’t be lost on us that world leaders were and are still facing a dilemma. For one, while Russia is suffering from the sanctions, the rest of the world is going to feel the effects as well. Moreover, this situation could easily result in a world war. Worse still, if Putin is squeezed too hard that he has nothing left to lose, the world could have a Hiroshima and Nagasaki kind of scenario to deal with in the blink of an eye!

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