The midterm elections in the US witnessed razor-thin races as Senate and House control hangs in the balance. But that didn’t discourage President Biden from holding a press conference on Wednesday to stake claim that the “giant red wave” didn’t happen.
Biden said: “Democrats had a strong night. And we lost fewer seats in the House of Representatives than any Democratic President’s first midterm election in the last 40 years. And we had the best midterms for governors since 1986.”
Biden, however, eschewed triumphalist rhetoric and committed “to continue to work across the aisle… (although) it’s not always easy.”
For the world capitals, Biden’s remarks relating to Ukraine were the most keenly awaited segment. Succinctly put, Biden was far from emphatic that Republicans in control of the House now would be cooperative.
He said: “I’m prepared to work with my Republican colleagues. The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well. In the area of foreign policy, I hope we’ll continue this bipartisan approach of confronting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.”
When asked whether US military aid to Ukraine will continue uninterrupted, Biden merely replied, “That is my expectation.” He contended that the US hasn’t given Ukraine “a blank check” and only equipped Kiev to have “the rational ability to defend themselves.”
Biden had an impressive record as senator in coalition building in the Congress. But today, his bid for a second term as president comes in the way. If he chooses to be a candidate in 2024, that would leave Republicans with no choice but oppose him viscerally — personally and politically.
Biden had some interesting comments on the announcement in Moscow earlier on Wednesday regarding Russian troop withdrawal in Kherson city. Biden said the Russian move was on expected lines and the interesting part is that Moscow waited till the midterms got over.
Biden avoided giving a direct answer when asked whether the Russian evacuation would give Kiev the leverage to begin peace negotiations with Moscow. But he didn’t refute such a line of thinking, either. Instead, Biden added that “at a minimum, it (evacuation) will lead to time for everyone to recalibrate their positions over the winter period. And it remains to be seen whether or not there’ll be a judgment made as to whether or not Ukraine is prepared to compromise with Russia.” (Emphasis added.)
Biden said that on the sidelines of the G20 summit at Bali (November 15-16), there there might be consultations with world leaders, although Putin himself was not going to be there. Indeed, some sort of diplomatic messaging is going on. In fact, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Tass on Thursday that “It was decided that Russia will be represented by (foreign minister) Sergey Lavrov at the G20 summit.”
Biden took a second question on Kherson developments to say furthermore that the Russian evacuation will not only help the sides to “lick their wounds” but “decide whether — what they’re going to do over the winter, and decide whether or not they’re going to compromise.” (Emphasis added.)
Notably, Biden has spoken twice about “compromise” (read territorial concessions) by Kiev, which is a major shift from the US stance that the Russian forces should get out of Ukraine. Biden concluded: “That’s — that’s what’s going to happen, whether or not. I don’t know what they’re going to do. And — but I do know one thing: We’re not going to tell them what they have to do.”
Taken together, Biden’s remarks are consistent with the “scoop” by NBC News on Wednesday, citing informed sources, that during the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s unannounced visit to Kiev last week, he studied Ukraine’s readiness for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
The NBC channel reported that Sullivan was exploring options for ending the conflict and the chance of starting negotiations and raised the need for a diplomatic settlement during meetings with Ukrainian authorities. It said some US and Western officials increasingly believe that neither Kiev nor Moscow can achieve all of their goals, and the winter slowdown in hostilities could provide a window of opportunity to start negotiations.
Interestingly, Kremlin-funded RT promptly picked up the NBC report and highlighted it. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova also chipped in commenting, “We are still open to negotiations, we have never refused them, we are ready to conduct them – taking, of course, into account the realities being established at the moment.”
The Russian authorities continue to maintain that the evacuation of their forces in Kherson stems purely out of security considerations. The onus has been put on the recommendation by Army General Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. The general claimed in a televised speech that the evacuation from Kherson creates stronger defensive lines for the troops and will save the lives of soldiers and civilians.
Suffice to say, Lavrov’s presence in Bali will be of pivotal importance. Presumably, he will have contacts with western counterparts. Indeed, Biden’s remarks about territorial compromise signal a sea change in the calculus.
Also, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while opening a discussion with the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday about the possibility of peace between Ukraine and Russia, confirmed that there is indeed “a window of opportunity for negotiation” moving forward.
The general urged, “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.” To be sure, he spoke with an eye on the Russian military command.
The backdrop is that the Democrats’ loss of control of the House of Representatives makes it difficult for them to freely promote the foreign policy line of the Biden administration, including assistance to Ukraine. Henceforth, Biden will have to negotiate decisions on Ukraine with the Republicans. This is one thing.
Second, the cascading economic crisis in Europe holds explosive potential for political turmoil, especially if there is another refugee flow from Ukraine in the harsh winter conditions, which is a real possibility.
The blowback from sanctions against Russia has lethally wounded Europe, and bluster aside, there is really no replacement for the inexpensive, reliable, abundant Russian energy supplies via pipelines.
All this is becoming hugely consequential for western unity. The recent visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to China shows that dissent is brewing.
Above all, the massive Russian mobilisation threatens to give a knockout blow to the Ukrainian military, but there is no appetite among Europeans for a confrontation with Russia.
The UK, Washington’s steadfast ally in Ukraine, also is under immense pressure to disengage and concentrate on the domestic crisis as the new government tackles a funding hole of the order of £50bn in the budget.
Going ahead, the notions of regime change in Moscow that Biden had once espoused publicly and the neocon project to “cancel” Russia has hit the wall and crumpled. That said, the US can draw comfort that the Russian pullout from the west of Dnieper implies that Moscow is not intending to make any move on Nikolaev, leave alone Odessa — at least, in the near term.
On the other hand, if the Ukrainian forces surge and occupy Kherson and threaten Crimea, it will pose a big challenge for the Biden Administration. From Biden’s remarks, the is confident that it has enough leverage in Kiev to ensure that there is no escalation.
For the present, it is premature to estimate that Moscow only took the bitter decision to abandon Kherson city, which was founded by a decree of Catherine the Great and is etched deeply in the Russian collective consciousness, with a reasonable certainty that Washington will restrain Kiev from “hot pursuit” of the retreating Russian army to the eastern banks of the Dnieper river.
About the author:
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years. He introduces about himself thus: “Roughly half of the 3 decades of my diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. I write mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific…”
His mail ID : email@example.com
Originally published in his blog Indian Punchline