Feb 13, 2022 - World

How the Afghan fallout is shaping Biden’s response to Ukraine

Citizens of Kyiv are seen training with weapons in preparation for a possible Russian invasion.

Citizens of Kyiv, Ukraine, take part in an open military training for civilians on Feb. 13. Photo: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Russia may be on the cusp of invading Ukraine, but it's the Taliban's advance on Kabul shaping much of the U.S. response.

Why it matters: After being branded incompetent and seeing their popularity ratings plummet after the Afghanistan debacle, President Biden and his team have decided to overshare information, coordinate closely and publicly with allies and tell Americans to leave the embattled country — now.

  • "There will not be a military evacuation in the event of an invasion," National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.
  • It was one of the clearest delineations from Afghanistan, where the administration worked furiously to evacuate tens of thousands with an airlift from Hamid Karzai International Airport.

The big picture: Biden's approach to Ukraine has been defined by a daily blizzard of meetings and calls among top U.S. officials and European counterparts.

  • Almost all are accompanied by formulaic readouts emphasizing allied support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity — leaving no divisions or doubts for Russia to exploit.
  • The president — an avowed multilateralist — was criticized for not doing enough to coordinate with allies during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Another lesson learned was heeding warnings about the potential for a country to be overrun.

  • An Army report about Afghanistan obtained last week by The Washington Post said "senior White House and State Department officials failed to grasp the Taliban’s steady advance on Afghanistan’s capital."
  • The end result was a situation "placing American troops ordered to carry out the withdrawal in greater danger."

Sullivan said Sunday the U.S. government is being so blunt in its warnings to U.S. citizens because a Russian attack is expected to be brutal.

  • "Innocent civilians could get caught in the crossfire or get trapped in places that they could not move from," he said.
  • "That is why we are being so clear and direct to American citizens that while commercial transport options are still available, they should take advantage of them."

Go deeper: It's not just Afghanistan shaping the administration's response.

It's also the handling of Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine, which involved many of the same people while they worked for the Obama administration, as Axios reported last week.

  • During that assault, Russian President Vladimir Putin duped onlookers by dressing up Russian soldiers in plain uniforms and sending his "little green men" into Crimea while the West was paralyzed with confusion.

The Biden administration has responded this time with preemptive intelligence announcements.

  • "Fundamentally, our view is that we're not going to give Russia the opportunity to conduct a surprise here to spring something on Ukraine or the world," Sullivan said.
  • "We are going to make sure that we are laying out for the world what we say as transparently and plainly as we possibly can, and share that information as widely as we can."

Yes, but: Ukrainian officials have expressed some frustrations about what they see as U.S. alarmism, saying it's caused unnecessary panic and damaged Ukraine's economy.

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky, who spoke to Biden by phone Sunday, responded to U.S. warnings: "The best friend for enemies is panic in our country. And all this information, that helps only for panic."
  • "It doesn't help us."
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