Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine is mostly aimed at satisfying unhappy Russian citizens, Rep. Jake Auchincloss told Fox News this week, as the despot seeks to deliver a propaganda win amid mounting domestic struggles.
“The Russian president is trying to really play to his domestic audience which is increasingly dissatisfied with the economic performance he’s delivering and is increasingly politically agitated,” Auchincloss, D-Mass., who is a Marine veteran, said.
“He’s trying to distract them with a red meat action against Ukraine, which is broadly popular with the Russian people who view at least part of Ukraine as really part of the ancestral Russian homeland,” he added. “And so this needs to be understood as much through the lens of Russian domestic politics as it does through geopolitics.”
One of the reasons Russians are increasingly frustrated with how their country is being run is its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In late 2021, it faced its worst coronavirus surge of the pandemic. Plus, the country’s Sputnik V vaccine has faced significant struggles getting approved by international authorities.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin needed to resort to increasingly repressive tactics to ensure the ruling party, United Russia, won in its elections last fall, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Also among Russia’s struggles are increasing inflation and a declining standard of living, according to CSIS.
But Putin, a career KGB officer, has made clear he believes the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical event of the 20th century. And he’s long been expected to try to expand Russia’s borders to try to take back some of the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, for reasons beyond domestic politics.
Some western critics say that makes a Russian invasion of Ukraine a slippery slope, and that President Biden isn’t doing enough to deter Russia. They say the U.S. should be more quickly moving troops into NATO states around Ukraine, and that it should pull the trigger on major sanctions against Russia as a punishment for building up troops along Ukraine’s border.
Auchincloss, however, says he believes Biden is handling the situation properly to maximize American leverage.
“Preemptive sanctions are bad. The whole idea of sanctions are their deterrent effect. We want to make the calculation that President Putin faces one in which he has an off-ramp so he can de-escalate,” Auchincloss said. “But if he escalates, he faces significant negative repercussions” on sanctions and more.
Auchincloss added: “What the president is doing is working with our NATO allies to prepare and position our forces to guarantee the territorial integrity of the NATO alliance… That is obviously separate from the lethal aid we’re providing to Ukraine and how we’re helping the Ukrainian military and intelligence prepare and ideally deter Russian aggression.”
But as of earlier this week, a congressional source told Fox News that the U.S. hadn’t yet formally made the necessary request to position troops in allies NATO countries, according to a readout given to members of Congress. That source also said Biden is not planning to seek more than the currently-allocated $200 million in authorized Ukrainian aid.
Republicans argue Biden isn’t doing enough. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who is also a Marine veteran, said on Fox News this week that “this administration fails to understand the essence of deterrence, which to work needs to be backed by the credible threat of force.”
“This administration under the leadership of Biden has projected weakness on the world stage,” Gallagher added.
Auchincloss, however, said Republicans have no room to criticize Biden after four years of former President Trump. He said any GOP criticism of Biden on Russia is “breathtaking in its hypocrisy,” and specifically cited “President Trump’s performance in Helsinki in 2018, which John McCain called one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
“Donald Trump sided with Russia over his own law enforcement. He stood by nodding while President Putin repeatedly lied about Russian actions. I mean President Putin was literally beating his chest while President Trump nodded and encouraged him along,” Auchincloss said.