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Biden’s “Please, Putin?” Moment

Yet another botched aspect of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
August 25, 2021
Biden’s “Please, Putin?” Moment
Russian President Vladimir Putin seen on August 22, 2021, in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Lost in the commotion of the shambolic, disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is a story that bodes ill for the Biden administration’s broader foreign policy. A few weeks after President Joe Biden’s June 16 summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, several news outlets reported that Putin had offered Biden the use of Russian military bases in Central Asia for American intelligence assets, including drones. At least as reported at the time, the offer didn’t necessarily include stationing American personnel at the bases or make any mention of bases operated by the Central Asian countries themselves. First reported in the Russian newspaper Kommersant and then picked up by many other publications, this supposed offer has apparently not been acknowledged on the record by either the U.S. or Russian governments.

A very different version of events was reported last week in the Wall Street Journal. Relying on off-the-record comments from “senior U.S. and Russian officials,” the Journal reported that Putin did not offer help but rather “objected to any role for American forces in Central Asian countries.”

If the Journal’s version of events is essentially correct, the Biden administration apparently wanted to make a deal with at least one country bordering Afghanistan to station U.S. troops there, but Putin put the kibosh on the idea.

At first glance, this seems unsurprising. Of course Putin was never going to agree to let the United States station forces in a country he considers within the Russian sphere of influence. After all, he invaded not one but two neighboring countries to prevent them from joining NATO.

But look at this story more closely and you’ll get a better sense of how the Afghanistan withdrawal was botched not just as an operational and humanitarian matter but at the highest levels of geostrategy.

President Biden wasn’t wrong to want to station American military assets in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and/or Tajikistan—the three former Soviet states that border Afghanistan. Indeed, earlier in the war, the United States supplied the force deployed to Afghanistan through bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and as recently as 2009, U.S. supply routes even ran through Russia itself, along the so-called Northern Distribution Network. Reactivating those networks and bases would have made the ongoing evacuation effort much easier, and would also have provided convenient bases from which to pursue counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan of the sort Biden has promised.

But here’s the rub: Putin considers every post-Soviet country (and possibly some others) as within Russia’s backyard. He famously asserted in 2008 that Ukraine was “not a real country,” and his forces occupy regions of Ukraine and Georgia to this day, with “peacekeepers” in Moldova, the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and what appears to be a continuous military presence in Belarus.

Putin has also made it clear time and again that he sees his and Russia’s role in the world as to lead the opposition to the American-led international order. He essentially announced as much in 2007. So no, there was never even the shadow of a doubt that he was going to deny Biden’s request.

It’s possible (though not likely), however, that at least one of the three Central Asian states would have agreed to host American troops. Small states often benefit from balancing larger powers off each other, and most of Central Asia is courting both Russia and China as they compete for supremacy over the region. Maybe one of them would have allowed the United States to station troops on its soil to prove that its allegiance can’t be taken for granted.

But any request to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan, no matter how diplomatically or clandestinely proffered, would have been reported back to the Kremlin in no time. Or, at least, this would have been the prudent thing for the Biden administration to assume. So one way or another, the Russians would have found out, and they have the capability to make life very difficult for Americans stationed in Central Asia without their permission.

There’s no good answer. But Biden chose the worst among them by asking Putin directly. The Russian autocrat—one of the eminent evildoers in the world today—not only got to tell the president of the United States what he could or couldn’t do in a third country, but he got to brag about it (through surrogates) to the Wall Street Journal.

By asking for Putin’s blessing, Biden implicitly conceded that three countries aren’t “real countries” after all—that their affairs are decided not in their own capitals but in Moscow. And he gave the impression (not for the first time) that he underestimates or misunderstands the kind of opportunistic antagonist Putin has decided to be.

Again, it is possible that a different account of the June summit will emerge. But based on the Journal’s report, it appears that President Biden gave a PR gift to Putin, in exchange for which the United States received nothing. Which is completely unsurprising. Which is why Biden never should have asked in the first place.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.