By no means are Americans in agreement about the degree to which we should support Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. Some believe we should stay well out of it, while others favor much more robust assistance to the Ukrainian people. A growing and vocal minority believes that the time has come to intervene directly in the conflict, despite the inherent risk of World War III, up to and including nuclear war.
We can hope, however, that there is one thing Americans and people throughout the West can agree on: Now is the time to consider our actions and words extremely carefully; to make thoughtful, rational choices; and to articulate our goals with absolute precision. After all, a Russian misreading of our intentions could produce direct confrontation between Russian and American forces which, at this stage, is an outcome most sensible people are still eager to avoid.
Unfortunately, Joe Biden occupies the White House. His recent European tour yielded a litany of rhetorical blunders any one of which, by itself, could destabilize U.S.-Russian relations, could produce unintended and undesirable escalation by the Russians, or could simply exasperate our allies, thus damaging the unity of NATO as it faces down Russian aggression.
First, Biden declared that if the Russians used chemical weapons in Ukraine we would respond “in kind.” U.S. officials had to walk back that statement, since, of course, the United States (theoretically) has no chemical weapons, and we would be prohibited by international law from ever using them even if we did.
Next, Biden told U.S. troops in Poland that they would personally observe the courage of the Ukrainian people “when you’re there.” Many understandably took this to mean that Biden foresaw the deployment of U.S. forces inside Ukraine. American policy, however, is that, while we support Ukraine’s struggle and intend to give weapons to the Ukrainian military, we will not intervene militarily ourselves. Biden’s advisors thus had to explain that, in fact, Biden did not mean what he appears to have said.
Finally, Biden declared in a fiery speech that Russian President Putin “cannot remain in power.” The Russians, and many in the West, took this as a direct call for regime change, which, once again, is in direct contradiction of U.S. policy which does not seek to alter Russia’s government or infringe on its sovereignty, but only to dissuade it from current and future aggression.
Biden, of course, has a well-known history of making gaffes and blunders. Presumably, therefore, many world leaders, including those in Russia, are inclined to shrug off these clumsy remarks as the ravings of a buffoon, whose mental acuity is simply way overtaxed by the demands of the presidency. At least, this is the best-case scenario.
The worst-case scenario is that Biden’s confrontational, interventionist rhetoric will be taken seriously—that it will be assumed that Biden is telegraphing a clear intention to escalate U.S. involvement in Ukraine and eventually to confront Russia directly on a battlefield of his choosing, perhaps after U.S. and Western public opinion has been adequately prepared by rousing Russophobic speeches like the ones he is now delivering.
Let us reflect, briefly, on the possibility that Biden’s statements should be taken seriously and do reflect his actual intentions—even if he did not mean to tip his hand so clearly. What might be the consequences of a decision at the highest levels of the U.S. government to “take on” Putin’s Russia?
For one thing, the more America confronts Russia, the more we risk World War III and nuclear combat which, in turn, means the unity of NATO is likely to fracture as the hazards multiply. NATO is currently united around a strategy that involves redeploying some NATO forces eastward, but not into Ukraine; sending Ukraine weapons of moderate effectiveness, but not other weapons which might provoke Russia; and imposing sanctions on Russia, but not energy-related sanctions that could damage Europe’s economy. That is the most unity NATO and the West have been able to muster as of yet. Biden’s provocative statements, and perhaps his aggressive intentions, threaten that fragile consensus and could fracture the Western alliance altogether.
The bigger risk is that Russia will take Biden seriously. If so, Russia may conclude that it had better gird its loins and complete the destruction of Ukraine’s military and the occupation of its territory. Russia might decide that the urgent completion of these tasks, moreover, requires it to use weapons of mass destruction to neutralize enemy forces. Were that to happen, then the West is already committed to inflicting dire (although completely unspecified) consequences on Russia—consequences that undoubtedly would bring us closer to World War III than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This, then, is the mess Joe Biden has gotten us into. The irony is that he ran for president as a man who could bring experience, maturity, and sound judgment back into the White House. Instead, he has been modeling just the kind of loose talk and sloppy execution of diplomacy and strategy that, historically, engenders misunderstandings, war, and epic tragedy.
Sadly, it’s too late to change presidents in the midst of this terrible crisis. It may not be too late, however, to ask Joe Biden politely to go back to his basement where he belongs—and where he’s unlikely, or at least less likely, to get us all killed.