Perspective: It wasn’t a ‘minor incursion.’ Did Biden’s words contribute to a major problem for Ukraine?
Words have consequences and ineffectual messaging from the West may have emboldened Vladimir Putin
In January, the White House rushed to clarify what President Joe Biden meant when he said that a “minor incursion’” into Ukraine would not require the sort of response demanded by one of a larger scale — like the one the world saw Thursday.
After the bafflingly candid remark, press secretary Jen Psaki quickly put out a statement saying that “if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies.” And a National Security Council spokeswoman tweeted that Biden was talking about the difference between a boots-on-the-ground military operation and, say, a cyber attack.
Ukraine officials also noticed the misstep, with the country’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, saying, “There is no minor, middle or major invasion. An invasion is an invasion.”
The corrections were necessary because words have consequences, and what a U.S. president intends to say has little currency on the international stage, only what the president actually says. And as Russia advances into Ukraine, it has become apparent that America’s saber-rattling on behalf of the vulnerable young democracy hasn’t been nearly forceful enough.
Newsrooms in DC won’t say it but Biden’s weak diplomacy failed.— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) February 24, 2022
Would stronger language and a more threatening posture from the U.S. have mattered?
One person who might think so is Vladimir Putin, who needed no one to come out and explain what he meant when he said, in a disturbing address made moments before Russia’s unprovoked and destructive shelling of Ukraine: “Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so, to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history.
“We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made.”
There’s a reason that authoritarian leaders like Putin are often called strongmen, and it’s not just because of their tyrannical and oppressive actions. It’s a terrible reality that political strongmen display a cold clarity of purpose that our administration seems to have lacked in recent months, surely in part because Biden knows Americans have very little appetite for war.
As former national security adviser H.R. McMaster told Zoe Strimpel, writing for Bari Weiss’ Common Sense substack, “Deterrence is a simple equation: capability times will. I think that many of our adversaries today think our will is about zero. I think we’re set up for a cascading crisis now in large measure because of the perception that our will is diminished.”
Strimpel further observed that peace is a byproduct of strength. “We can’t ask for it. We can’t talk our way into it. We can’t simply impose (or lift) sanctions. We have to achieve it by threatening — credibly — to pummel into oblivion anyone who gets in the way.”
Unlike Biden’s famously erratic predecessor, the current administration is perhaps too predictable. Before the president began his news conference Thursday, we all knew what was coming: more sanctions, and a mild defense of the kinds of sanctions delivered even though the ones already in place haven’t worked.
President Putin’s actions demand a firm response. That’s why we’re imposing full blocking sanctions on VEB and Russia’s military bank, cutting off Russia from western financing, imposing sanctions on elites, and more.— President Biden (@POTUS) February 23, 2022
We will continue to escalate sanctions if Russia escalates.
In 2018, the late Arizona Sen. John McCain wrote that Putin is an evil man who desires the “destruction of the liberal world order that the United States has led.” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has said of Russia, “They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.” Biden himself has said that when he met Putin at the Kremlin, he looked in Putin’s eyes and said, “I don’t think you have a soul,” to which Putin reportedly replied, “We understand one another.”
Seeing Putin that way, it’s hard to understand why the Biden White House hasn’t been more strategic and proactive when it comes to the defense of our most vulnerable ally in Eastern Europe.
To be clear: With so much at stake, for not just Europe but also the U.S., all Americans must stand in support of our president and the people of Ukraine, even as we question whether a bolder response might have stopped Putin before we got to this place.
It’s in no one’s interest — not America’s, not NATO’s and certainly not Ukraine’s — for partisan squabbling to continue on the matter of Ukraine. As Sen. Brian Schatz, the Democrat from the Hawaii, tweeted, “It is more essential than ever that we rally around our President as he leads the free world in response. If your instinct is to try to turn this into a partisan political advantage or a viral tweet, step off the stage.”
He’s right. It’s time to heed the Truman-era words, “We must stop politics at the water’s edge.” But before we get to that water’s edge, let’s hope this administration learns from its past missteps with so much at stake.