The images of suffering become more heartbreaking every day, the appeals of beleaguered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky more urgent.
And every day, President Joe Biden faces the same leadership challenge: to say no to direct US military action against Russian troops to stop the massacre that Vladimir Putin has wrought.
“No” is not the answer the American public, let alone Zelensky, want to hear. But the answer is that decades of experience is ingrained not only in Biden, but in many of those charged with protecting American national security during the nuclear age.
“This is the Cold War scenario we’ve been avoiding for 75 years, and it’s finally coming to life,” noted Tom Nichols, a leading authority on Russia’s and US nuclear doctrine. “The most important thing for Biden is to ignore all the public noise. That’s hard to do.”
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That was the subtext of Biden’s journey last week to show solidarity with Europe’s allies in NATO. They strengthened the armed forces to defend the member states and gave more financial, military and humanitarian aid to Zelensky’s country.
They have not announced a protective no-fly zone over Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.
The reason is as daunting as it is simple. Since World War II, the US and Russia have coexisted with the notion of “mutually assured destruction”, with each nation possessing a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out the other.
Fears of unleashing a catastrophic World War III prevented the US and Russia from engaging in direct hostilities during the Cold War. Today, it supports Biden’s determination to prevent Allied forces from taking on Russians beyond NATO borders.
While ‘humanitarian no-fly zone’ suggests peaceful air patrols, imposing them requires NATO pilots to shoot down Russian planes that challenge them. Biden argues that doing so would risk an escalation of attacks leading to a Russian nuclear attack. Experienced military leaders say he’s right.
“People are saying, ‘Putin won’t do it,'” said retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, a former US military commander in Europe and now a DailyExpertNews national security and military analyst. “Really? Can you bet on that?”
If Putin did, Hertling warned, a war now killing thousands could “quickly kill millions.”
Fear of that nightmare drove President John F. Kennedy’s decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Kennedy resisted pressure from military advisers to bomb nuclear missile sites the Soviet Union had placed on the island, instead laying a naval blockade. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev withdrew the weapons.
Kennedy used a silent concession to the Soviets — a promise to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey — to encourage Khrushchev’s retreat. Putin’s behavior may have ruled out the possibility of concessions, even if military setbacks make his behavior less predictable.
In order not to provoke Khrushchev during their 13-day confrontation, JFK biographer Fredrik Logevall noted in an interview, Kennedy did his best not to “personalize” the conflict. Russia’s attacks on civilian targets last week forced the Biden administration to label Putin a “war criminal.”
Over the weekend, the president went even further when he concluded his speech in Warsaw by declaring that “this man cannot stay in power”. White House officials immediately rejected any intention to promulgate a US policy of regime change in Moscow, insisting that Biden was only referring to Putin’s ability to “exercise power over his neighbors” such as Ukraine.
That decline of Biden’s ad-libbed line — officials said it wasn’t in his prepared text — marked significant indiscipline on the part of a president who took office with a reputation for verbal missteps. By appearing to raise the stakes for Putin, “President Biden only made it harder for Ukrainians to win the war,” tweeted Kori Schake, director of foreign policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
But on concrete military steps, as opposed to rhetoric, Biden has remained extremely cautious. In addition to avoiding a no-fly zone, he and NATO leaders refused to transfer fighter jets that Ukraine has requested from member states.
They reason that it could incite Russia to extend the war by attacking the transfer on NATO territory. Some national security specialists see no distinction, as a spark for Russian action, between supplying the jets and the other military equipment the Allies are already supplying to Ukraine.
Others want Biden to project more ambiguity about American intentions. Schake reiterates the president’s opposition to a no-fly zone, but says he could increase pressure on Putin by refusing to “telegraph what those limits are.”
The brutality of the conflict continues to change those boundaries by increasing the risks allies are willing to take. Economic sanctions against Russia, which started narrowly, have become broad and deep. Military assistance to Ukraine has expanded to include more lethal drones, longer-range anti-aircraft weapons and, most recently, anti-ship missiles.
The Russian use of chemical or nuclear weapons in Ukraine would further alter risk calculations. Biden, who has been careful to maintain Allied unity during the crisis, has not specified how.
But as he demonstrated at the withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, for better or for worse, the 79-year-old commander in chief with decades of foreign policy experience will not be easily blown off course.
“Biden has been in enough situations where he understands the importance of thinking about the next step,” said Ivo Daalder, a former US envoy to NATO and now chairman of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
That has not yielded any clear political dividends. In an AP-NORC poll last week, 56% of Americans said Biden hasn’t been tough enough on Russia. Republican politicians — who are now distancing themselves from former President Donald Trump’s embrace of Putin — are attacking Biden as weak.
Nichols, who recently dropped out of teaching at the Naval War College, called that exactly the kind of conversation Biden should ignore.
“It’s not a matter of fear, it’s a matter of caution and caution,” Nichols said. “He really has to resist if he is provoked by emotion or pride. But that’s what you pay presidents for.”