The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden should resist the calls for war with Russia

President Biden speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting in D.C. on Jan. 21. (Eric Lee/BLOOMBERG)
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and the author of “Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.”

Joe Biden was rarely known as the coolest head in the room. He once backed deploying troops against terrorists on U.S. soil, and his panic-fanning comments about the 2009 swine flu caused a mini-crisis for the Obama White House. So it’s more than a little surprising to see the president become a lonely voice of moderation in the escalating Ukraine crisis.

Biden has been caught in an uproar since suggesting a “minor incursion” by Russian President Vladimir Putin into Ukraine might not invite full-scale U.S. pushback. The White House moved quickly to walk back the comment, but for Biden’s critics, it seemed to confirm their preconceptions: Biden is a weak leader who can’t stand up to a crafty authoritarian such as Putin.

It’s certainly true that the president has been unenthusiastic about conflict with Russia. Last year, Biden pushed back on members of the press corps egging him into a more aggressive posture, while postponing military aid to Ukraine and waiving sanctions on Moscow’s pivotal natural gas pipeline. Since the outbreak of this latest crisis, he has been similarly cautious, initially dragging his feet on sending military assistance to Kyiv and threatening sanctions only should a Russian invasion materialize.

Look around, and Biden seems increasingly isolated. Republicans are pushing him to escalate tensions, with one senator putting a ground war and nuclear strikes on the table. Democrats such as Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and former Obama administration official Evelyn Farkas want him to, respectively, “impose military costs” on Moscow and “use our military to roll back Russians.” Usually level-headed NATO allies like Britain and Canada are making similar noises. Even the press corps is back at it, with a Fox News reporter demanding to know why Biden was “waiting on Putin to make the first move.” The fact that Biden is reportedly mulling sending thousands of troops, plus warships and aircraft, to Eastern Europe suggests this pressure is already having an effect.

But which position here is really outside the mainstream?

Any hostilities with Russia have to be weighed against the potentially catastrophic outcome of the world’s two leading nuclear powers going to war. Accidents and misunderstandings have nearly triggered nuclear exchanges between the two in peacetime, so it’s not hard to imagine how full-on war, with all its escalations and movements of troops and aircraft, would heighten this risk. It’s why the two mortal enemies did everything possible throughout the Cold War to prevent direct armed conflict.

If U.S.-Russian hostilities led to the use of nukes, it wouldn’t end well. Imagine if the web of alliances that led to crisscrossing declarations of war in 1914 had triggered hundreds, maybe thousands of nuclear warheads being fired across continents instead. The United States, whose missile defense systems have a far from 100 percent success rate, would not escape unscathed. And even if a ground war managed to avoid triggering a nuclear holocaust, it would still precipitate an economic downturn, considering Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas and the costs accrued from U.S. wars against weaker countries than Russia.

Ukraine, on whose behalf war hawks would risk such disaster, is a country 5,700 miles away from American shores, and one that, as a non-NATO member, Washington has no obligation to defend. Its government and security forces are also infected with neo-Nazis who have trained and directly inspired homegrown far-right terrorists. If you’re reading this from one of the dozens of major metropolitan and military centers that would sit in the crosshairs of a Russian nuclear strike, ask yourself: Is Ukraine’s territorial integrity really worth the costs?

Those like Farkas imply it would, to defend “international law and sanctity of international borders.” But this is hard to take seriously. Both have already been serially violated by Washington this century. And just as George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, as outrageous as it was, didn’t justify a Russian war with the United States, neither does a similarly outrageous Russian invasion now make the same conflict any more preferable.

This also ignores that Putin’s actions are driven by the expansion of a hostile military alliance, NATO, up to his borders, a longtime Russian complaint that has been central to Moscow’s demands throughout this current crisis. U.S. officials well understand Russian objections to this, given that they view the prospect of Russian troops and missiles in Latin America as similarly unacceptable.

Because even war involving Russia and Ukraine alone would set back the fragile American and world economies, ideally, cooler heads would prevail here just as they did 60 years ago. The Cuban missile crisis was resolved with a quid pro quo, each side removing missiles from mutually threatening positions. A similar compromise can be found here that satisfies each party’s security concerns while letting them save face. And should Putin make good on his threat, a potential quagmire along with sanctions that further strangle his economy aren’t exactly minor consequences.

Biden entered politics admiring and drawing comparisons to John F. Kennedy, who was also called weak and an appeaser by those who measure toughness by recklessness. Decades later, there’s no question Kennedy’s way was right. Should Biden resist the calls for war, he won’t be popular in Washington, but he, too, will be remembered more kindly than his critics.