Discover more from The Bulwark
Biden’s Dangerous Message to Putin
Plus: Useful idiot update.
President Biden finds himself in an unusual political moment… for the moment.
Polls suggest that the public overwhelmingly backs a strong stance against Russian aggression in Ukraine and supports the stiff sanctions Biden has imposed. The partisan gap on Russia has disappeared. Here are the numbers from the latest YouGov poll:
But Biden’s position also faces two major challenges: (1) the public’s patience with the economic costs and (much more important) (2) whether his policies will deter Vladimir Putin from further escalations and save Ukraine.
The Wapo reports today that Biden now faces growing bipartisan pressure in Congress “to increase military aid to Ukraine, including sending fighter jets and air defense systems that the administration rejected last week.”
Clearly Biden has gotten a great deal right.
He simultaneously worked—quietly—with NATO and the EU to achieve a larger consensus than there has been on any military matter before the alliance since . . . well, let’s call it a generation.
Biden did not draw lines in the sand. He did not personalize the conflict. He did not turn himself into the star of the show. He did not allow anyone, anywhere, to believe that this was about America.
Since the invasion, Biden has been a full partner with our European allies.
This is all true.
But as the war becomes increasingly brutal, and the threat of Russian use of WMDs rises, there are growing doubts about the message Biden is sending Putin.
Last week, Biden declared: “I want to be clear: We will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full might of a united and galvanized NATO.”
“But we will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III. And something we must strive to prevent.”
Unfortunately, this continues a pattern of signaling to Putin the things we will not do. And it draws a seemingly bright red line that excludes several countries (including Moldova) for which Putin might have an appetite.
Biden’s statement drew a quick rejoinder from CIA veteran (and Bulwark contributor) John Sipher.
Biden’s statement drew even stronger reactions from both Alexander Vindman and Garry Kasparov, who have become increasingly vocal critics of the administration’s policies and rhetoric.
Olga Chyzh is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, who makes the case that “The West, especially [Biden], has demonstrated a complete lack of the most basic understanding of crisis bargaining, brinkmanship, and deterrence.”
I’ve (partially) unrolled this thread:
When Putin hears again and again that NATO will do NOTHING militarily to stop his invasion, that decreases his costs for war, increases his demands in negotiations, and outright emboldens him.
When @POTUS goes on record saying that NATO will not defend Ukraine militarily, even in case of a chemical attack—that weakens NATO’s bargaining position. The strategy is to keep the adversary uncertain (even if you are bluffing).
Basically, the bargaining strategy is to ALWAYS exaggerate your resolve, say "maybe" NOT "never". Even if you have no intention to fight at all. (That is why Putin did not believe Ukraine).
Because the strategy is to always exaggerate your resolve--and your opponent expects you to--when NATO says they will NEVER intervene, it sends a strong signal that they have no resolve. This is an invitation for Putin to do as he pleases--it EMBOLDENS him. Beyond just Ukraine.
Had NATO signals been ambiguous (even if their true intention was NOT to defend Ukraine), that would have raised Putin’s expected costs of war-he doesn't want to fight NATO. Even a small risk of NATO involvement would have forced him to tread lightly, and maybe, prevented the war.
The goal of crisis bargaining is to avoid war. But counter-intuitively, you often have to escalate the threat of war to get your best bargaining outcome WITHOUT going to war. Putin understands crisis bargaining, and that gives him the upper hand….
NATO keeps announcing that they fold, which prompts Putin to keep poking to find out the limits (e.g. his recent threat to target the weapons convoys).
This report seems to confirm some of the concerns about the message we are sending Putin:
And, about that deterrence:
A final word about the threat of “World War III”.
All military confliction does not mean war, much less World War III. Recall that Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the border with Syria in 2015, without setting off a global conflagration.
But the repeated use of the imagery of “WWIII” actually serves to deter U.S./NATO more than Putin, because it raises the cost of U.S./NATO intervention, while accepting Putin’s threats at face value.
Warning against “WWIII,” may also make it harder to justify other steps that may become necessary if Putin uses chemical weapons, moves into other non-NATO countries, or if it becomes necessary to make humanitarian Berlin-airlift style flights into besieged cities.
And if Biden says that Ukraine is not worth risking “WWIII”… will Americans think saving Latvia or Estonia is worth it?
Useful idiot update
Make sure you read Amanda’s Carpenter’s article in today’s Bulwark: “Russia Doesn’t Need Trolls This Time,” which looks at the likely suspects pushing the bioweapons conspiracy theories.
Don’t miss David Corn’s scoop: “Leaked Kremlin Memo to Russian Media: It Is ‘Essential’ to Feature Tucker Carlson.”
On March 3, as Russian military forces bombed Ukrainian cities as part of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of his neighbor, the Kremlin sent out talking points to state-friendly media outlets with a request: Use more Tucker Carlson.
“It is essential to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who sharply criticizes the actions of the United States [and] NATO, their negative role in unleashing the conflict in Ukraine, [and] the defiantly provocative behavior from the leadership of the Western countries and NATO towards the Russian Federation and towards President Putin, personally,” advises the 12-page document written in Russian. It sums up Carlson’s position: “Russia is only protecting its interests and security.” The memo includes a quote from Carlson: “And how would the US behave if such a situation developed in neighboring Mexico or Canada?”
The document—titled “For Media and Commentators (recommendations for coverage of events as of 03.03)”—was produced, according to its metadata, at a Russian government agency called the Department of Information and Telecommunications Support, which is part of the Russian security apparatus.
Tucker, of course, is not alone: Via Forbes: “Tulsi Gabbard Latest To Push Russian-Backed Conspiracy About U.S.-Backed Biological Labs In Ukraine:”
The Fox News Host formerly known as the Money Honey. “Maria Bartiromo Draws Heat for Claiming ‘Some People’ Told Her the Biden White House Sees Putin as a ‘Partner,’ Not an ‘Enemy.’”
Then there was this from the chair of the Georgia GOP:
“Consumed by spite”
A South Carolina Republican congressman finds his voice.
The former president has targeted Representative Tom Rice (R-S.C.) for defeat, because he voted for impeachment. Over the weekend, Trump was in South Carolina to (among other things) campaign for Rice’s primary challenger, Russell Fry.
Afterward, Rice had this to say:
Trump is here because, like no one else I’ve ever met, he is consumed by spite. I took one vote he didn’t like and now he’s chosen to support a yes-man candidate who has and will bow to anything he says, no matter what.
If you want a congressman who supports political violence in Ukraine or in the United States Capitol, who supports party over country, who supports a would-be tyrant over the Constitution, and who makes decisions based solely on re-election, then Russell Fry is your candidate.
1. How Freedom and Dreams of a ‘Normal Life’ Died in Post-Cold-War Russia
My father, who lived until 2011, never had much faith in democracy in Russia, though he said repeatedly that he would love to be proven wrong; by the late 2000s, he certainly felt vindicated in his pessimism. Does his prediction from 1978—that nothing would ever change in Russia except for the worse—still apply? “Ever” is a big word; countries and cultures have certainly changed in drastic and unpredictable ways. But in the near future, I see no good scenario.
Of course, I too will love to be proven wrong.
2. Will Sweden Join NATO?
Whether Sweden ultimately ends up deciding to apply for NATO membership is also dependent on what its eastern neighbors in Finland arrive at in their upcoming debate over NATO. A Finnish application for membership would almost certainly tip the scales in favor of Sweden submitting one of its own. If the Finns decide against joining, Sweden would probably choose to seek security assurances elsewhere.