President Joe Biden blew it.
The president spent the weekend in Poland where he spoke soberly about the challenge Russia’s invasion of Ukraine posed to the West. He observed that the “battle will not be won in days or months,” but the West’s resolve to support Ukraine’s resistance will not falter. While NATO’s member states “stand with” Ukraine, though, Biden repeatedly stressed that the Atlantic Alliance is a defensive organization. It would not undertake offensive operations except to protect the sovereignty of NATO states. But then, Biden undermined the entire premise of his speech with one aggressive adlib: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
This extemporaneous riff was, in many ways, the only logical way Biden could have closed this deeply confused speech. The president talked much more about the profound ethical and historical obligations confronting the free world than about NATO’s defensive posture. “Every generation has had to defeat democracy’s moral foes,” Biden said. “Let us resolve to put the strength of democracies into action to thwart the designs of autocracy.” Europe’s compromising reliance on Russian energy, Moscow’s crimes against human dignity in Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s corruption and internal oppression; all of it, not just Russia’s war against Ukraine, “must end.” This epochal charge falls on all of us, but only to a limited and passive degree. We must confront this menace, but we are also obliged to stay our hands lest we risk a third world war. Huh?
Biden’s defenders have praised the president’s candor, but this was not an articulation of U.S. policy. It was throat-clearing that could only further destabilize the situation in Eastern Europe, as evidenced by an administration-wide effort to clean up after the president’s intemperate remarks. While it’s sometimes welcome, it is not the president’s job to be a beacon of moral clarity. His role is to establish America’s national interests in as discrete a manner as possible and behave in ways that advance those objectives. Time and again throughout this crisis, Biden has let his mouth get in the way of that imperative.
In late January, as Russia amassed an invasion force along Ukraine’s borders, Joe Biden consistently retailed a message that conveyed little more than his own confusion. “My guess is he will move in,” Biden confessed when asked if Putin would invade Ukraine, only to reverse himself minutes later. “I don’t think he’s made up his mind yet,” the president later said of the invasion he’d just claimed was imminent. “If he invades, it hasn’t happened since World War II,” Biden added incorrectly. In 2014, Russia became the first European power to invade and annex territory in a neighboring state since 1945 when Moscow invaded Donbas and Crimea, outright subsuming the latter into the Russian Federation. Worst of all, the president appeared to blink when he said it would be “one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do.” Biden unwittingly advertised the deep divisions within the alliance over how to respond to Russian aggression that falls short of total war.
But making total war on Ukraine was precisely what Putin had in mind. That cataclysm was less than a week old when Joe Biden addressed a joint session of Congress for his first State of the Union address. That speech opened with the crisis in Europe, but the president appeared to focus exclusively on domestic concerns for the remainder of the text. That is, until the final moment of the speech when the president closed with another ad-lib: “Go get him!” We may never know what Biden was thinking at that moment, but the foreign press—certainly, Russia’s political media—observed that he appeared to be “hitting out at Putin” directly.
The congenitally paranoid Russian regime likely had their worst suspicions confirmed when Biden gave another speech in Poland upon his arrival to an audience of U.S. service personnel. In that address, Biden heaped praise on the “backbone” displayed by the Ukrainian people. “And you’re going to see when you’re there,” he told the members of America’s armed forces. “And you—some—some of you have been there.” Where, exactly? Inside Ukraine, where the president has repeatedly insisted the U.S. will not deploy troops? A charitable interpretation of Biden’s remarks would conclude the president simply misspoke (again, as is his wont). But the Kremlin cannot be trusted to render such benevolent judgments, nor should we trust global security in these tense moments to Russia’s generosity of spirit.
Joe Biden’s verbal blunder over the weekend in Poland is only his latest, but it may be the most consequential. The White House spent the remainder of the weekend insisting the president did not say what he said. Administration officials insisted that the West is not seeking “regime change” in Russia, which Putin has repeatedly said is NATO’s ultimate but previously unspoken goal. But America’s allies are now on edge, and some—such as French President Emanuel Macron—are publicly distancing themselves from the president’s remarks. America’s adversaries in the Kremlin are listening closely, too. If investigators with the open-source intelligence outlet Bellingcat are correct, senior Russian regime officials have taken up residence in nuclear bunkers deep in the Ural Mountains.
This is a delicate moment. It demands a disciplined, whole-of-government approach, and that’s not what we’re seeing from this president.