As Russian forces massed on Ukraine’s border, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan urged Americans to depart Ukraine immediately (you see video below for more details). “We are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time should Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to order it,” he said. “We encourage all American citizens who remain in Ukraine to depart immediately.”
After the Afghanistan debacle, it is understandable that the White House is sensitive to the idea that it might abandon Americans in harm’s way. Sullivan is correct to warn Americans that there is a limit to the U.S. ability to evacuate them should war erupt in Ukraine.
Where the Biden administration goes wrong, however, is in the fear they telegraph. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a schoolyard bully who feeds off panic. This is a major reason why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the Biden administration to tone down its statements.
The weakness Biden telegraphs also frustrates Ukrainians and other East European and former Soviet democracies. The Taliban victory and chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan reverberated far beyond Afghanistan’s borders and did generational damage to America’s image that no amount of political spin can cover. Nor was Biden’s lifting of Nord Stream-2 pipeline sanctions a sophisticated move to win German cooperation for a tougher line on China as supporters claimed; rather, it signaled weakness and empowered Russia. No amount of damage control could erase the subsequent diplomatic disaster of Biden’s quip that he might tolerate a “minor incursion.” With it, Biden tolerated that in his character he was still more a senator engaged in punditry than the leader of the free world.
It is not too late, however, for Biden to rise to such leadership. It will, however, take a complete reversal of the caution and fear which has defined Biden since his campaign days sequestered in the basement of his Delaware house.
Encouraging Americans to leave makes sense, but one American should do the opposite. Just as Ronald Reagan visited Berlin to face aggression and demand Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, so too should Biden fly into Kyiv, stand beside Zelensky, and demand Ukraine remain free. In essence, Biden should give the opposite of President George H.W. Bush’s infamous “Chicken Kyiv” speech.
What Biden says, however, would matter far less than what he does. Putin may saber-rattle, but the presence of the American president in Kyiv would fundamentally change any calculation the Kremlin might make about the consequences of launching a military assault on their neighbor. To visit Ukraine now would also signal to Europeans in a way that mere rhetoric cannot that “America is back.”
Biden promised to put diplomacy first. Actions, however, matter more than words. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was correct to say that what is at stake is not simply Ukrainian sovereignty but rather the post-World War II liberal order. With so much on the line, a Sullivan press conference or White House statement will not cut it. Rather, it is time for Biden through his actions to signal a resolve stronger than mere words. It is time he travels to Ukraine and publicly defies Putin. Sometimes, the most effective diplomacy involves more than words.