President Joe Biden this week delivered exactly the speech he needed to give on Ukraine. It was brief, clear, and it balanced the resolve needed to stand up to Putin with a commitment to searching for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. He spoke directly to the Russian people and said “you are not our enemy.” He let Americans know that his administration would do everything in its power to protect them from the imposition of sanctions on Russia—like rising gasoline prices.
Unfortunately, the president’s speech very likely failed in one crucial respect. It did not make Americans care about Ukraine any more than they did before it was delivered. While pundits from both sides of the aisle praised the speech (including the right-leaning Washington Examiner), it probably lacked the arguments necessary to win average Americans’ support for the costs that a protracted conflict in Ukraine (or further escalating tensions with Russia) might bring.
One hurdle faced by the president in this regard is ignorance. A recent Morning Consult poll showed only about a third of Americans can even find Ukraine on a map. That matters in a practical sense because the same survey showed that half of those who could identify Ukraine were likely to support, for example, shipping arms to that country. Conversely, only 37 percent of those who could not find Ukraine on a map would support such actions. Similarly, support for strict sanctions was higher among the minority who could identify Ukraine than it was among the much larger percentage of the population that could not.
The consequence of this knowledge gap is that as recently as a week ago, when the poll was released, only a minority of Americans supported the various policy approaches being pursued by the administration—from threatening sanctions to moving troops into Eastern Europe. Fewer than one in three supported sending more troops into Eastern Europe “even if there may be U.S. casualties.”
The uphill battle of winning support for U.S. policies is only likely to get worse if the Russians launch a massive new invasion of Ukraine. That’s because at that point sanctions will kick in, uncertainty will roil markets, and even Americans who don’t know where Ukraine is will start to be squeezed by such events. Notably, oil and gasoline prices, which have already been rising due to both increasing demand as the economy slowly recovers from COVID-induced doldrums (as well as the uncertainty in Eastern Europe) have gone up. But if the crisis worsens and Russia, a major oil supplier, is hit by sanctions, prices could spike even further and the impact at the pump will be substantial.
Higher gas prices will contribute to inflation and a slower recovery. That’s bad news for Democrats in an election year. As Biden indicated in his speech, the administration is exploring a variety of measures to help offset this possibility. But already we have seen one such potential set of measures, reducing the taxes on gasoline, has met resistance on Capitol Hill—largely from cynical Republicans who would rather the president’s party be squeezed than see their constituents’ economic needs actually addressed.
Further, a protracted crisis will mean footing the bill for more aid to Ukraine and greater military expenditures in Europe. It may also mean greater risk to Americans in Ukraine and in the region—even if the U.S. does not send troops to directly confront Russia. Which means that if only 39 percent of Americans support President Biden’s position on Ukraine today, things could quickly deteriorate.
For these reasons—as well as widespread fatigue from the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—geopolitical arguments about preserving the international system or the rule of law are likely to fall on deaf ears with many Americans. So, the administration needs to do what past administrations have done. They need to keep it simple.
For example, George H.W. Bush’s administration justified its war against Iraq by arguing that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait—a sovereign state that was, ostensibly, a friend of the U.S. But the war to protect Kuwait’s dictatorship was largely about oil.
Putin’s threat against democratic Ukraine is part of a much bigger, long-established strategic plan to weaken the West, the NATO alliance, and the U.S. These are all issues of much greater consequence than was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. (79 percent of Americans supported the Gulf War when it began.)
George W. Bush’s administration justified its war in Iraq by making the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In the wake of Bush’s March 19, 2003, speech in which he argued Iraqi WMDs were a threat to the world, a Gallup Poll showed that more than two-thirds of the American people felt he had made his case, a number that rose to 72 percent in late March of that year.
Of course, Saddam did not actually have weapons of mass destruction. But Vladimir Putin does. In fact, he controls more nuclear warheads than anyone else on the planet. By a lot.
Russia has, according to the Arms Control Association, 6,257 nuclear warheads. The U.S., by comparison, has 5,550. China comes in third with 350. Russia also has 2,000 tactical nukes deployed, about 10 times the number the US has and 20 times what we have deployed in Europe.
Chemical weapons? Russia has used them in recent years to assassinate opponents of its regime.
In other words, the threat posed by Russia is arguably greater over the near to medium term than that posed by any other country. What is more, Putin has shown a desire to carve away at sovereign European states—like Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine beginning in 2014—that is unlike anything Europe has seen since the days of Hitler. (And we know what the costs of appeasing Hitler were.)
Putin has, in fact, been waging war against the West for as long as he has been in power. It has included support for ethno-nationalist right-wing parties across Europe. It has included massive disinformation campaigns and election meddling (remember 2016?), and it has included more major state-sponsored cyberattacks against the West than by any other country.
Finally, as real as the Russian threat is, as damaging as Russian actions have been for years, as threatening as they may be right now—even worse is what would happen if Russia thought it could continue its campaign against the U.S. and the West unchecked.
The result would be sky-rocketing defense costs that would siphon off funds much better spent as investments in the daily lives and prospects of Americans. And focusing on Russia would distract us from addressing greater long term challenges—from climate change to next generation pandemics to the rise of China.
Putin miscalculated. He concluded that America was in retreat. He concluded that we were hopelessly politically divided (in part thanks to his efforts). And he concluded that NATO could not come together as it has in the past (again, thanks in part to his efforts to foster division, Euroscepticism, and the rise of Putinesque autocrats like Hungary’s Viktor Orban).
He was wrong. The response of the Biden administration and NATO has been unified and smart, displaying the same balance and foresight as the president’s speech on Tuesday.
But, ultimately, containing the threat posed by Putin will depend on unwavering American resolve, on an ability to withstand threats and a willingness (when necessary) to make sacrifices.
That, in turn, depends on Biden and his administration communicating more clearly why this matters to Main Street, America. They need to sell to the people why advancing our national interests requires confronting threats to the international order.
Biden and his team, who have managed this crisis well thus far, will need to devote more attention to the domestic aspect of this crisis and its underlying causes, if the leadership we have demonstrated is to be sustainable.