Talking Points

The risk Joe Manchin is ignoring in his plan for Ukraine

Speaking with NBC's Chuck Todd on Sunday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) didn't endorse a U.S.- or NATO-enforced no-fly zone to stop Russia from bombing Ukraine. But he said it would be "wrong" to "take anything off the table" even as he acknowledged a no-fly zone, in Todd's words, "could trigger a wider conflict."

Todd is right on that point, as the plan would require U.S. forces to shoot down any Russian aircraft in Ukrainian airspace. Moscow would take that as a declaration of war, which would risk a nuclear exchange.

Manchin's refusal to rule out that chain of events is striking in its own right. But it's also striking because of Manchin's cultivated reputation as a frugal and deficit-hawkish politician. Last year, for example, he opposed President Biden's signature legislation, the Build Back Better Act, on the grounds that it would increase deficit spending. The national debt, he suggested, is the "greatest threat facing our nation."

But the support for Ukraine Manchin envisions — which at least includes costly military equipment like planes, per his conversation with Todd, if not more active U.S. interventions like the no-fly zone idea — would be plenty costly too. And its ultimate cost would not be determined by Congress, but instead by the response of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the military escalation that would ensue. While it is easy to understand why Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky wants a no-fly zone, as his nation faces the prospect of continued bombing and ground assaults by Russia, what justification does Manchin have for toying with this idea? 

His concerns over deficits and inflation led him to vote against legislation that would have slashed child poverty in America. Now, he's apparently willing to risk the massive cost of a war with Russia for what he sees as benefiting the children of Ukraine.

Manchin might argue, as he told Todd about rising gas prices from a ban on Russian fuel, that "the American people would, basically pay, if they had to, seeing that they're saving freedom and saving lives of people, innocent people." Yet the same life-saving rationale could apply to domestic spending programs Manchin won't support — to say nothing of the possibility of nuclear war, an outcome whose causes Manchin won't quite reject.