America can't afford to be careless in the war of words against Russia
Communicating with Russia is already difficult. The president made it worse.
The Western world has a Goldilocks problem in Ukraine: It wants to support that country's defense against Russia's invasion, and to do it just the right amount. Too little help and Ukrainians might be left at Russian President Vladimir Putin's mercy; too much and there's the risk of provoking a wider war in Europe. It's tough to find the right balance, and the results can sometimes look absurd — why do NATO countries feel comfortable providing Ukraine with anti-aircraft missiles, but not actual aircraft?
There's a similar challenge with wartime rhetoric. It's important for the United States and its allies to condemn Russia's aggression, but to do so in carefully calibrated terms.
On Saturday, though, President Biden wasn't so careful.
At the end of a 27-minute speech in Poland, during which he vowed both to provide a refuge to Ukrainians fleeing war and that American troops won't be sent to fight in the war, Biden took aim at Putin with an ad-libbed, unscripted remark. "For God's sake," Biden said, "this man cannot remain in power."
If Biden meant what he said, his words were a sudden, surprise announcement that the United States is seeking regime change in Russia. The United Kingdom quickly distanced itself from the president's remarks. French President Emmanuel Macron was even more stern. And White House officials rushed to try to assure the world that Biden didn't mean what he said. "As you know, and as you have heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia or anywhere else, for that matter," Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Sunday morning in Jerusalem.
The reason for the hurried walkback of Biden's comments was clear: It will be more difficult to end the war if Putin thinks that America and its allies are out to bring him down. "There ought to be two priorities right now: ending the war on terms Ukraine can accept, and discouraging any escalation by Putin," said Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations. "And this comment was inconsistent with both of those goals."
The dustup over Biden's speech reflected the broader conundrum: How to talk about the war in Ukraine? The United States and its allies want to make it clear they're not looking to start World War III, but they also don't want to accidentally invite more aggression from Putin.
There's not an easy answer. Before Saturday, some NATO officials were saying that America has gone too far in letting the world — and Russia — know that it doesn't want to fight.
"I don't think this is very productive when we say every so often, 'We don't want World War III,' or 'We don't want conflict with Russia,'" an Estonian official told the Washington Post last week. "That's a green light to the Russians that we're afraid of them."
There's certainly a case for "strategic ambiguity," the approach the United States takes toward China regarding Taiwan. America doesn't have an explicit, formal pledge to come to Taiwan's defense if China invades, but it doesn't discount the possibility either. The idea is that China doesn't really know one way or the other, and has to account for the possibility the United States might get involved in any conflict. Ambiguity thus serves as a form of deterrence that doesn't directly provoke China. (Biden, for what it's worth, has stumbled here as well.) Some observers want America to take a similar posture with Russia.
But it isn't clear that being vague is useful once the shooting has actually started, or that it serves to deescalate an already-violent situation. And it's not like the United States and Russia are currently plagued by an excess of communication: Russia's military leaders are no longer taking phone calls from their American counterparts. That's a problem. It makes it more likely that the two countries could stumble into war stupidly, based on guesses, half-truths and speculation. "When there's no communication at that level, their worst-case assumptions, often based on poor information, are more likely to drive their behavior," Rand Corporation's Sam Charap told the Post.
That means it is all the more important that the United States and its allies loudly and clearly communicate their intentions in public. Shout it from the rooftops: We don't want a shooting war with Russia! The West should be communicating clearly — and mean what it communicates. That was true before Biden's gaffe on Saturday. It's probably even more true now.