“No” is not the answer that the American public, let alone Zelensky, wants to hear. But it’s the answer that decades of experience have ingrained not only in Biden but also in many of those charged with protecting America’s national security throughout the nuclear age.
“This is the Cold War scenario we’ve avoided for 75 years, finally coming to life,” observed Tom Nichols, a leading authority on Russia and US nuclear doctrine. “The most important thing for Biden is to ignore all the public noise. That’s hard to do.”
The reason is as daunting as it is simple. Since World War II, the US and Russia have coexisted with the understanding of “mutually assured destruction,” each nation possessing a nuclear arsenal capable of obliterating the other.
Fear of triggering a catastrophic third world war kept the US and Russia from engaging in direct hostilities throughout the Cold War. Today it undergirds Biden’s determination to avoid pitting allied forces against Russians beyond NATO borders.
Though “humanitarian no fly-zone” suggests peaceful air patrols, imposing one requires NATO pilots to shoot down Russian planes that challenge them. Biden argues that would risk an escalation in attacks leading to a Russian nuclear strike. Experienced military leaders say he’s right.
“People say, ‘Putin won’t do it,’ ” said retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a former commander of the US Army in Europe who’s now a CNN national security and military analyst. “Oh, really? Can you bet on that?”
If Putin did, Hertling cautioned, a war now producing thousands of casualties could “quickly go into casualties in the millions.”
Kennedy used a quiet concession for the Soviets — the promise to remove US nuclear missiles from Turkey — to encourage Khrushchev’s retreat. Putin’s conduct may have foreclosed the possibility of concessions, even as military setbacks make his conduct less predictable.
That walk-back of Biden’s ad-libbed line — officials said it was not in his prepared text — signaled a significant lapse of discipline by a President who came into office with a reputation for verbal missteps. By seeming to raise the stakes for Putin, “President Biden just made it harder for Ukrainians to win the war,” tweeted Kori Schake, director of foreign policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Yet on concrete military steps, as opposed to rhetoric, Biden has remained exceptionally careful. In addition to shunning a no-fly zone, he and NATO leaders declined to transfer fighter jets Ukraine has requested from member countries.
They reason that it could prompt Russia to widen the war by attacking the transfer on NATO territory. Some national security specialists see no distinction, as a spark for Russian action, between providing the jets and the other military materiel the allies are already providing Ukraine.
Others want Biden to project more ambiguity about American intentions. Schake echoes the President’s opposition to a no-fly zone but says he could increase pressure on Putin by declining to “telegraph what those limits are.”
“Biden has been in enough situations where he understands the importance of thinking through the next move,” said Ivo Daalder, a former US envoy to NATO who is now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Nichols, recently retired from teaching at the Naval War College, called that precisely the sort of talk Biden must tune out.
“It’s not a matter of fear, it’s a matter of prudence and caution,” Nichols said. “He really has to resist being goaded by either emotion or pride. But that’s what you pay presidents for.”