Americans want Joe Biden to stop the slaughter in Ukraine.
They want to see that the United States – home to the greatest military force in the world and the globe’s biggest economy – cannot be cowed by a thug in the Kremlin. They want to believe that a unified West can fight for and protect a friendly democratic nation under assault.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows an overwhelming majority of Americans (74%) support establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, banning U.S. imports of Russian oil (80%), and imposing further penalties on the Russian economy (81%).
As Russian atrocities in Ukraine pile up, Americans want Biden to get more aggressive. Efforts to pacify Vladimir Putin have come up short. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told U.S. senators in recent days that the West’s sanctions should have been imposed earlier; perhaps the magnitude of the penalties would have caused Putin to reconsider.
Unfortunately, Biden dithered, instead warning Putin that he would become a “pariah,” as though that might stop him. The president also foolishly announced that we would not commit troops to the fight and implied that a “small incursion” might not warrant serious punishment.
When numerous threats of impending penalties failed to stop the invasion, Biden said the sanctions were not meant as a deterrent; certainly, imposed after the fact, they did nothing to deter Putin.
The president’s celebratory State of the Union address was premature. Yes, he joined with NATO to impose the harshest sanctions ever leveled against a large economy; what good has it done? In fact, Biden did not unite NATO; Putin united NATO.
History tells us that if we accede to Russia’s takeover of Ukraine, the aggression will not stop.
If President Obama had hit back hard when Putin attacked Crimea in 2015, perhaps Russia would not be invading Ukraine today. But Obama, warning that Putin would be “isolated” on the world stage, did little to punish Putin for that act of aggression.
If George W. Bush had sent military aid to Georgia in 2008 when Russia invaded that country, maybe he would not have been emboldened. Instead, Bush told Putin he would “jeopardize” his standing in the West.
Yes, pushing back against Putin’s insistent press to rebuild the Soviet Empire is risky. So is turning our back on a malevolent dictator who stops at nothing to resurrect his country’s former greatness.
Consider: Russia attacked Ukraine’s biggest nuclear power plant, and Putin has also raised his nuclear forces to high alert. These are the acts of a madman. A madman who knows the West is scared of conflict and unwilling to confront him.
Putin has warned that establishing a no-fly zone in Ukraine is tantamount to a declaration of war. But he also likens imposing sanctions to a declaration of war. In his mind, we are already at war.
The West cannot simply look the other way as a dangerous criminal destroys a democratic country of 44 million people.
And yes, China’s President Xi Jinping is watching. He is readying his own “unification” – the takeover of Taiwan – and if western nations are unable or unwilling to confront Putin, he will be encouraged.
What should Biden do?
**Immediately sanction Russia’s oil and gas industry. Already exports of oil have dropped, thanks to nervous shippers and insurers. However, even with Russian oil being discounted by $15-$20 per barrel, it remains a lifeline for Putin. Cut the lifeline. At the very least, stop oil from Russia flowing into the U.S.
**Follow German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ lead and get realistic about the security need for energy independence. Bring U.S. oil and gas producers to the White House and tell them you will speed permits, eliminate fees and increase acreage available to them to drill. Use our bounteous energy resources as a weapon, which they are.
**Give a prime-time speech outlining your shift on energy policy, reviving Obama’s “all-of the-above” strategy. Explain this is a temporary but necessary hiatus in the ongoing transfer to green energy.
**Declare a no-fly zone over western Ukraine, where there are not yet Russian troops, to ensure ongoing stepped-up delivery of weapons, including fighter planes and humanitarian supplies. Make it clear that NATO will not attack Russian planes unless they breach that airspace; any downing of Russian aircraft will be on Putin, not NATO.
**Remind Americans that in 1994, under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, the United States, Russia and others pledged to not invade Ukraine’s borders, in exchange for that country giving up its huge nuclear arsenal. Putin has violated that promise. While we did not commit to militarily defend Ukraine, we are morally obligated to do so.
**Launch an all-out effort – whatever it takes — to tell the Russian people what is taking place in Ukraine. A new law that threatens journalists who report on the war as well as internet shutdowns mean Russians do not know their country has attacked their neighbor. They need the truth.
It is time for Biden to make good on his numerous previous claims that Putin “feared” him and that he could go “toe to toe” with Russia’s strongman.
It is time to be the FDR-like leader that Joe longs to become. FDR was a wartime president, capable of inspiring a reluctant nation to save the western world, at great cost. Biden needs to become that president.
He needs to explain why confronting Putin matters, even if it costs Americans higher energy and food prices – and possibly a recession — in the short run. Which it well might.
The whole world is watching.
Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. Follow her on Twitter @lizpeek.