The Biden administration, thus far, has refused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s urgent requests for a no-fly zone over his country and for deploying Soviet-made MiG-29 jets parked in Poland and other former Warsaw Pact countries now part of NATO. Biden fears that granting Zelenksyy’s requests might risk Russia’s Vladimir Putin using nuclear weapons.
Biden understandably wants to avoid World War III. That caution also explains why the president opposes stationing American troops in Ukraine.
Biden’s caution, however, also represents a major strategic blunder similar to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler. Totalitarian dictators determined to expand their borders are never appeased for long.
Biden and his national-security advisers are committing an enormous long-term strategic mistake while hoping to avoid a potential direct skirmish with Russia. The dangerous irony is that Biden’s caution today actually increases, not decreases, the likelihood of World War III.
Putin has escalated his Ukraine aggression knowing that Biden and the West fear he will deploy biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. As Putin ups the military ante with more bombings and atrocities, the West adds more sanctions, sends extra Javelin and Stinger missiles, bans Russia from another international organization and seizes more oligarchs’ yachts.
The West’s response has been consistently reactive, thereby allowing Putin unilaterally to define the timing and scope of his aggression. We fear his nukes; Putin fears nothing, because he knows that he can threaten using his nuclear arsenal to blackmail the West from taking stronger actions in Ukraine.
For half a century, Joe Biden has been the creature of a Washington Establishment decision-making approach that often overvalues short-term gains while sidestepping critical long-term risks.
That mentality explains our massive national debt, runaway entitlements and nearly bankrupt Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs. Inaction today almost usually trumps making hard policy choices. Kick the can down the road, to another administration, to another generation is the operative, risk-averse mantra.
Ronald Reagan showed Americans another way. On domestic economic policy, with Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Reagan took the risk (and the criticism) for the high interest rates that broke the 1970s’ runaway inflation and launched a generation of economic growth and prosperity.
On international policy, rather than accept the “Better Red Than Dead” posture relative to the Soviet Union’s threats, Reagan branded the Communist nation an “Evil Empire” and promptly increased defense spending, including his much-derided Star Wars missile shield.
Standing before Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Reagan boldly announced: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Establishment diplomats at home and abroad went nuts, but the Soviet Union went out of business on December 26, 1991, without a single bullet fired or missile launched. Reagan’s carefully calculated confrontation created a far safer world going forward.
Today, the world has many more “rogue” states watching closely how Putin is treated. North Korea is building a nuclear arsenal. Iran surely is doing likewise.
India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. But what if Venezuela or Cuba aspires to nuclear status; or if the Baltic nations see the benefit of a nuclear arsenal as a means of self-protection?
The United States cannot be deterred from taking the steps necessary to counter Putin’s unprovoked, illegal aggression against Ukraine. If there’s a collapse of American credibility, imagine how Beijing will assess that collapse while pondering Taiwan’s future.
The Biden administration’s reluctance to give Ukraine everything it needs to beat Russia decisively for fear of further antagonizing Putin means that rogue nations will realize that nuclear weapons insulate their behavior through nuclear blackmail.
Greater nuclear proliferation offers survival incentives for rogue states to follow Putin’s example. Rapid nuclear proliferation ensures, therefore, an increased likelihood of World War III, especially if a nuclear nation has an apocalyptic vision of how to destroy its enemies.
The United States and its allies cannot be deterred from opposing aggression just because an aggressor has nuclear weapons. Such weapons do not give their possessors the freedom to behave as they choose.
Today’s policy discussions concerning Ukraine must also consider the possibility that less aggressive countermeasures now will entail greater future nuclear proliferation. The risks for the West are just as great as those for Ukraine.
Speaking on February 17, 2010, then Vice President Biden called nuclear proliferation the “greatest threat … facing humanity, and that is why we are working both to stop their proliferation and eventually eliminate them.”
If President Biden still believes these words, he must now give Ukraine everything it needs to win.
Michael Horowitz, Office of Management and Budget General Counsel in the first Reagan Administration, is a human-rights advocate promoting political, religious, social, and economic freedom around the world.
Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House.