U.S. President Joe Biden is known for making confusing and sometimes wild pronouncements that his administration is known for frequently walking back. This might have been the case when he randomly decided to tell an audience of well-heeled Democrats at a fundraiser that Russian President Vladimir Putin is "not joking" about using nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. "We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon," he added, "since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis."
Biden has since refused to clarify his remarks or explain on what he was basing them. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby took to the Sunday shows to clarify that the president was not saying an attack was imminent and this his "comments were not based on new or fresh intelligence or new indications that Mr. Putin has made a decision to use nuclear weapons."
The difficult reality is that we may never know what would push Putin to make the decision to go nuclear. Russia is known in the Intelligence Community as what is called a hard target country: difficult for U.S. agencies to penetrate to get information. That problem has been exacerbated the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine. The U.S. objective should be to deter him: make the potential cost to him so high that it would be suicidal for him even to try.
Putin's plan was to seize Kyiv in two days, CIA Director Bill Burns told Congress. Another assessment, reportedly based on U.S. intelligence assessments, estimated that Kyiv would fall within "one to four days," Another story stated that at the start of the war, the U.S. offered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky "a ride" out of Ukraine. Americans need to recognize how limited the insights and understanding are that our leadership may have into some serious international threats.
There is always great uncertainty associated with war; the war in Ukraine is no different. Our Intelligence Community is certainly using all available sources and methods to gather crucial insights into Putin's thinking and planning, including his possible use of nuclear or chemical weapons. No one, of course, knows for sure.
What we do know is that a case must be made by the U.S. and the coalition of countries why supporting Ukraine is clearly in our strategic interest and the interest of the West. Secondly, it needs to be made unmistakably clear to Putin what the U.S. response would be if he used chemical or nuclear weapons anywhere, and especially if he tried to attack a NATO member country.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration, with its lack of clarity, has sown only a dangerous confusion that invites attacks. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, President Biden seemed to imply there would be fewer consequences for just a "minor incursion." Putin understandably saw it as a green light; the Ukrainians were understandably alarmed by the statement, and as all too often, the White House staff were left scrambling to clarify it.
The clearest and most welcome statement was made by Biden himself in March. "For God's sake," he stated, "this man cannot remain in power."
Biden's remarks sounded very like regime change -- a major reversal of U.S. policy. The White House rushed to clarify once again that Biden had not meant what he said. Biden pointedly, to his credit, said that he was "not walking back" his original statement.
Biden is old enough to remember that "what happens in Sudetenland does not stay in Sudetenland." If Putin is allowed to occupy Ukraine, Russia -- and undoubtedly all the other aggressor nations waiting in the wings -- China, Iran, Turkey, North Korea, as well as terrorist groups -- will be emboldened to begin a free-for-all of invading their countries of choice. Putin could further move to take over Moldova, Poland and the Baltic states, for a start; Turkey could move on Greece and southern Cyprus, and China would most certainly move on the world's computer-chip center, Taiwan.
It is heartening that with Biden's constantly blurting out statements and his staff's constantly rushing to clarify them, a late summer poll indicated that 53% of the American people emphatically supported U.S. assistance to Ukraine until Russian forces are fully withdrawn.
In Europe, while there is strong support for Ukraine and its accession to the EU, there are sharp divides, mostly over fears created by Biden's having, on day one, effectively closed down America's ability to produce and export oil, thereby creating an acute shortage of energy worldwide. Putin could not have dreamed of a bigger gift. Immediately, the price of oil tripled, from roughly $40 to $112; Russia was making a billion dollars a day, or $360 billion a year. Biden, with a stroke of his pen, had just financed Russia's entire war on Ukraine even before granting Putin the use of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe, thereby guaranteeing Russia the ability to hold Europe hostage come winter.
Meanwhile, according to another poll, 35% of people sampled across 10 countries wanted peace as soon as possible, while only 22% wanted justice, meaning holding Russia accountable and restoring Ukrainian territorial integrity.
The problem with this response is that it is exactly the same view that, in 1938, led British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to wave around a piece of paper and inaccurately claim "peace for our time" with Hitler. Chamberlain apparently saw that his British voters did not want war, so he tried to give them what they wanted. That is not great leadership; that is great followership. Sadly, until the end of the war 1945, European paid an exorbitant price.
People in thriving democracies usually do not want war -- ever. They can see that they are enjoying magical, free lives -- and wish to keep them. We all would like peace handed to us on a platter. Unfortunately, that is not always the available choice, particularly if you look a few moves ahead. How much less costly it would have been in blood and treasure to have stopped Hitler before he crossed the Rhine. Surrender always remains an option – but usually not a happy one.
The same, second, poll found that residents of those 10 countries were extremely concerned about the rising costs of living and energy and the potential use by Russia of nuclear weapons. The poll also noted that a gap was developing between the wishes of citizens and the actions of their governments that should cause concern. It is likely that, as inflation hit 10% in the EU, public sentiment there shifted toward peace. There is still the real possibility that parts of Europe will face severe energy shortages. Germany's energy regulator just announced the possibility of natural gas rationing this winter.
Given inflation and energy concerns, along with ongoing jitters about the possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia, there are clear threats on the horizon to maintaining public support for Ukraine's war efforts.
In the U.S., there have now been two consecutive quarters of negative growth, often used as the definition of an economy in recession. Germany's leading economic forecasters have slashed economic growth forecasts for 2022 from 2.7% to 1.4%, and predicted that Germany will enter a recession in 2023 with economic growth of negative 0.4%. As Germany is the EU's largest economy , a recession there could drag the rest of the EU into one as well.
Inflation in the U.S. is running at slightly over 8%, just below the 10% in the EU. Consumer confidence in the U.S has dipped by roughly 20% in the last year. In the UK, consumer confidence has dipped by 10% in just the last month. In Germany it has dropped to 35% since the beginning of 2022, with comparable numbers for France (18%), Spain (21%), and Italy (28%).
The U.S. and EU must put in place compelling plans to address the threat of slowing economies (growth), high inflation (stop government spending), rising energy prices (open the oil spigots) and potential shortages (the first three should fix that) at the same time as educating the public about the even worse consequences of not supporting Ukraine.
Finally, U.S. and the EU must clearly articulate to Putin what is at stake in Ukraine and how they might respond to the use of a Russian nuclear weapon. President Trump reportedly told Putin that if he invaded Ukraine, the U.S. would "hit Moscow." Despite accusations that Trump was "soft" on Russia, Trump, while "speaking softly," did not give Putin the two things he wanted most: an extension of the New START Treaty, which limits the number of American nuclear weapons, and which Biden delivered to Putin a few weeks into his term; and approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which Biden delivered to Putin that October. Putin did not invade anyone.
The idea is to make Putin afraid, not Americans.
Leaders of both U.S. political parties need clearly to articulate the American strategic interest in Ukraine, where a Western defeat could mean the beginning of the end of Europe, and let Putin know in no uncertain terms what the U.S. responses to any unpleasant escalation might be. The same can be done in European capitals and NATO countries, as well.
If the U.S., NATO, and the EU are going to maintain public support, their leaders would do well to speak to the people they serve, not just about diversity in the military -- which might as well have been Russian propaganda for what the U.S. has to show for it: a roughly 50% recruiting crisis. Leaders of both parties also need to lay out how they will address the current internal economic crises, their continuing support for Ukraine, defeating Putin and deterring further aggression by Russia, China, Turkey, North Korea and Iran. Short of delivering on these questions, they are doing no less than seriously jeopardizing the long-term national security of the U.S. and the West.
Peter Hoekstra was US Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration. He served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the second district of Michigan and served as Chairman and Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is currently Chairman of the Center for Security Policy Board of Advisors and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.