Steven Roberts: Terrible, terrible decisions

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 18, 2022

“It’s a terrible, terrible decision that he faces.” That’s Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, on CNN, describing President Biden’s dilemma as Vladimir Putin escalates his attacks on Ukraine, civilian casualties mount, and a horrified world watches on social media.

How do Biden and his allies exert enough pressure to deter Putin, while not triggering a wider conflict that bleeds beyond Ukraine and causes even more human devastation?

As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned, “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility.”

Even without nuclear weapons, the stakes could not be higher. Action poses a risk, but so does inaction. If Biden and the West show weakness and weariness, they would only feed Putin’s imperial ambitions to restore Russian greatness and the boundaries of the old Soviet Union.

“Escalation is a narcotic,” warns The Economist. “If Mr. Putin prevails today, his next fix will be in Georgia, Moldova or the Baltic states. He will not stop until he is stopped.”

The risks of not stopping Putin could echo far beyond Europe, adds British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss: “If we let Putin’s expansionism go unchallenged, it would send a dangerous message to would-be aggressors and authoritarians around the world.”

All true. But accomplishing that goal, finding the right balance between resistance and restraint, is excruciatingly difficult. To make Biden’s task even more complicated, he’s fighting battles on two fronts at once: military and economic.

The military front is more visible, and as Russian troops move to encircle Kyiv and choke off the Ukrainian capital, pressures to create a no-fly zone over the country and confront Russian brutality more directly will only grow. But as Biden starkly warns, “The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand — and don’t kid yourself, no matter what you all say — that’s called World War III.”

There are other options, however, starting with a robust effort to supply the courageous Ukrainian army with deadly weapons, particularly the shoulder-fired missiles that helped drive Russian occupiers out of Afghanistan a generation ago and are already taking a huge toll on Putin’s tanks and planes.

If no-fly zones are too risky, writes former Defense Department official Evelyn Farkas in The Washington Post, “there are other options to weaken Russia’s air dominance. U.S. and NATO aircraft and our teams in the region can jam Russian communications. We can provide real-time intelligence, and our Special Operations forces can advise the Ukrainian military on how to best organize and execute their resistance operations. Cyber-operators can help Ukraine remotely from various nations.”

Liberals might squeal, but bigger defense budgets are essential. Biden should bolster U.S. troop deployments in Poland and the Baltic States, a clear statement of his determination to defend “every inch” of NATO territory. “NATO needs to preserve a clear line between attacking Russia and backing Ukraine, while leaving no doubt that it will defend its members,” writes The Economist. “That is the best brake on escalation.”

On the economic front, the Western allies have already shown remarkable unity, freezing Russian assets abroad, cutting off Moscow’s access to the world banking system, pressuring Western companies to stop doing business with Czar Vladimir the Violator. But they have to stay vigilant and resolute, closing loopholes in the sanctions regime and making it completely clear to China that it risks losing lucrative Western markets if it bails out Moscow.

Will ordinary Russians pay a heavy price for these sanctions? Yes. But is that price morally acceptable? Absolutely. Just ask the pregnant mothers in the maternity hospitals blasted by Russian missiles.

There are risks here as well, however. One has been called a “catastrophic success,” an economic crunch so severe that Putin lashes out wildly at Western targets in a desperate attempt to alleviate the pressure. The other potential pitfall is domestic politics.

The average price of gasoline has risen to $4.32 a gallon in the U.S. and to $5.80 in Great Britain, causing hardships that could fuel inflation and undermine the public’s willingness to stay the course. While 77% of Americans told ABC they support a ban on imported Russian oil, 70% disapproved of Biden’s handling of inflation — a sure sign that support for sanctions might not be solid.

These are all “terrible, terrible” decisions. Biden’s presidency depends on him making the right calls. So does the security of the Western world.


Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at