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Words and Wars | Insight

How much damage will Biden’s slip of the tongue do?

The Briefing: A dramatic trip to Europe.

  • The state of play in Ukraine
    • The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now over a month old
    • Russia is consolidating control in Ukraine's south-east but downsizing its objectives in Kyiv and further west
    • Wide swathes of urban areas in Ukraine have been destroyed, while the Russian army has lost as many as 15,000 troops
    • That's roughly twice the American losses in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Biden's visit to Europe
    • He met with NATO heads of state, American servicemembers, and Ukrainian refugees
    • Talks resulted in a significant increase in NATO troop presence on the alliance's eastern borders
    • Biden announced plans to admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, out of about 3.5 million who have fled already
  • A slip of the tongue?
    • Biden gave a major address in Warsaw, Poland
    • As he finished, Biden said of Putin, "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power."
    • The White House (followed by the State Department) has clarified repeatedly that Biden's ad-lib was not a statement of policy
    • Nonetheless, there is concern about the Kremlin's response

The Big Question: Did Biden mess up?

Some—including my own congressional representative, Ted Lieu—have defended Biden’s comment as a stroke of strategic boldness against Vladimir Putin, a sign of a veteran statesman displaying moral clarity in the face of encroaching tyranny. Others have chalked it up as a characteristic Biden gaffe, an offhand venting of his own position at a time when all diplomatic moves need to be carefully choreographed. Some conservative critics of the line are winking at the possibility that Biden is senile, while leftist critics take it as proof that the Biden administration and the deep state planned all along for Russia to be caught in a massive military quagmire in Ukraine, with the ultimate goal of ousting Putin.

I think it’s fairly safe to ignore those last two claims. Biden has always been prone to off-the-cuff remarks that generate controversy. And the administration’s obvious desire to begin Biden’s presidency with a “pivot to Asia”—which included a summit with Putin meant to stabilize relations between their two countries—suggests that the left’s assertion of some devious plot to pull Russia into a strategic disaster is nothing more than conspiracy-theorizing.

That said, there wasn’t anything particularly admirable about the comment. Of course most people—including Joe Biden—are feeling justified anger at Putin’s blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Moreover, a world in which Russia was a liberal democracy, or at least on some path to it, would of course be preferable to the one we’re in now. But while presidents do need to speak with moral clarity, they also need to stick to whatever policy they’ve put together with their advisors. And as the White House and State Department have repeated again and again in the past few days, the US is not pursuing a policy of regime change against Russia.

But it’s also fair to ask why the White House and State Department have backpedaled so quickly. Perhaps Biden’s statement was off-the-cuff, but he was simply saying what a lot of people are already thinking. What’s the real problem?

The Theory: The despot’s dilemma.

There’s a trove of political science literature that can  give us a sense of why Biden shouldn’t have said what he did. The main thrust of what it has to say is that losing wars is very threatening to dictators’ positions. They stand significantly increased risks of being ousted in violent revolutions or coups.

Leaders that initiate losing wars also tend to face worse consequences domestically. It’s probably too early to say that Russia is out and out losing the war it’s initiated in Ukraine, but losing (potentially) more than 10,000 troops over the course of just a month, along with a hefty portion of military hardware is the kind of thing that would make a leader like Putin nervous.

It stands to reason that this theory would be doubly true if the nervous dictator felt particularly targeted by foreign attempts at ousting him. If it seems like the goal of the United States’ and Europe’s massive sanctions package is a Kremlin without Vladimir Putin—rather than, say, a withdrawal from Ukraine—then Putin himself has every reason to be worried about his personal security.

Under such conditions, the stakes are heightened. The incentive to win isn’t just about a boost in popularity at home, or re-establishing a Russian sphere of influence in Europe. It starts to become a matter of personal life and death itself. And when it’s a matter of life and death, the uglier options Putin might use to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Ukraine (read: nukes) start looking more and more attractive. It turns out Mutually Assured Destruction won’t stop you from engaging in a nuclear exchange, if you think your destruction is assured regardless.

The Takeaway: A big deal?

The White House and State Department’s rapid backpedaling will probably do something to reassure the Kremlin that the United States’ goal isn’t actually regime change in Russia. But Biden is the final decision-maker in the US national security apparatus. If Vladimir Putin thinks that Biden’s private opinions mean that his own position in Russia is interminably threatened, then that complicates any future diplomacy between the countries.

The unpleasant reality of geopolitics is that we have to make our peace—literally and figuratively—with the fact that everyone might be better off if the bad guys, so to speak, have a way out. That doesn’t mean, as some have advocated, that the United States needs to force Ukraine to capitulate to Russian demands. Quite the contrary—the Biden administration’s response to Russian aggression thus far has been, on the whole, both prudent and moral. It should continue working to boost the Ukrainian government’s hand as its negotiations with Russia continue, by supplying it with humanitarian aid and the means to defend itself.

But foolish comments like this one threaten to destabilize an already-chaotic situation. From Putin’s bunker, a fired-up Biden at the head of a tight-knit coalition of liberal democracies, venting about the need for the end of Putin’s reign, might seem like the Grim Reaper knocking. Whatever it takes to avoid that fate all of a sudden might start to look pretty good. And none of us should be excited about that.

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