A message to the Biden team on Ukraine: Talk less

By Thomas L. Friedman © 2022 The New York Times

Growing up in Minnesota, I was a huge fan of the local NHL team at the time, the North Stars, and they had a sportscaster, Al Shaver, who gave me my first lesson in politics and of military strategy. He ended his shows with this signature: “When you lose, say little. When you win, say less. Good night and good sport.

President Joe Biden and his team would do well to embrace Shaver’s wisdom.

Last week in Poland, near the border with Ukraine, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin caught my attention – and certainly that of Vladimir Putin – when he said that the US war objective in Ukraine is not It was no longer just to help Ukraine restore its sovereignty, but also to produce a “weakened” Russia.

“We want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do the kinds of things it did by invading Ukraine,” he said. “So he has already lost a lot of military capability. And a lot of his troops, quite frankly. And we want them to not have the ability to duplicate that ability very quickly.

Please tell me that statement was the result of a meeting of the National Security Council led by the President. And that they have decided, after carefully weighing all the second and third order consequences, that it is in our interest and in our power to degrade the Russian military so badly that it will no longer be able to project power – soon ? already? not clear – and that we can do it without risking a nuclear response from a humiliated Putin.

Have no doubt: I hope this war will end with a badly degraded Russian army and Putin out of power. I would never say that publicly if I was in charge, because it doesn’t earn you anything and can potentially cost you a lot of money.

Loose lips sink ships – and they also lay the groundwork for overreach in warfare, mission creep, disconnection between ends and means, and huge unintended consequences.

There was far too much from the Biden team, and the damage required too much cleanup. For example, shortly after Austin’s statement, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said, according to CNN, that the secretary’s comments reflected U.S. goals to “make this invasion a strategic failure for the Russia”.

Nice try – but it was a contrived cleanup effort. Forcing Russia to withdraw from Ukraine is not the same as declaring that we want to see it so weakened that it will never be able to do so anywhere again – it is an ill-defined war aim. How do you know when this is achieved? And is it an ongoing process? Are we continuing to degrade Russia?

In March, in a speech in Poland, Biden said that Putin, “a dictator determined to rebuild an empire, will never erase a people’s love for freedom”, then the president added: “For the love of God, this man cannot stay in power.”

Following that statement, the White House argued that Biden was “not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change,” but rather arguing that Putin “cannot be allowed to wield power. on its neighbors or the region”.

Another salad of cleaning words that convinces me that the National Security Council did not hold a meeting setting boundaries on where US intervention to help Ukraine stops and begins. Instead, people are independent. It’s not good.

Our objective started simple and must remain simple: to help the Ukrainians to fight while they have the will and to help them to negotiate when they feel the time is right – so that they can restore their sovereignty and that we can reaffirm the principle that no country can simply devour the country next door. Freelance beyond that and we invite trouble.

How? For starters, I don’t want America to be responsible for what happens in Russia if Putin is overthrown. Because one of three things will most likely result:

(1) Putin is replaced by someone worse.

(2) Chaos erupts in Russia, a country with some 6,000 nuclear warheads. As we saw in the Arab Spring, the opposite of autocracy isn’t always democracy — it’s often disorder.

(3) Putin is replaced by someone better. A better leader in Russia would make the whole world a better place. I pray for that. But for this person to have legitimacy in a post-Putin Russia, it is vital that it does not appear that we installed it. It must be a Russian process.

If we get Gate #1 or Gate #2, you wouldn’t want the Russian people or the world to hold America responsible for triggering prolonged instability in Russia. Remember our fear of “loose nukes” in Russia after the fall of communism in the 1990s?

We also don’t want Putin to separate us from our allies – not all of whom would sign up for a war whose aim is not only to liberate Ukraine but also to oust Putin. Without naming names, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently complained that some NATO allies “actually want the war to continue. They want Russia to weaken.

Remember: many countries around the world are neutral in this war because, even though they sympathize with the Ukrainians, they really don’t like to see America or NATO acting like a bully, even towards Putin. If this is going to be a long war and Ukraine is able to reclaim all or most of its territory, it is vital that it be seen as Putin against the world, not Putin against America.

And let’s be careful not to raise the expectations of Ukrainians too much. Small countries that suddenly get support from big powers can become addicted. Many things have changed in Ukraine since the end of the Cold War, except one: its geography. It is still, and always will be, a relatively small nation bordering Russia. He will have to make difficult compromises before the end of this conflict. Let’s not make it even more difficult for him by adding unrealistic goals.

At the same time, be careful not to fall in love with a country that you couldn’t find on a map with 10 tries a year ago. Ukraine has a history of political corruption and rogue oligarchs, but it was moving towards democratic reforms before the Russian invasion. It hasn’t become Denmark in the last three months, although, God bless them, a lot of young people are really trying, and I want to support them.

But I saw a play in 1982 that I can’t get out of my head. Israelis fell in love with Lebanon’s Christian Phalangists, with whom they teamed up to drive Yasser Arafat’s PLO out of Beirut. Together, they were going to remake the Levant but they went too far. This led to all sorts of unintended consequences – the Phalangist leader was assassinated; Israel got bogged down in the mud in Lebanon; and a pro-Iranian Shia militia emerged in southern Lebanon to resist the Israelis. It was called “Hezbollah”. He now dominates Lebanese politics.

The Biden team has done so well so far with their limited goals. He should stay there.

“The war in Ukraine gave the administration an opportunity to demonstrate the unique strengths of the United States in today’s world: its ability to forge and maintain a global alliance of countries to deal with an act authoritarian aggression; and second, the ability to wield an economic superweapon in response that only the dominance of the dollar in the global economy makes possible,” said Nader Mousavizadeh, founder and CEO of Macro Advisory Partners, a geostrategic advisory firm.

If the United States can continue to effectively deploy these two assets, he added, “it will dramatically improve our long-term power and position in the world and send a very powerful deterrent message to both Russia and Russia.” to China”.

In foreign affairs, success breeds authority and credibility, and credibility and authority breed more success. Simply restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and frustrating Putin’s army there would be a huge achievement with lasting dividends. Al Shaver knew what he was talking about: when you lose, say little. When you win, say less. Everyone can see the score.

Jerry B. Hatch