“We’re not going to send to Ukraine rocket systems that can strike into Russia,” President Biden said at the end of May, but one day later, he announced exactly that: The U.S. will provide Ukraine with high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), which have a range of about 50 miles. These are the rockets Biden’s earlier comments were thought to preclude, and they’re powerful enough that striking into Russia is entirely possible. Ukraine reportedly “assured” the White House that this won’t happen, but who could be surprised if it did?
This episode is typical of the Biden administration’s equivocation about U.S. military intervention in Ukraine. It’s a dangerous habit, one risking escalation with Russia that we must avoid.
On the rhetorical front, the administration has held its position from the beginning: The United States will not go to war with Russia in Ukraine. Biden has “been very clear about one thing,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in early March, “which is, we’re not going to put the United States in direct conflict with Russia.” That means no U.S.-enforced no-fly zone, Blinken said, and no “American planes flying against Russian planes or our soldiers on the ground in Ukraine,” because “direct war with Russia, a nuclear power” is “clearly not in our interest. What we’re trying to do is end this war in Ukraine, not start a larger one.”
In the months since his remarks, U.S. policy indeed has avoided all those options. Washington rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pleas for a NATO no-fly zone, and neither U.S. planes nor troops have fought in Ukrainian territory. But the qualification of “direct” — as in, “direct conflict” — increasingly is becoming strained.
In early May, senior U.S. military officials leaked to The New York Times information revealing that American intelligence support helped Ukraine to kill Russian generals and sink a Russian flagship, the Moskva, a humiliating loss. “The United States has focused on providing the location and other details about the Russian military’s mobile headquarters,” the Times reported, as well as “real-time battlefield intelligence” on “anticipated Russian troop movements.” This comes in addition to billions of dollars in military aid, with heavier weaponry, now including the HIMARS and training in how to use them.
A subsequent statement from the State Department dubbed Ukraine a “key regional strategic partner” and detailed the millions of munitions and vehicles the U.S. has provided to Ukraine since 2014, as well as the joint military exercises U.S. and Ukrainian forces conduct together.
In his announcement about the rockets, Biden reiterated two of Blinken’s “red lines” the U.S. won’t cross from March: “We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia,” he said. “So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.”
That’s all true. But it’s not difficult to imagine Russia drawing different red lines, adopting a different definition of war — something broader, something that includes, say, the United States helping to kill top Russian brass and strike important Russian targets, particularly if that comes to include strikes within Russian territory. That’s not difficult to imagine because it is surely what the United States would do if the roles were reversed. If Moscow aided another nation in killing American generals, sinking an American warship, and bombing American soil, undoubtedly, we would consider ourselves at war.
The president said his administration “currently see[s] no indication that Russia has intent to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.” More generally, his decision to ramp up U.S. military backing for Ukraine presumably means he expects U.S. deterrence to hold. And perhaps that expectation will prove correct, since Moscow knows as well as Washington the apocalyptic potential of an open U.S.-Russia war. But continuing to escalate U.S. involvement with confidence that Russia won’t respond in kind is an incredibly perilous chance to take.
Biden is right to delineate what the United States will and will not do for Ukraine in pursuit of a diplomatic resolution to Russia’s aggression. He’s right to forswear direct engagement in conventional battle with Russia, particularly given the nuclear arsenals involved. But U.S. military support for Ukraine is far closer to direct conflict with Russia than the administration’s messaging suggests, and that ambiguity puts U.S. security in a perilous spot.
Rhetoric rejecting direct war with Russia is a good start, but we are naïve if we suppose Moscow will go by words rather than deeds.
Bonnie Kristian is a contributing fellow at Defense Priorities. A columnist at Christianity Today, she is the author of “Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community” (2022). Follow her on Twitter @bonniekristian.
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