Editor’s Note: Kirsten Powers is a CNN senior political analyst and New York Times bestselling author of “Saving Grace: Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered and Learn to Coexist with People Who Drive You Nuts.” Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook @KirstenPowers. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Two weeks into the war in Ukraine, President Joe Biden is facing mounting pressure to consider risky military options to help the Ukrainians fend off Russian troops.
The heat is being turned up following the administration’s rebuff of Poland’s surprise offer to provide Russian-made MiG fighter jets to Ukraine if the US handles the delivery. After Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said he did not believe the proposal was “tenable,” Republicans jumped in the fray, with Sen. Tom Cotton calling the administration’s handling of the offer a “fiasco.” Forty GOP senators also signed a letter from Sens. Joni Ernst and Mitt Romney urging Biden to expedite the transfer of Poland’s fighter jets.
It’s not just Republicans who are calling for Biden to do more – the President is hearing from members of his own party, too. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, co-authored a letter to President Biden last week urging him to “expedite the urgent transfer of aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force.”
This week, she told CNN, “It’s not clear why we are standing in the way” of the transfer of planes. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, echoed this confusion on Thursday. “I don’t understand why we are not working expeditiously to facilitate planes to Ukraine,” he said.
But the Biden administration has already explained why it is reluctant to get involved in Poland’s scheme. The intelligence community assessed it “may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO.”
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated this point, saying, “Our goal is to end the war, not to expand it – including potentially expand it to NATO territory.” The Biden administration’s trepidation here is warranted and it’s concerning that elected officials are unable to understand the risks associated with Poland’s offer.
Moreover, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointed out that the US is not “preventing or blocking or discouraging” Poland from delivering its own planes to Ukraine.
It’s completely understandable that elected leaders, like so many Americans, are desperate for Biden to stop a madman’s invasion of a sovereign country and relieve the suffering of the Ukrainian people. We would not be human if we did not feel these things.
But it’s easy to forget that military action can make things worse, not better. What could be worse than what is happening now? A world war with vastly more casualties. And in case anyone has forgotten, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has indicated his willingness to use nuclear weapons if he perceives aggressive action from any member of NATO. Maybe he’s bluffing, but do we really want to find out?
There has also been a push for a limited “no fly zone,” which was articulated in an open letter this week from two dozen foreign policy experts after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for such a move. But again, the risks are high, as this could put the United States in the position of shooting down a Russian jet, potentially launching a world war.
As the war carries on, we should expect the clamor for US military action to grow now that Biden has likely exhausted most of the non-military responses to Putin’s diabolical aggression. But it’s important to remember that America is not sitting by idly. The US is providing weapons, along with intelligence and cyber communications support, to Ukraine and President Biden has led an unprecedented international campaign to wage an economic war against Russia.
The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey explains: “The United States, the European Union, and countries around the world have cut Russia out of the global economy. Moscow’s central bank is struggling to support the ruble. Russian financial institutions are blocked from the global payments system. Far-reaching import and export bans have choked off trade to and from the country. Russian markets have seized up.”
Nicholas Mulder, a historian who recently wrote a book on sanctions, told Lowery, “The speed, the sweep and the size of the sanctions, or the size of the targets of the sanctions – those three factors make them extraordinary.”
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Biden is also about to sign a spending bill that includes $13.6 billion in aid for Ukraine. On Friday, Biden called for the US to revoke Russia’s “most favored nation” trade status and announced a ban on imports of vodka, seafood and non-industrial diamonds from Russia. This move came just days after Biden banned the import of Russian oil, natural gas and coal.
Foreign policy isn’t an exact science or some math problem with a clear answer, and the best laid plans have unforeseen consequences. We should have learned that lesson by now. It’s therefore imperative that Biden acts cautiously to avoid escalating the conflict – even if that means facing criticism here at home.