The One Ukraine Option That the Public Won’t Abide

Vladimir Putin’s potential invasion has exposed a rare point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans.

An image of a hawk in red and blue
Getty; The Atlantic

For decades, American presidents of both parties have relied on a go-to line when confronting foreign belligerents who won’t bend to their demands, a single sentence that serves as both euphemism and threat. How far would the U.S. go to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon? “All options are on the table,” President Barack Obama said in 2013, repeating verbatim a reply that his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush, had given in 2006. What about North Korea? “All options are on the table,” President Donald Trump, a man not known for adhering to rhetorical norms, said during his first year in office.

Those six words are diplomatic code for war, whether by military strikes or the deployment of ground forces. But they have yet to escape President Joe Biden’s lips, even as he has warned that a Russian assault on Ukraine would “change the world” and represent the largest invasion since World War II. The Biden administration has stepped up weapons shipments to Ukraine, prepared 8,500 U.S. troops to deploy to protect NATO allies in Eastern Europe, and threatened “severe” sanctions on Russia in response to an invasion. Biden himself has warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin would face “enormous consequences.” But the president has effectively ruled out a military offensive in which American forces would fight directly in Ukraine’s defense. “We have no intention of putting American forces in Ukraine,” Biden told reporters last week.

What’s striking is that after years of deep political divisions over foreign policy and the United States’ role in the world, hardly anyone with power in Washington has suggested otherwise. Putin’s potential invasion of Ukraine has instead exposed a rare point of consensus between Democrats and Republicans: The U.S. isn’t going to war to stop him.

“There are some things we have to be clear about, and one of them is that the American people, frankly, will not support sending hundreds of thousands of Americans to Ukraine,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee who visited Ukraine earlier this month, told me. “My constituents are not going to support an Afghanistan- or Iraq-level deployment of forces, and we have to be honest about that.” Another Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, told me that to threaten war with a nuclear power like Russia would be “a huge mistake.”

Even traditionally hawkish Republicans have stopped well short of calling for a war footing. “The Ukrainians are not asking for American troops to come to Ukraine,” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the Republican co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, said Sunday on Meet the Press. “They’re not asking for our troops, nor is anybody talking about that.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, appearing on Face the Nation, backed a deployment of troops to reinforce NATO and urged Biden to implement more and tougher sanctions on Russia, but that’s as far as he went.

Another Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Todd Young of Indiana, told Punchbowl News last week that Biden should send troops to Eastern Europe without delay. But when I followed up with Young’s office to ask if the senator wanted Biden to keep open the option of sending Americans to defend Ukraine directly, he sidestepped the question. “There are a number of other options to deter a Russian invasion and punish Putin,” Young replied by email, “including sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and expediting the shipment of lethal aid to the Ukrainian military. If Putin moves forward with an invasion of Ukraine, our NATO allies (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania) will be on the front lines against Russia.”

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so the U.S. is not obligated by its treaty commitments to fight in its defense in case of attack. (One of Putin’s priorities is to keep Ukraine out of the alliance and within Russia’s sphere of influence.) In 1991, however, the U.S. and a coalition of allied countries responded with military force after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded and annexed its neighbor, Kuwait, a non-NATO member that the U.S. was similarly under no obligation to defend.

The long and costly 21st-century wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have undeniably drained public support for American-led military interventions abroad. Trump won the Republican nomination and then the presidency in 2016 while attacking the invasion of Iraq (and lying about his own earlier position on it). The mutual fondness he and Putin shared is well known and has contributed to the elevation of the Russian leader’s image among Republican voters. Trump’s decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine prompted the first of his two impeachments by the Democratic-led House of Representatives.

Last week pollsters for YouGov asked Americans how the U.S. should respond if Russia invaded Ukraine, offering them options ranging from no involvement in the conflict to a military attack on Russia. The two least-popular options were those that involved the deployment of U.S. combat troops: Just 11 percent of respondents said the U.S. should send forces to fight alongside Ukrainians, and just 4 percent backed an American attack on Russia.

Trump has stayed relatively quiet (for him, at least) on the threat of a Russian invasion. He’s criticized Biden’s handling of the situation without detailing exactly what he would do differently. As my colleague David Frum has noted, the biggest divide over the situation in recent weeks has come between Republican officeholders who believe the U.S. should back Ukraine and those seemingly led by Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who has devoted much of his program in recent weeks to decrying U.S. support for “a corrupt Eastern European country that is strategically irrelevant to us.” Carlson, an early backer of the Iraq War, has since made common cause with the harshest critics of American foreign policy, warning that defense contractors are stoking conflict with Russia to line their pockets.

What worries Representative Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat and former assistant secretary of state, is not so much Carlson’s views but the impact he appears to be having on his millions of nightly viewers, as well as the broader public opinion he may be reflecting. Malinowski tweeted last week that his office had started receiving calls from constituents who had watched Carlson’s program and “are upset that we’re not siding with Russia.” In a subsequent interview, Malinowski told me that was the first time that a cable-news host has prompted such a noticeable constituent response. “This is unfortunately a strain within the radical right in this country that Tucker Carlson has become a mouthpiece for, but which the former president was sympathetic to as well,” he said. “The danger is that those people regain power in Washington.”

Malinowski said that so far, most GOP leaders in Congress have strongly backed Ukraine in response to Putin’s aggression. But he warned that they “are a bit in denial about what’s bubbling up from the base of their own party, stoked by Fox News and, to some extent, the former president.”

Malinowski spoke with me shortly before he boarded a flight to Brussels, the first leg of a trip that would take him and a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers to Ukraine. Like everyone else, he wasn’t advocating for the deployment of U.S. combat troops to stop Putin, unless Russia attacked a NATO ally. He backed Biden’s threat of sanctions that could devastate the Russian economy after an invasion. When I asked whether that would deter Putin, Malinowski replied, “We don’t know.”

The Biden administration, which at times has treated a Russian invasion of Ukraine as something close to an inevitability, doesn’t seem much more confident. But its menu of choices are limited, by Russia’s own military strength, by division among allied countries in Europe, and by a war-weary American public.

During a White House press briefing a couple of weeks ago, a reporter reminded Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, of the line that presidents resort to in these confrontations—the one that so often refers to war. “Are all options on the table at this moment?” the reporter asked. Sullivan’s response lasted more than a minute and covered a lot of familiar diplomatic ground. He had what would have been an easy opportunity to rattle the sabers ever so slightly, to nod at the threat upon which all recent presidents have relied. But Sullivan didn’t say the line, and it’s unlikely that his boss will either.