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EDITORIAL: Biden walks fine line as tensions in Ukraine escalate

The first of the 20th century’s “great wars” was, in great part, a failure of secret diplomacy, as allies and enemies acted absent the knowledge of various covert alliances among nations. The same can’t be said for the widening conflict in Ukraine, where the sides line up in predictable fashion.

President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Eastern Europe and Ukraine this week, rattling sabers and putting up an aggressive front in the face of Russia’s invasion, now a year old. “Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased,” he said in Poland. “They must be opposed. Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. Never.” While in Ukraine, he pledged America’s “unending support” for the war-torn nation.

Vladimir Putin responded like the authoritarian he is, lying about his country’s motives, blaming the United States for his own actions and making clear his aggression will continue despite Russia’s shortcomings on the battlefield. He also announced that he is suspending his nation’s last nuclear arms treaty with the United States, a relatively meaningless gesture given that Russia “wasn’t honoring the treaty in any case,” The Wall Street Journal noted.

Mr. Biden is correct that appeasement would be a disastrous course. But the president is walking a very fine line at this point. U.S. and European sanctions on Russia haven’t slowed the country’s war machine. Russia is increasingly cozying up to China and Iran, with increased talk that the former may eventually provide weaponry in support of Putin’s illegal action. That would be a significant escalation of the conflict. Are the American people prepared for the worst? Is Mr. Biden?

Despite the heated rhetoric, back-channel diplomatic efforts are no doubt ongoing to alleviate tensions. The White House said it expected a peace proposal from China this week, but it’s hard to fathom such a plan would lead to a true cease-fire. The Chinese certainly have an interest in keeping the United States entangled in this European conflict.

As the president becomes more aggressive in his rhetoric, he has an obligation to address the American people on this issue. So far, Mr. Biden’s strategy has been reactive, providing money and arms, but offering no vision for what must occur for hostilities to end. In a New York Times opinion piece last year, he vowed not to force Ukraine to make any territorial concessions but offered few details on a potential endgame.

The situation demands more than that.

“A statesman would rise to the challenge of Putin’s aggression by laying out in clear terms the threats to vital U.S. interests,” John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, wrote this week. Mr. Biden should also clearly articulate to Americans what will be expected of them as the threat of a more widespread conflict heightens.

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