Obama Already Said Some of What the Progressive Caucus Got Slammed for About Ukraine

And Mike Mullen, former head of the Joint Chiefs, said all of it — without blowback. 

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 07: Former U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks during a ceremony to unveil his official White House portrait during a ceremony at the White House on September 7, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Obama’s portraits will be the first official portraits added to the White House Collection since President Obama held an unveiling ceremony for George W. Bush and Laura Bush in 2012. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the White House on Sept. 7, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

On Monday, 30 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — all Democrats — released a letter to President Joe Biden about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In it, they wrote that “given the catastrophic possibilities of nuclear escalation and miscalculation, which only increase the longer this war continues, we agree with your goal of avoiding direct military conflict as an overriding national-security priority.” Therefore, they urged Biden to “make vigorous diplomatic efforts in support of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire [and] engage in direct talks with Russia.”

This was met with ferocious opposition, mostly from other Democrats such as Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy. By Tuesday, Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., announced that the letter was being formally withdrawn, blaming “staff” for the debacle. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — the co-founder of the Progressive Caucus and the only senator who belongs to it — agreed with the withdrawal.

But just over a week ago, former President Barack Obama said some — although not all — of what the Progressive Caucus members wrote in their letter.

On October 15, Obama appeared on the podcast “Pod Save America.” Tommy Vietor, one of the co-hosts who was also Obama’s National Security Council spokesperson, said this to him:

I’m just wondering if you have thoughts for people who are watching this. They’re inspired by the Ukrainian resistance. They want them to defend their country successfully, but they’re also pretty nervous about continued escalation and this chatter about Russia using a nuclear weapon.

Obama responded:

I think what the Ukrainian people have accomplished is extraordinary. …

We do, however, have to be clear and honest with them about what we can and cannot do. And there are lines that we have to determine internally, the U.S., NATO, and others that take into account the risk of this tipping into a Russia/U.S./NATO conflict as opposed to a Russia/Ukraine conflict. …

Probably the thing that I’m most concerned about is that lines of communication between the White House and the Kremlin are probably as weak as they have been in a very long time. Even in some of the lowest points of the Cold War, there was still a sense of the ability to pick up a phone and work through diplomatic channels to send clear signals. And a lot of that is broken down and I don’t think it’s the fault of our administration.

I think that we’re now dealing with a type of Russian regime that is actually even more centralized, even more isolated and closed off. I think [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has consolidated decision-making to a degree that we haven’t seen even during the Soviet era and I think creates some dangerous … and us finding ways in which some of that communication can be reestablished, I think would be important.

Unlike the caucus members, Obama did not urge Biden to immediately work toward a negotiated settlement. However, he did express their same clear concern about the conflict spiraling out of control, and an urgent need for the U.S. and Russian governments to communicate directly — both perspectives that are heard little today in Washington, D.C. Obama’s willingness to advocate diplomacy more than the Progressive Caucus is somewhat ironic, although during his time in office he was definitely more dovish on Ukraine than the D.C. Blob.

Meanwhile, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the joint chiefs of staff under both George W. Bush and Obama, went further than Obama in a recent appearance on the ABC show “This Week” — and sounded exactly like the Progressive Caucus. Putin, he said, is like “a cornered animal.” The possibility that Russia might use battlefield nuclear weapons, he explains:

speaks to the need, I think, to get to the table. I’m a little concerned about the language which we’re about at the top, if you will … President Biden’s language, we’re about at the top of the language scale, if you will. I think we need to back off that a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing. …

We’ve been talking about it since before the crisis started, an off-ramp for [Putin]. I suspect it’s in the east, if you will, with those four provinces or some combination of them with respect to how it all ends. And that really is up to, I think, [Secretary of State] Tony Blinken and other diplomats to figure out a way to get both [Ukrainian President Volodmyr] Zelenskyy and Putin to the table. And as is typical in any war, it has got to end and usually there are negotiations associated with that. The sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.

Obama’s full remarks about Russia and Ukraine can be read here.

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