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 Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., announced that the letter was being formally withdrawn, blaming “staff” for the debacle.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.
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.
It’s up to Secretary of State Blinken and other diplomats “to figure out a way to get both Zelenskyy and Putin to the table,” former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mullen tells @MarthaRaddatz.— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) October 10, 2022
“The sooner the better as far as I'm concerned.” https://t.co/YYw1V4LJHT pic.twitter.com/t61nQTPADz
Obama’s full remarks about Russia and Ukraine can be read here.