President Biden did some things very well in the run-up to the re-invasion of Ukraine, but one big thing remains undone—an Oval Office address to the American people. Arguably, presidents loom too large in our national life in normal times, but in times of crisis, Americans expect and deserve to hear from their president to put events in context, to lay out the stakes, and to prepare the nation for what may come. Here is what he might say:
My fellow Americans, our country has been through several tough years. The pandemic was a severe blow. But even more serious than the disease was the fraying of our national spirit. We’ve been so polarized that we’ve forgotten our core identity as a country. What is that identity? We stand for democracy and freedom. That is our DNA as a nation. That is what the Founders bequeathed us and our heroes ratified over two centuries at home and abroad.
In the past few years, some Americans have lost faith in those things. So this is a moment to recenter ourselves. When Russian tanks rolled into Ukrainian territory on the night of February 24, the savage attack on a peaceful neighbor reminded the world of what autocracy looks like.
This brutal war is the face of autocracy. This is what can happen when a strongman exerts his will unrestrained by free elections, the rule of law, public opinion, a free press, or a loyal opposition. This horror—young men killed, civilians deprived of food, water, and power; families separated; pets left behind; elderly people forced to sleep in subway stations; apartment blocks shelled as if they were military targets; maternity homes bombed; millions of terrified refugees; shortages of crucial medicines—the entire heartbreaking story—is the face of autocracy.
This is not Russia’s attack on Ukraine. This is Vladimir Putin’s war. This is Vladimir Putin’s crime.
But here’s another thing we’ve been reminded of—the war on truth. Putin has not only made war on Ukraine, he has made war on truth. Through relentless lies and propaganda, and by suppressing all outlets that tell the truth, he has been able to persuade millions of Russians of an alternate reality. His state media have said that the war is defensive. They’ve claimed that Ukraine was preparing to commit genocide against Russians, that it was ruled by a Nazi clique, and that only military targets are being struck. All lies. Vicious, cynical lies.
Autocrats and would-be autocrats always deceive their people because lies enable the worst depravities. Most people are peaceable and fair. They won’t support wars of aggression. They won’t agree to have their children pay in blood for the leader’s fantasies of lost empires. No, the only way to get assent for evil acts is to propagandize people and convince them that up is down and black is white. And so, as we resolve to remain stalwart in defense of Ukraine, let’s also rededicate ourselves to the defense of truth over lies.
On the subject of righteousness, let’s not forget the brave Russians who have seen through Putin’s alternate reality and learned the truth—and are risking everything to protest the atrocity that is being perpetrated in their name. Let’s remember and honor the heroes like Marina Ovsyannikova, who burst into the studios of Channel 1 and held up a placard saying “No war. Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda, they are lying to you here.” She has been arrested and she is not alone. Tens of thousands of ordinary Russians have taken to the streets to protest this war and thousands have been detained—because speaking the truth is a crime in Russia. The regime calls it “fake news.” That has a familiar ring.
Putin believed that the world’s democracies were weak and decadent. He thought we were so divided that he could fulfill his dark designs without serious consequences. He could not have been more wrong. He misjudged the Ukrainians. He misjudged his own military. He misjudged NATO. And he misjudged the United States.
Free people in democracies around the globe have expressed their disgust with Putin’s barbarism. Humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine is flowing and we will not desist. We will continue to help the Ukrainians to defend their country for however long it takes.
Putin thought NATO was on its deathbed. Today, he is staring at an alliance that is rearming, reuniting, and reconfirming its determination to defend freedom. And it may soon welcome new members.
Those supposedly weak and divided democracies have managed to resupply the Ukrainians with Stingers and Javelins and rifles and grenades and machine guns and moral support. Those putatively decadent Westerners have reduced the ruble’s value to a fraction of a penny. The Russian stock market has been closed for three weeks, fearing a complete collapse. The ostensibly feckless West has deprived the oligarchs of their yachts and their London mansions, and frozen half of the country’s foreign reserves. Dozens of companies, including McDonald’s, Visa, Ikea, MasterCard, Starbucks, Pepsi, Netflix, Sony, Google, and many more, have stopped doing business in Russia, and the sanctions have reduced Putin to begging China for food for his troops.
Putin has clarified certain realities. He has reminded the NATO alliance and everyone who lives in freedom of how precious democracy is. What was Ukraine’s offense? Ukrainians wanted to be like Europe and the United States, free and democratic, not like Russia. That’s what they demonstrated for in the Revolution of Dignity, the Euromaidan protests of 2014. That’s what they’ve shown year after year, despite threats and poisonings (a Putin trademark), and a grinding war Putin launched in the east. Ukrainians want to live in a democracy.
Putin’s war has already brutalized that brave nation. And we cannot ignore the additional harms this war will cause. A world just starting to recover from two years of a pandemic will now endure more disruptions and more shortages and more inflation. I have been so moved that Americans have responded to the prospect of higher prices with resolve. As many Americans have affirmed: “It’s a small price to pay for freedom.”
Let’s talk a bit more about energy: Putin believed that the democracies couldn’t get along without his oil and gas. The world is sending the opposite signal, particularly with Germany’s decision to cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. But the carnage in Ukraine reminds us that we have to think long-term about weaning ourselves from imported oil and gas. In the short run, that will mean more drilling on federal lands here at home. In time, renewables like solar and wind will provide most of our power, but we’re not there yet. We need a reliable bridge power source while renewable technology develops. Fortunately we have one that is green and available—nuclear power. France relies on nuclear for 70 percent of its energy needs. Our Navy has used nuclear power safely for more than 60 years. There would be no more painful outcome for Putin and other autocrats around the globe than for us to embrace clean, safe nuclear energy. And the climate would thank us too.
We’ve heard lots of cheap talk in the United States in recent years about strength. Some have even admired Putin’s brand of autocracy because he was supposedly a strong leader.
But here’s what Putin has reminded us of—strength alone is not a virtue. Only strength used for good is admirable. Volodomyr Zelensky is what true toughness looks like: strength in the service of good. Our American power has been at its best when it was deployed justly, when it was used to defend the weak, when it was used to defend our freedom, and when it was deployed to defend the freedom of others. That’s what we’re doing today. We’ve made some mistakes in the past, but all told, the United States has been the greatest force for peace, justice, and freedom in world history.
We use our power to enhance freedom and human dignity. We use our power to keep the peace. We use our power to uphold the truth. And we will remain a beacon of liberty and democracy for the world.