During World War II, US sailors were warned: Loose lips sink ships. A similar warning should have gone out to all US officials in recent days—and the President should have been the first to acknowledge that the warning included him. Because thanks to loose lips in Washington, the US is contributing to Vladimir Putin’s propaganda, and possibly still worse, to a direct confrontation with Moscow.
Biden initiated this round of loose lips by seeming to suggest regime change in Moscow—Putin “cannot remain in power,” he proposed—was part of US policy. His secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, said while in Kyev that weakening Russia’s ability to invade its neighbors was a US objective. Then came comments that implied direct US responsibility for the intelligence that led to the sinking of the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva and the battlefield deaths of several Russian generals. All these comments were, of course, walked back, but loose lips had done the damage. For example, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Russian parliament and a Putin confidante, charged that US intelligence sharing with Kyev amounts to “taking part in hostilities in Ukraine.” “Washington is essentially coordinating and developing military operations, thereby directly participating in military actions against our country,” Volodin wrote (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/05/07/russia-ukraine-war-news-putin-live-updates/#link-DZ5IC6HYEJFOPMXXQSB32OFH7Y).
We have no way of knowing, of course, how Putin and his inner circle actually treat off-the-cuff remarks by US officials—whether as ridiculous bragging or as deeply offensive—but at the least they are needlessly provocative and give the Russians talking points. At worst, they suggest that the US is more directly involved in the war than it says it is or wants to be, providing Putin with a pretext for widening his war. Thomas Friedman writes, “we could be creating an opening for Putin to respond in ways that could dangerously widen this conflict — and drag the U.S. in deeper than it wants to be” (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/06/opinion/biden-ukraine-leaks.html).
Of course, Putin and top Russian officials are also guilty of loose lips. They have talked openly about Russia’s nuclear weapon capabilities, they have turned an aggressive war into an anti-Nazi struggle, and they have suggested that Russian territorial ambitions go beyond Ukraine. We have seen how some of these remarks, in particular about nuclear weapons, have caused alarm in and around Washington. So we should not be surprised if Putin feels provoked by stray American remarks, in the same way that Biden has been provoked by the scope of the Russian invasion to call Putin a war criminal.
The enormity of the US military commitment to Ukraine’s resistance—aid that will amount to about $47 billion if Congress approves Biden’s latest request—and Russia’s huge deployment of troops and weapons in Ukraine—obscures the restraint that both sides are exercising to prevent a direct confrontation and a far wider war. US/NATO forces have not created free-fly zones or safe corridors for refugees. They have not approved the transfer of fighter jets that Ukraine pilots could immediately operate against Russian forces. Washington quite possibly exercises a veto over any Ukrainian ambition to carry the war into Russian territory. The Russians also seem to have a line they must avoid crossing. They have not, for instance, taken action against Poland, Moldova, and other conduits for military aid to Ukraine. Nor have the Russians used a weapon of mass destruction—nuclear, biological, or chemical. Though massive Russian cyber attacks on US or European targets were anticipated by some analysts, none have been carried out.
Careless and reckless language can lead to unrestrained warfare. Once restraints are cast off, they are hard to restore. War, whether by miscalculation or design, is still war. Better for lips to be sealed, unless it’s to talk about a cease-fire and peace.