Are we at war in Ukraine? If we swapped places — if Russian apparatchiks admitted helping to kill American generals or sink a U.S. Navy vessel — I doubt we’d find much ambiguity there.
In the more than three months since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration has said a lot of things about the war. It had to walk a few of them back almost immediately, like when President Biden’s statement that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” turned out not to be a call for regime change. On other points, its rhetoric has sharpened over time: In March, America’s goal was to help Ukraine defend itself; by the end of April it was a “weakened” Russia.
But on one thing the administration has been very consistent: America won’t get into war with Russia for Ukraine.
“We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia,” President Biden wrote in The Times at the end of May. “As much as I disagree with Mr. Putin, and find his actions an outrage, the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow. So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.”
Much of the praise and critique of Mr. Biden’s Ukraine policy has accepted his version of events. But are we sure Americans can reliably recognize when we’ve joined a war?