The Ripple Threat of Russia’s Ukraine War: Former Presidential Speechwriter Weighs In

michael johns
National Tea Party leader Michael Johns, a former White House speechwriter and Heritage Foundation policy analyst, addresses "Drill More, Spend Less" Tea Party rally prior to President Barack Obama's arrival, Morrisville, Pennsylvania, April 6, 2011 (Michael Johns/Flickr)

March 13, 2022

American Pigeon’s foreign affairs editor, Rachel Brooks, recently spoke with foreign policy expert Michael Johns, a leading American foreign policy thought leader, analyst, and activist.

In the final years of the Cold War, Johns was one of the nation’s leading proponents of the Reagan Doctrine policy of support for anti-communist movements resisting Soviet-backed dictatorships. He was among only a few Americans to visit multiple times with the Nicaraguan contras and the frontlines of U.S.-supported resistance movements in Angola and Cambodia. He also visited the former Soviet Union in the Cold War’s final years. Johns prominently defended then President Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and was a leader in supporting the evolution of U.S. foreign policy from the post-World War II policy of Soviet containment to one of peacefully rolling back the Soviet Union and its client states in the Warsaw Pact and developing world. 

Johns served as White House presidential speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and, after the Cold War’s end, as director of global programs at the International Republican Institute, where he developed U.S. government-supported programs to strengthen democratic institutions and monitor elections in emerging democracies in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and the former Soviet Union. He also has served as a senior aide in the United States Senate and to New Jersey’s former governor and September 11 Commission chairman, Thomas Kean. In the private sector, Johns has served in executive and management capacities in several components of the U.S. healthcare industry, including pharmaceuticals, home health, and medical devices and supplies. 

In February 2009, Johns was one of several conservative activists who united to launch the U.S. Tea Party movement, which grew into the largest independent political movement in American history and led to over 1,000 Republican political victories on the federal, state, and local levels during the Obama administration. On June 16, 2015, the first day of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, he was one of only a few prominent national conservatives to endorse Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. He has been among the nation’s leading proponents of the Make America Great Again (MAGA) agenda, including confronting the threat from China’s Communist Party (CCP), securing America’s borders and restricting legal immigration, expanding America’s domestic energy production, and supporting U.S. manufacturing by restructuring unfair trade and other policies.

Johns is the author of The U.S. and Africa Statistical Handbook, multiple book chapters and white papers, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, National Review, and other media and appears frequently on U.S. and global television networks as a guest policy expert and analyst. He holds a Bachelor’s in Business Administration from the University of Miami, where he majored in economics and graduated with honors and also studied abroad at Gonville & Caius College at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. He was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and grew up in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

Michael Johns explains the corresponding policy issues leading up to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict as follows:

“On the surface, many of the lessons associated with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are fairly self-evident. 

Trump’s Russia Policy 

First, for four years, former President Trump projected a healthy balance of both strength and political sophistication on Russia, arming Ukraine with lethal defensive military aid on the one hand, but also not provoking Putin or Russian nationalists with provocative commentary about Ukraine in NATO on the other. 

This sent exactly the right message to Putin: That we were not tolerant of Russian aggression against sovereign states but that, in turn, we also were not seeking to present any security threat to Russia’s sovereignty either.

Biden’s Contrasting Russia Policy 

Putin saw weakness in Obama, especially following his dismissal of any Russian threat during the 2012 presidential debates with Romney. 

In many respects, this led him to conclude he could seize Crimea without opposition, which he did two years later, in 2014. Then, in August 2021, like much of the world, he watched as Biden handed Afghanistan to the Taliban, abandoning our hugely strategic air base in Bagram and leaving Americans, Afghan allies, and billions of dollars of military equipment behind as the Taliban rolled into Kabul pretty much unopposed. 

I believe he saw the opportunity for aggression in Ukraine very early in the Biden presidency, and he already had about 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukraine border. But watching Biden end the longest and costliest war in U.S, history by handing the country over to the very terrorist forces we had been opposing, again inspired him that it was an opportune moment for him to move on Ukraine. 

I also think Putin’s newfound emerging relationship with Xi Jinping gave him confidence. Putin met with Xi on February 4 in Beijing. If you review the joint statement they issued, it is pretty clear to me that Xi green lighted Russian aggression. They both opposed the expansion of NATO and attempted to present themselves as representing some sort of emerging global consensus in support of their respective visions for the world, which is absurd but the message Xi has been preaching for years. 

The hypocrisy in that statement is overwhelming. Two of the world’s most brutal dictators expressing support for “universal human values as peace, development, equality, justice, democracy, and freedom.” Xi is engaged in genocide of millions in East Turkistan as we speak, and has been declared “president for life” by a few of his Communist Party colleagues. He has no governing mandate from the 1.4 billion of China and is governing a nation in which almost all, or all, provinces under his governance would separate from China if given the opportunity. His government is behind almost all of the world’s illegal fentanyl shipments, much of the world’s organ harvesting, and controls the country’s legal system, its media, and suppresses any and all dissent. 

Putin, of course, differs in some ways from Xi, but not on the fundamental issue of domestic liberties, peace, and human rights, which he also suppresses. There’s a long list of Putin opponents, from Galina Starovoytova to Sergei Yushenkov to Nikolay Andrushchenko and a long list of others who paid with their lives for opposing Putin. And, of course, we’re now witnessing Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, including military attacks on maternity wards and other civilian facilities. 

The point is that these are probably the last two individuals in the world who have any standing to be lecturing the world about justice, democracy, and freedom. But none of this should be surprising to anyone. Mao said “communism is not love. Communism is a hammer which we use to crush the enemy.” And Lenin said “there are no morals in politics; there is only expedience.”    

The Issue of the Afghanistan Exit 

The abandonment of Bagram Airfield in July with no pre-announcement, no handoff to the Afghan military, and leaving the Parwan Detention Facility unguarded, which housed over a thousand hugely dangerous terrorists and other criminals, was the first signal that Biden was not at all concerned about U.S. commitments or interests in the region. It did not receive much attention in the U.S., but Putin saw it in Moscow and Xi Jinping saw it in Beijing—and the result was this enhanced resolve we now see in Putin, in trying to take Ukraine by force and without much regard to the world’s perception of him. I believe this is also manifesting in Xi’s commitment to ultimately taking Taiwan by military or other means. And I think we are seeing it in the dilution of our alliances. 

When the United States abandons its friends, its friends start looking for other friends, or for a third way, and Biden is overseeing this abandonment. It is an intensification of the so-called “managed decline” ideology that has been present in government for decades but never to this magnitude. We now have a government consciously and pro-actively seeking to weaken our standing in the world by diminishing global trust in us, by eroding the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and by handing over our sovereignty to multilateral institutions like the United Nations, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the like. These are not neutral bodies. They are deeply infiltrated and controlled bodies whose loyalties are largely to the CCP and associated interests. The very idea that some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, like China and Russia, can sit in judgment of other nations’ human rights conditions through UNHRC is a perfect example of the inherent contradictions and limitations associated with globalism.

Regarding Crimea 

Putin saw weakness in Obama and took Crimea in 2014. He saw strength in Trump and did nothing. He saw extraordinary and almost irrational weakness in Biden and is now engaged in a kinetic war in Ukraine that is proving very costly to human lives. I believe Putin has miscalculated with his aggression in Ukraine—and it obviously must be condemned and sanctioned in the strongest terms. But look beneath the surface in an introspective way, and even Biden’s response to the invasion lacks the sort of strategic and proportionate response we should demand. 

U.S. Energy Crisis 

On one hand, because Biden so constrained our domestic energy production, we are paying Russia about $75 million a day for oil that easily could be produced here if it weren’t for his regulatory constraints on domestic energy production. And that $75 million a day in Russian revenue is largely controlled directly by Putin and his cronies and is funding this very war in Ukraine that we say we condemn in “the strongest terms.” Well, the strongest terms must include denying Putin those petroleum revenues. 

Instead, however, Biden chose first to sanction Russia’s central bank and removed Russia’s financial institutions from the global SWIFT banking system, which predictably is sending the ruble into rapid collapse. Has anyone in the Biden administration even pondered where this all leads? For starters, these sorts of sanctions against a national currency, the burden of which is going to fall almost exclusively on the people, not the government, are exceedingly rare—and they are rare for a reason. For starters, they are essentially an act of war and likely to be reciprocated as such. Additionally, dictators and their associated allies have all sorts of places and means to move financial assets into foreign currencies, foreign or underground financial institutions, or many other options. The people do not largely have these options, so this becomes a war on the people more than a war on the government.

This is how it is playing out in Russia now. The ruble has lost 40 percent of its value already—and that slide is likely to continue. This devaluation creates a rush for withdrawals, and Russia has already responded by imposing withdrawal limits, which stops some bleeding but further intensifies domestic anxieties. Interest rates have more than doubled. This is all quite possibly a recipe for domestic rebellion and turmoil, and we’re not talking about domestic rebellion or turmoil in any nation. Russia remains a nuclear power. They have about 6,000 nuclear warheads, which is more than our own stockpile. What is going to happen as Russians rebel and Putin concludes his governing reign is over? What is Putin going to do as Russian military or intelligence forces see his political vulnerability and move against him? These are concerns and questions about as serious as they get in national security and foreign policy. We are not dealing with a controllable or predictable outcome. As the Reagan Doctrine began to force change in 1990 and 1991, I remember our focus shifted from the regimes we had opposed to the one that would emerge, and the fact that the Cold War ended peacefully was as great an accomplishment as the fact that it ended at all. The end of the Cold War aside, we do not have a very pleasant history with regime change. Quite often we have ended up with regimes even more oppressive and more hostile. 

And domestic turmoil is not the only concern. These are precisely the sort of steps that will force Putin closer to Xi and the CCP at a moment when that emerging alliance is a formidable threat to the entire world and one we should be focused on splintering, not solidifying. But in Xi, we have a dictator who has used debt financing to solidify strategic and economic control over nations facing desperation. 

So, at least as far as next steps, I think Biden owes Americans a more precise explanation of what he is doing here. What are our policy goals? We have implemented these turmoil-inspiring financial sanctions against Russia’s central bank with no explanation of what Putin must do to have these sanctions lifted. That defies the logic of any punitive measure. What precisely does Putin need to do to have these and other sanctions lifted? They cannot inspire cooperative measures if we do not define what those cooperative measures and ends even are. And if we are declaring war as these nearly unprecedented central bank financial sanctions are interpreted, then he needs Congressional authorization for that, as inadvisable as I think such a declaration would be. We need answers. What is the end game here? As usual, we just see a level of disengagement, incomprehensible communication, and lack of fortitude in Biden. We need Russia to end the hostilities in Ukraine, and we need to get that done without engaging in a war. With so much at stake and so many unanswered questions, the American people deserve a highly specific address from their commander-in-chief. 

Policy Missteps 

Congress has not authorized this war, and it places American citizens at risk, especially given the unmatched cybercriminal capabilities of the Russian government. I think we now have to expect those capabilities to be unleashed against us and our allies, and it is really the last thing we need right now as we confront domestic economic woes and inflation and the ongoing burdens of Afghanistan’s fall and the CCP’s aggression. We are not in a position to be dealing with regime change in Russia. 

When Carter undermined the Shah in Iran in 1979 over human rights concerns, we got the Ayatollah. The human rights crisis only deepened, and what was a largely friendly government turned into a hostile one. Carter did the same in Nicaragua, undermining Anastasio Somoza over various concerns that led to us getting a Soviet and Cuban-supported communist dictatorship, and a Soviet presence in the heart of the Americas in the Cold War. More recently, we removed Saddam in Iraq and got ISIS. The Russian government is a complex entity right now filled with the bad, the evil, and the really evil. Could things get worse than Putin? It’s not inconceivable, and whoever or whatever that entity is will control a nuclear arsenal. So it seems to me that we are recklessly sending a nuclear power into a state of possibly deep domestic turmoil with no clear plan of how we are going to get out of all this. The entire handling of Russia and Ukraine under Biden, like everything else he has touched to date, seems almost designed to invite chaos and harm to our interests. And the motives behind it all are deeply suspicious given the Biden family’s extensive pay to play activities with all these players, including China, Russia, and Ukraine.

Advances of the Chinese Communist Party

So next step: I think we need to back up and demand that Biden articulate the goals and strategy of our policy and what we do and do not seek. And while he’s explaining all that, essentially nothing has been done to date to secure our border and hold the CCP responsible for the pandemic, their genocide against the Uyghurs in East Turkistan, or their increasingly provocative aggression against independent Taiwan.” If we assess our most significant threats to our security, economic stability, and global leadership, that threat is not coming from Putin, as reprehensible as his domestic human rights record and Ukrainian and Crimean aggression have been. The biggest threat is the CCP, who is fighting us at every turn, and who clearly has both a strategic plan and the commitment to undermine our global leadership, domestic stability and sovereignty. And I think Xi is acutely aware that our current and necessary obsession over Putin has taken our focus off of him—but he is far and away our biggest current and long-term threat.

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One Response

  1. This is the most comprehensive believable assessment of the Putin/Ukraine situation to date.

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