Finally, US goes over Putin’s head

On news screens everywhere, the world is watching the destruction of two nations: Ukraine, inevitably; and Russia, most assuredly.

It is happening with the speed of cruise missiles streaking through Ukraine skies and smashing into homes, hospitals and schools. And, bizarrely, it is also happening with the speed of a motionless military convoy, as Russia’s mass killers of innocents became sitting ducks and sat, stilled but un-killed, day after day, on an unmoving highway conveyor belt of military miscalculation. (Watching Putin’s vulnerable yet unscathed convoy, the world wondered if Ukraine’s NATO friends, who were great at delivering all the right words, somehow failed to deliver enough of the promised anti-tank weapons that seemingly should have saved Ukrainian parents and children from an impending slaughter.)


Meanwhile, the United States and Europe united with a solidarity Russia’s Vladimir Putin never expected and came to Ukraine’s defense by issuing powerful sanctions that virtually blackballed Russia from the world banking system. Germany, acting with newfound econo-courage, impressively canceled its Nord Stream 2 fuel pipeline deal with Russia. Russia’s markets and currency plummeted.

Putin and his powerful Russian oligarch pals were personally targeted by sanctions. Some of the sanctioned mega-billionaires reportedly have urged Putin to end his war.

Many ordinary Russians believed Putin’s lies that no invasion was going to happen. Then as Putin invaded Ukraine, they suddenly panicked and raced to rescue their money from their banks. But many found themselves stuck in long lines, unable to withdraw their funds. Meanwhile, thousands of courageous Russians braved arrest by protesting in city streets, demanding an end to the Ukraine war.

The mounting protests of the Russian people may prove to be Putin’s ultimate irreconcilable problem. As some readers may recall, back in January, I wrote a column urging President Joe Biden to marshal the potential power and influence of the Russian people in an unconventional way. I urged Biden to deliver a United Nations speech in which he would speak directly to the Russian people. Remind them that Americans and Russians were allies, back when the Russians fought off Adolf Hitler’s Nazi invaders. Tell them their president had mobilized troops for a massive invasion of Ukraine that will be Europe’s largest since Hitler invaded his neighbors. Warn them that when he invades, their families will become Putin’s ultimate victims — because America and Europe will target Russia with the most powerful banking and commercial sanctions ever seen. Russia will be devastated.

Some skeptics scoffed at my idea, contending Biden’s words wouldn’t reach Russia’s citizens. But many experts believed it was worth a try, because a few independent media sources and social media would get the word out. We’ll never know; Biden just kept focusing his public statements in the usual government-to-government way.

Now this: On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke extensively with reporters and midway through his remarks, the secretary repeated President Biden’s line: “This is President Putin’s war.” Then Blinken oratorically pivoted and began talking directly to the Russian people:

“This isn’t the Russian people’s war. It’s becoming clearer by the day that the Russian people oppose it. Members of the Russian military oppose it and had no idea what they were being sent to do. And now the Russian people will suffer the consequences of their leaders’ choices.

“So my message to the people of Russia — if they’re even able to hear it, as the Kremlin cracks down even harder on media outlets reporting the truth — my message is that we know many of you want no part of this war. You, like Ukrainians, like Americans, like people everywhere, want the same basic things — good jobs, clean air and water, the chance to raise your kids in safe neighborhoods, to send them to good schools, to give them better lives than you had.

“How in the world does President Putin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine help you achieve any of these things? …The economic costs that we’ve been forced to impose on Russia are not aimed at you — they are aimed at compelling your government to stop its actions, to stop its aggression. And just as millions of us around the world stand together against Moscow’s aggression, we also stand together with you as you demand that your leaders end this war.

“If President Putin wants to demonstrate leadership, he should allow Russian soldiers to go home to their families.”

The secretary of state’s words were potentially persuasive. They lacked only one thing: They weren’t spoken with the clout that only comes when the speaker is known by the un-secret shorthand code “POTUS” — which many still recognize by its long-form: “Leader of the Free World.”

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at

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