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It’s been just 12 days since President Biden sparked a media firestorm by declaring that Vladimir Putin should not remain in power.
Some in the media said Biden went too far. Many others were confused by the immediate White House walkback. And when the president stood by his original words–not calling for regime change, just expressing moral outrage–the whole thing was a muddled mess.
But now the mood in much of the press corps has dramatically darkened. Many journalists have turned decidedly hawkish, demanding to know why the administration isn’t doing more, including sending troops to Ukraine.
Fear of nuclear war is suddenly taking a back seat.
It’s not hard to figure out why. The pictures and videos of the Russian massacre in the town of Bucha have pricked the world’s conscience. The 300 civilians who were executed, the women who were raped, the lone bicyclist who was fired on by two Russian tanks–these are just unthinkable war crimes.
The Putin regime’s lies reached a revolting new low when a state television channel said the deaths were faked, and “the dead seem to be starting to rise even.” There is plenty of documentary evidence, no shortage of eyewitnesses. And the continuing Russian pullback will undoubtedly lead to the discovery of more dead bodies.
And that has produced a marked shift in journalistic tone when it comes to the war.
At a White House press briefing, NBC News’ Peter Alexander asked: “Why should someone like Vladimir Putin be viewed by the U.S. as someone who should be allowed to stay in power?”
Jen Psaki replied that “no, we are not calling for regime change. And that has not been our policy and continues not to be our policy,” while adding that Putin is a “war criminal.”
Alexander tried again: “People say, ‘Then why not? If he’s a war criminal, why should he be allowed to stay in power?’” Psaki just restated the policy.
CBS radio reporter Steven Portnoy actually called for boots on the ground in response to “the images of the atrocities.” He suggested “a military response led by the United States and the international partners.”
“As in bringing military troops on the ground from the United States and NATO?” Psaki asked.
“Well,” said Portnoy, “the president’s described outrageous things. You call them atrocities.”
Psaki said it wasn’t in America’s interest to be “in a war with Russia.”
Days earlier, MSNBC host Ali Velshi called for “direct military involvement” in Ukraine, saying, “If ‘never again’ means anything, then this is the time to act.”
Suddenly there seems to be far less concern about World War III.
Biden and the European Union yesterday imposed sanctions on two of the biggest Russian banks, on two Putin daughters and on the families of some aides and associates.
And yet that raises the question of why it took six weeks of the brutal targeting of civilians to prompt the West to escalate these sanctions. And an even more disturbing question: What if the U.S. is running out of possible sanctions and Russia’s battered economy is simply withstanding them?
The same goes for these semantic debates about why it’s all right to send Ukraine defensive weapons but not offensive ones. And when European officials talk about “phasing in” coal sanctions against Russia, how much time do you think the Ukrainians have in terms of saving their country? That’s why Volodymyr Zelenskyy chided the U.N. Security Council, saying the United Nations might as well shut down if it can’t respond to war crimes because Russia has a veto.
Expelling a few Russian diplomats, as some European countries are doing, is mere symbolism.
The overriding question now being debated in some media quarters is what it would take for the Biden administration to really go full throttle. More massacres like in Bucha? Thousands more Ukrainian civilians killed? Putin using chemical weapons? Tactical nukes?
I’m torn like everyone else. The gruesome images get to me every day. The slow-walking response is infuriating. And yet I understand the need for caution in a war on the border of a nuclear adversary.
But I wonder if there is a tipping point beyond which the world can no longer watch this happen.