In his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Biden was forceful in denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked, brutal assault on Ukraine. But he should have used the high-profile occasion, and should still do so, to speak directly to one of the few parties that can stop the horrendous slaughter of Ukrainians – the Russian people.
He should say that he does not believe that Russians, who suffered so much in past wars, want their soldiers to invade a neighbor who poses no threat to their country. He should ask them to demand that their president explain why he has launched an all-out assault on a country filled with their relatives and friends, many of whom share a common language, culture and history with theirs. Even Putin has argued, disingenuously, that Ukrainians and Russians are one people.
In fact, Ukrainians have struggled mightily to preserve their own language and culture. But even those whose mother tongue is Russian, among them Ukraine's Jewish president, oppose the invasion, and have joined the struggle to preserve Ukraine's independence from Russia.
Independent polls show that Russians would be sympathetic to such a plea. Recent polls indicate that while 50% of Russians believe that it would be right to use force to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO – which was not imminent – more Russians oppose the use of force to unite Ukraine and Russia than support it.
According to Levada Center polling, a well-regarded independent pollster, 83% of Russians have "positive" views of Ukrainians. And 51% said Russia and Ukraine should be independent yet friendly countries.
Although Putin's popularity soared after he seized Ukraine's Crimea in 2014, Russians were decidedly less enthusiastic about Russia's invasion of neighboring Georgia in 2008 and its intervention in the brutal Syrian civil war in 2015. Putin's popularity dropped following both of those military interventions.
The sanctions that the U.S. and its Western allies have imposed on Russia will be punishing not just for the Russian elite, but for ordinary Russians. The pain is already being felt. .
The Russian ruble has plunged against the dollar, raising living costs for many Russians. The Russian Central Bank has raised interest rates to 20%, which means that Russians will have to pay much higher borrowing costs. Russians are already queuing at banks, fearing that their credit cards will no longer work because of the sanctions imposed on Russian banks. Biden might remind Russians that their financial pain is the result of their own president's reckless actions, not the West.
Some courageous Russians have already criticized Putin's invasion. Jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny has urged fellow Russians to stage daily protests, saying Russia should not be a "nation of frightened cowards," and has denounced Putin as "an insane little tsar." More than 6,800 people have already been arrested in anti-war demonstrations. "Putin is not Russia," Navalny said from his jail cell.
Biden should now join him in urging the Russian people to say no to war.