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Biden’s Destiny Is Linked to Ukraine’s
As goes Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression, so likely goes Biden’s re-election campaign.
THERE’S A NEW CONVENTIONAL WISDOM in Washington, best illustrated by the recent New York Times story featuring nameless Biden administration officials venting their frustration with Ukraine’s conduct of its defense against Russian aggression. Ukrainians are brave and deserve our support, goes the thinking, but the conflict will end in a stalemate.
If true, it would also be terrible news for President Biden, who needs his administration’s record in Ukraine to be an asset, rather than a liability, as he runs for re-election in 2024.
Whether he wants to or not, as a political issue, Biden owns the war in Ukraine. Even though, as Eric Edelman and Franklin Miller point out, “President Biden has never made the public case for his own policy in a primetime Oval Office address or anything other than on-the-run comments to the media,” he has repeatedly called for supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes” (whatever that means). Trump, by contrast, has kept curiously quiet on Ukraine, besides promising to end the war in 24 hours. Biden has come under fire from a small but vocal cohort of Republicans for supposedly having written a “blank check” to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Support for Ukraine has declined faster among Republicans than among Democrats, with almost half of the GOP voters amenable to Russian territorial gains if it means a swift end to the war, according to a Gallup poll conducted in June. Just 19 percent of Democrats agreed. (In a May poll, 82 percent of Ukrainians opposed giving up any of Ukraine’s sovereign territory under any circumstances.)
Recent amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act to scrap funding for Ukraine, proposed by Reps. Marjorie Taylor Green and Matt Gaetz, were soundly defeated including by majorities of House Republicans (130-89 and 149-70, respectively). But opposition to Ukraine aid was still much higher than in 2022, when almost all Republicans voted for supplemental appropriations.
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However, in a recent Hart Research poll, 74 percent of Americans, including 66 percent of Republicans, agreed that it was important to help “Ukraine defeat Russian aggression without Ukraine being forces to give up any of its territory to Russia,” making support for Kyiv’s war aims a winning political proposition—as long as the war effort is effective.
The danger of the new conventional wisdom is that it might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. To be sure, there are good reasons to believe that the pessimists are underrating the cumulative nature of Ukraine’s advances and ignoring Ukraine’s determination to fight now, with or without Western support.
However, developments on the battlefield are also a function of Washington’s choices. If Biden continues to balk at providing Ukraine additional weapons, Ukraine’s war effort will become much harder.
Biden faces two possible feedback cycles. If Ukraine gets the weapons and support it needs, Americans are more likely to support its war aims, making it politically easier for the administration to send more aid, ask Congress for more appropriations, and help Ukraine win faster. The international landscape and Biden’s political position would benefit, and untold Ukrainian (and Russian) lives would be saved.
The reverse could also happen. The slow pace of Ukraine’s counteroffensive (which now may be accelerating) has already degraded American support for the helping Ukraine and raised fears on both the American right and left of “forever wars.” If Ukraine fails to win because it lacks the necessary resources, more Americans will balk at investing a hopeless situation.
Going down that path would be political suicide for the administration. Biden cannot run on a record of another “forever war.” A frozen conflict, or some dodgy deal with Putin’s regime, will also make Biden look weak and ineffectual, given the considerable cost of U.S. support. The Biden administration has allocated $43 billion in security assistance for Ukraine since February 2022 (not including humanitarian and financial support). In for $43 billion, in for a pound.
In short, any outcome short of a Ukrainian victory is a threat to Biden’s 2024 run. More worryingly, it is bound to deal a fatal blow to what remains of the frayed internationalist consensus in U.S. foreign policy. If, after Iraq and Afghanistan, we will have spent tens of billions more with little to show for it, then maybe, many Americans will conclude, the isolationists were right all along. The costs of isolationism will, as usual, only become clear when it’s too late to avoid them.
Biden has only two options: go big or go home. The weapons systems that the United States has denied the Ukrainians for misguided fears of Russian escalation must be handed over now. That includes the ATACMs, the F-16s (the delivery of which the administration seems to be deliberately slow-walking), and the thousands of Abrams tanks collecting dust in storage.
Resistance from some Republicans, particularly in the House, against future Ukraine aid authorizations might be hardening. But that is no reason for Biden not to push hard for more money. If nothing else, reminding voters that Republicans are divided on the subject provides a political benefit.
Finally, doubling down on the support for Ukraine requires political leadership. In February, Biden delivered an excellent foreign policy speech in Warsaw, Poland. He said, before gathered heads of state and government and many European journalists,
One year into this war, Putin no longer doubts the strength of our coalition. But he still doubts our conviction. He doubts our staying power. He doubts our continued support for Ukraine. He doubts whether NATO can remain unified.
But there should be no doubt: Our support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire.
Yet Americans have barely heard from him on the subject of Ukraine since. That is political malpractice.
Now is not the time to play it safe. The past sixteen months have demonstrated that Putin’s regime is in no position to launch a world war in response to our assistance to Ukraine. Conversely, and in contrast to recent reports questioning Ukrainian military tactics, the administration has only its own self-deterrent instincts to blame for Ukraine’s slow progress on the battlefield.
The outcome of the war in Ukraine matters not just for the security of Europe or of the Indo-Pacific. It will also either boost or critically undermine America’s self-confidence, especially after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. And most importantly for Biden, his re-election and second term may well hinge on whether Ukrainians are able to achieve a complete victory before his time in office is up. He should act accordingly.