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Politics

Biden’s Test: Sustaining Unity as Ukraine War Enters Year 2

February 20, 2023

WASHINGTON — One year ago, President Joe Biden was bracing for the worst as Russia massed troops in preparation to invade Ukraine.

As many in the West and even in Ukraine doubted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, the White House was adamant: War was coming and Kyiv was woefully outgunned.

In Washington, Biden’s aides prepared contingency plans and even drafts of what the president would say should Ukraine’s capital quickly fall to Russian forces — a scenario deemed likely by most U.S. officials. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was offered help getting out of his country if he wanted it.

Yet as Russia’s invasion reaches the one-year mark, the city stands and Ukraine has beaten even its own expectations, buoyed by a U.S.-led alliance that has agreed to equip Ukrainian forces with tanks, advanced air defense systems, and more, while keeping the Kyiv government afloat with tens of billions of dollars in direct assistance.

For Biden, Ukraine was an unexpected crisis, but one that fits squarely into his larger foreign policy outlook that the United States and like-minded allies are in the midst of a generational conflict to demonstrate that liberal democracies such as the U.S. can out-deliver autocracies.

In the estimation of the White House, the war transformed what had been Biden’s rhetorical warnings — a staple of his 2020 campaign speeches — into an urgent call to action.

FILE – President Joe Biden smiles before speaking on security assistance to Ukraine during a visit to the Lockheed Martin Pike County Operations facility where they manufacture Javelin anti-tank missiles, May 3, 2022, in Troy, Ala. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Now, as Biden prepares to travel to Poland to mark the anniversary of the war, he faces a legacy-defining moment.

“President Biden’s task is to make the case for sustained free world support for Ukraine,” said Daniel Fried, a U.S. ambassador to Poland during the Clinton administration and now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. “This is an important trip. And really, Biden can define the role of the free world in turning back tyranny.”

Biden administration officials are quick to direct primary credit for Ukraine’s staying power to the courage of its armed forces, with a supporting role to the Russian military’s ineptitude. But they also believe that without their early warnings and the massive support they orchestrated, Ukraine would have been all but wiped off the map by now.

Sustaining Ukraine’s fight, while keeping the war from escalating into a potentially catastrophic wider conflict with NATO, will go down as one of Biden’s enduring foreign policy accomplishments, they argue.

In Poland, Biden is set to meet with allies to reassure them of the U.S. commitment to the region and to helping Ukraine “as long as it takes.” It’s a pledge that is met with skepticism both at home and abroad as the invasion enters its second year, and as Putin shows no signs of retreating from an invasion that has left more than 100,000 of his own forces killed or wounded, along with tens of thousands of Ukrainian service members and civilians — and millions of refugees.

Biden’s job now is, in part, to persuade Americans — and a worldwide audience — that it’s more important than ever to stay in the fight, while cautioning that an endgame is unlikely to come quickly.

His visit to Poland is an opportunity to make the case to “countries that repudiate archaic notions of imperial conquest and wars of aggression about the need to continue to support Ukraine and oppose Russia,” said John Sullivan, who stepped down as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow in September. “We always preach, we are seeking to protect a rules-based international order. It’s completely done if Russia gets away with this.”

The U.S. resolve to stand up to Russia is also being tested by domestic concerns and economic uncertainty.

Forty-eight percent of the U.S. public say they favor the U.S. providing weapons to Ukraine, with 29% opposed and 22% saying they’re neither in favor nor opposed, according to a poll published this past week by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It’s evidence of slipping support since May 2022, less than three months into the war, when 60% of U.S. adults said they were in favor of sending Ukraine weapons.

Further, Americans are about evenly divided on sending government funds directly to Ukraine, with 37% in favor and 38% opposed, with 23% saying neither, according to the AP-NORC poll.

This month, 11 House Republicans introduced what they called the “Ukraine fatigue” resolution urging Biden to end military and financial aid to Ukraine, while pushing Ukraine and Russia to come to a peace agreement. Meanwhile, the more traditionalist national security wing of the GOP, including just-announced 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley, a former U.N. envoy, has critiqued the pace of U.S. assistance, pressing for the quicker transfer of more advanced weaponry.

“Don’t look at Twitter, look at people in power,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told the Munich Security Conference on Friday. “We are committed to helping Ukraine.”

But Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he wants the president and his administration to impress on allies the need to share the burden as Americans grow weary of current levels of U.S. spending to assist Ukraine and Baltic allies.

Sullivan said he hears from Alaskans, “Hey, senator, why are we spending all this? And how come the Europeans aren’t?”

The U.S. has provided more economic and military aid than any country since the start of the war, but European nations and other allies have collectively committed tens of billions of dollars to back Ukraine and have taken in millions of refugees fleeing the conflict.

From the beginning of his administration, Biden has argued the world is at a crucial moment pitting autocracies against democracies.

The argument was originally framed with China in mind as America’s greatest economic and military adversary, and with Biden looking to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward the Pacific. The pivot toward Asia is an effort that each of his recent predecessors tried and failed to complete as war and foreign policy crises elsewhere shifted their attention.

With that goal, Biden sought to quickly end the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan seven months into his term. The end to America’s longest war was darkened by a chaotic withdrawal as 13 U.S. troops and 169 Afghan civilians looking to flee the country were killed by a bombing near Kabul’s international airport carried out by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate.

U.S. officials say the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has given the administration the bandwidth and resources to focus on assisting Ukraine in the first land war in Europe since World War II while putting increased focus on countering China’s assertive actions in the Indo-Pacific.

While the war in Ukraine caused large price increases in energy and food markets -– exacerbating rampant and persistent inflation — Biden aides saw domestic benefits to the president. The war, they argued, allowed Biden to showcase his ability to work across the aisle to maintain funding for Ukraine and showcase his leadership on the global stage.

However the months ahead unfold, it’s almost certain to be messy.

While Biden last year had to walk back a public call for regime change in Russia that he had delivered off the cuff from Poland just weeks after the war began, U.S. officials increasingly see internal discontent and domestic pressures on Putin as key to ending the conflict.

“So how does it end?” Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said at an event this past week in Washington to mark the coming anniversary. “It ends with a safe, viable Ukraine. It ends with Putin limping back off the battlefield. I hope it ends eventually with a Russian citizenry, who also says, ‘That was a bad deal for us and we want a better future.'”

When Biden hosted Zelenskyy in Washington in December, the U.S. president encouraged him to pursue a “just peace” — a framing that the Ukrainian leader chafed against.

“For me as a president, ‘just peace’ is no compromises,” Zelenskyy said. He said the war would end once Ukraine’s sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity were restored, and Russia had paid back Ukraine for all the damage inflicted by its forces.

“There can’t be any ‘just peace’ in the war that was imposed on us,” he added.

 

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