Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 20 August 2023



Biden’s slow delivery of U.S. arms has hurt Kyiv’s counteroffensive and plays into Donald Trump’s hands.

Aug. 20, 2023 2:51 pm ET

A Ukrainian soldier displays his units RPG weapon in June. PHOTO: MADELEINE KELLY/ZUMA PRESS

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has become a deadly, grinding slog. Kyiv’s forces could still stage a breakthrough, but an extended stalemate highlights President Biden’s reluctance to provide Ukraine with the advanced weapons it needs to take back its territory from the Russian invaders.

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Mr. Biden recently asked Congress for $24 billion to support Ukraine, and the press is preoccupied with the House Republicans who will try to block the aid. But the President has an obligation to make the public case for helping Kyiv, and Mr. Biden hasn’t bothered.

The President deserves credit for holding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization together in support of Ukraine, and these columns have supported that effort. But the President’s failures on Ukraine and Russia are as acute, and the war could still end in a way that leaves Russia occupying much of Ukraine.

Mr. Biden failed to deter Vladimir Putin’s invasion, no doubt in part owing to the signal sent by the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan. His Administration thought Kyiv would fall within days. And Mr. Biden has been slow to deliver the weapons Ukraine needs, even long after it became clear that Kyiv could hold its own and perhaps drive Russia to the Sea of Azov.

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Jack Watling, a military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, recently noted the “significant deficiencies” in the West’s delivery of equipment in the fight. “The disarray among Russian forces in the winter of 2022–3 following a chaotic mobilisation and a lack of preparedness for winter warfare left them vulnerable early in 2023,” Mr. Watling writes.

Yet Western weapons for the offensive didn’t start arriving in earnest until February and March. In other words, the U.S. and Europe squandered an opening to get the Russians on the run before they dug in trenches and fortified concrete.

The latest fiasco is F-16 fighter jets. The Ukrainians are trying to fight a combined-arms campaign like a Western military would—but without the air power NATO forces rely on. Mr. Biden dithered for a year before approving training for Ukrainian pilots in May. The training is only now getting started.

Mr. Biden doesn’t seem to appreciate what a stalemate or worse might cost the U.S. strategically, and himself politically. The Ukrainian spirit of resistance ranks with London in the Blitz, but it needs continuing Western support to keep up the fight. Mr. Putin’s bet is that he can wait out the West and eventually strike a “peace” accord on his terms.

At home, Mr. Biden risks playing into the hands of such critics as Donald Trump, who would cut off support for Ukraine. Most Republicans in Congress have supported aid to Ukraine, and credit in particular goes to Sens. Mitch McConnell and Tom Cotton—despite Mr. Biden’s rhetoric that all Republicans are “MAGA.”

But a failed counteroffensive, and an extended military stalemate that stretches into 2024, risks eroding U.S. public support as GOP voters become more restive amid Mr. Trump’s campaign assault. Mr. Biden has never given a serious speech making the case for the U.S. security interest in Ukraine and how he hopes the war will end.

Perhaps the President figures ambiguity will give him more flexibility to negotiate a settlement. But if Mr. Biden wants Congress to pass his aid package, he has to make a better case than he has and spend the political capital like the Commander in Chief.

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