Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 19 February 2024


No One Wants Ukraine to Win

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky at a press conference in Paris, Feb. 16. Photo: thibault camus/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The dominant narrative today holds that Joe Biden and Donald Trump are opposites on Ukraine. The president supports the Senate bill that includes about $60 billion for Kyiv, mostly in military aid. The former president attacks it, and his influence among House Republicans is why Speaker Mike Johnson is reluctant to bring it to the floor for a vote.

But when it comes to the failure to spell out a strategic argument, the two are one. As a result, the military-aid package has largely been fought over issues unrelated to Ukraine, such as funding for border security. Meanwhile, Democrats sound like hawks, Republicans sound like doves, and U.S. policy slides into strategic incoherence.

Mr. Trump has always been skeptical about what we get for our alliances and treaties, especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Although this thinking may not command a majority, it has paralyzed the Republican Party. Before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene, Republicans were criticizing Barack Obama for not delivering the lethal aid that would allow Ukraine to defend itself.

Not that Mr. Trump is uncomfortable with American forces overseas. But he prefers short, one-off interventions, such as the drone strike that killed Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. Longer-term commitments, especially multilateral ones, he tends to view solely as an expense that ropes us in to fights that aren’t our own.

At a rally in South Carolina this month, the former president explained his position by quoting an unnamed European leader who’d asked: What if Russia attacks my country but we hadn’t met our financial commitments to NATO?

Mr. Trump was categorical: “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay.”

In fairness, as president Mr. Trump used that kind of pressure to get delinquent NATO members to pay more. And it worked. But it’s still an argument only about costs, and it assumes Vladimir Putin would see it as another Trump exaggeration rather than as a sign of an America too divided to stop him.

That’s the root of Republican incoherence on Ukraine, and it’s getting plenty of attention. But Mr. Biden is incoherent too—no matter how reluctant the press may be to cover it.

Remember how Mr. Biden’s support for Ukraine started: He was backed into it. A month before Russia’s 2022 invasion, Mr. Biden predicted Russia would “move in” to Ukraine, but the NATO response might be divided if it were only a “minor incursion.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pushed back, tweeting that “there are no minor incursions,” and the White House quickly moved into cleanup mode.

Mr. Putin’s invasion also came six months after Mr. Biden’s botched retreat from Afghanistan. The Biden administration was in danger of losing two big countries in its first two years. There was a need to shore up America’s collapsing credibility.

The politics have been sweeter still. Supporting Ukraine has allowed Mr. Biden to attack Mr. Trump as a Putin apologist at the same time.

The risks of supporting Ukraine are real, but so too are the risks of failing to do so. As expensive as aid might be, the Ukrainians are inflicting enormous damage to a U.S. adversary with a history of aggression toward its neighbors. In addition, frustrating Mr. Putin in Ukraine gives other unfriendly powers second thoughts about their own plans—especially China, with its threats to invade Taiwan.

But if the case is so compelling, why hasn’t Mr. Biden taken advantage of the world’s greatest bully pulpit to sell it? Why no prime-time address from the Oval Office to the American people laying out a winning strategy?

Such an address would also be an opportunity to bring Republicans aboard, provided Mr. Biden lay off the cheap shots at MAGA voters. He could hark back to the hard choices President Reagan made that forced the collapse of the Soviet Union. And yet—he refuses to make the pitch.

At this point it may simply be that he’s not up to it physically. But it’s equally likely that the president is skittish about splits within the Democratic Party. These are kept at bay so long as Ukrainians are given enough aid to keep the war going but not enough to prevail.

For the moment, the left’s anger is focused on Mr. Biden’s support for Israel in its war against Hamas. But how long before it pushes for a cease-fire in Ukraine? There already was one effort in October 2022, when 30 House members signed a letter calling on President Biden to pursue talks with Mr. Putin. They ended up pulling that letter because the timing wasn’t right, ahead of midterm elections. But the sentiment remains.

So here we are. Mr. Biden says we mustn’t give Mr. Putin a victory without quite committing himself to a Ukrainian victory. Mr. Trump says it’s “stupid” to give Kyiv anything but loans. Between the two, the American people aren’t getting the crucial debate about what we want the outcome to be and why.

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Wonder Land: Iran, Russia and China know that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are weak adversaries, not least because they have failed to raise U.S. defense capacity to the level of an unmistakable deterrent. Images: AP/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the February 20, 2024, print edition as 'No One Wants Ukraine to Win'.

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