The war in Ukraine has entered its second year, and with that come fresh challenges for President Biden. Whether ensuring that Ukraine has the necessary equipment to fight off the Russian invasion or prodding Western allies to do more to hold together domestic public opinion, the longer the war goes on, the greater those challenges will be.
The president’s stealth trip to Ukraine on Monday and his later speech in Poland signaled anew his commitment to the cause. “You remind us that freedom is priceless,” he said, standing alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. “It’s worth fighting for, for as long as it takes. And that’s how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President. For as long as it takes.”
The people of Ukraine have shown the world courage and resilience — and Ukraine’s military has demonstrated surprising skill on the battlefield. Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen his army ravaged and embarrassed after what proved to be a major miscalculation on his part about how the war would be waged. Still, as Year 2 begins, the outcome is far from clear.
For Biden, the domestic political implications so far have been generally favorable, with Americans seeing Putin as an enemy and sympathetic to the plight of the Ukrainian people. In the coming months, as the 2024 presidential campaign unfolds, the debate over U.S. support and leadership is likely to become more pointed. Some Republican candidates, most prominent among them former president Donald Trump, are far more sympathetic toward Putin and more isolationist in their postures. The result could be more questions about the president’s handling of the effort.
A Russian offensive is starting. Ukrainian forces are preparing their own offensive this spring, with the goal of retaking ground occupied by Russian forces. The conflict could go deep into this year or beyond. Under those circumstances, is time on the side of the Ukrainians? Many analysts doubt it. They say the Ukrainian offensive needs to succeed.
That speaks to one challenge for Biden, which is to ensure that the Ukrainian military has as much equipment as needed, in as timely a way as possible to live up to his rhetorical pledge. In Kyiv, Biden ticked through the tanks, armored vehicles, artillery systems, rounds of ammunition, rocket launchers, air defense systems and other equipment supplied over the past year. More, and perhaps much more, will be needed this year.
Biden has managed the coalition well over the past year, but the United States has shouldered most of the burden. One criticism of the administration is that officials have forced Zelensky to ask repeatedly for every escalation in weaponry before approval is eventually granted. Biden has tried to avoid anything that would provoke Putin into doing something foolish or catastrophic. But the process has been slow, delaying both the arrival of the weapons and the training Ukrainian forces need before the weapons can be deployed.
“Our verbal commitment is out ahead of our ability to perform on that commitment,” said Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “We are six months behind on getting them the military equipment they need.”
Biden has been clear over the past year on the critical need to keep the United States and its European allies unified. A recent example came during what seemed a lengthy delay in getting the Ukrainians German-made Leopard tanks, the kind of heavy equipment that could be crucial in the upcoming fighting.
The Germans gave their okay to provide the Leopard tanks and authorized other countries to send the same tanks from their inventories, but only after the Biden administration approved a shipment of M1 Abrams tanks (although those will not reach the Ukrainians for many months). Ukrainian soldiers are being trained, but deliveries remain short of what countries have committed to sending.
Ukraine is asking for F-16 fighter jets. Biden and Zelensky talked about this in Kyiv. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday that F-16s are not key to the upcoming spring battles, but rather are something for the longer term.
But pressure is building. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) is among those calling for the administration to approve the fighter jets now to accelerate the timetable for delivery and training.
Public opinion polls show general support for the U.S. commitment, but the longer the conflict continues, the more Biden might have to do to maintain support.
The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a plurality (40 percent) said the United States is doing “about the right amount” in its support for Ukraine, with one-third saying “too much” and about 1 in 5 saying too little. But 51 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the United States is doing too much.
A new Fox News poll found that 48 percent approve of Biden’s response to the Russian invasion, which is up from 40 percent in August. Fifty percent say the United States should support Ukraine against the Russians for “as long as it takes to win.”
The Washington Post’s coverage of the war in Ukraine
The polls also show a clear partisan divide, with Republicans far less supportive of what Biden has committed the country to do. But Republicans are divided, with some of the loudest voices in the party questioning the U.S. commitment while senior Republican elected leaders remain steadfast in their support.
“The best phrase is the center is holding,” said Thomas Donilon, who was national security adviser to President Barack Obama.
During the recent security conference in Munich, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear where GOP leaders stand. “We are committed to helping Ukraine,” he said. “Not because of vague moral arguments or abstractions like the so-called ‘rules-based international order.’ But rather, because America’s own core national interests are at stake. Because our security is interlinked and our economies are intertwined.”
But with the United States supplying the overwhelming share of the military equipment to Ukraine, McConnell pushed European allies to do more, and Republicans are likely to press Biden to see that this happens. “America’s friends on this continent must mirror the resolve and reciprocate the commitment that you hope to see from us,” McConnell said in Munich.
McConnell tells U.S. to ‘wake up’ to threat of Russia
As the 2024 presidential campaign takes shape, Republicans are likely to see an escalation in their intraparty debate about Ukraine. Trump long has been cozy toward Putin and hostile toward NATO. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis questioned Biden’s policies, saying on Fox News that it is not in the country’s interest “to be getting into a proxy war with China, getting involved over things like the borderlands or over Crimea.”
Whether Biden has done enough to explain why U.S. support for Ukraine is in the interest of U.S. security is part of the background debate as the second year of the war begins. He devoted only a few paragraphs of his State of the Union address to Ukraine. But his trip Monday underscored how strongly he feels about standing with Ukraine.
Biden and Putin deliver dueling fiery speeches on Ukraine
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said his reading of public opinion is that most Americans view this through the lens of judgments about Putin rather than the amount of money the United States is spending. That was highlighted last week as Biden and Putin delivered dueling speeches on the same day, with the Russian leader offering elaborate lies about the conflict and its origins.
As to whether Biden should do more at some point to lay out the strategic case, Garin said, “I think he’s made the moral case for why Ukraine matters. There may be a time where he needs to do more to explain to people why it’s in our strategic interest in addition to our moral interest. I don’t think that moment has arrived.”
The coming months could add to the pressure on Biden to do just that.