The debate over American military assistance to Ukraine has lost touch with reality. The argument in Washington is less about Ukraine’s defense and America’s place in the world than about domestic politics ahead of the 2024 presidential election. The Ukrainian people have been drafted into America’s culture war, with potentially terrible consequences for both nations and the world.
At the time of writing, Senate Republicans won’t approve additional weapons transfers until the Biden administration takes action to close the southern border to illegal migration and drug trafficking. House Republicans might not vote for another aid package under any circumstances. The issue divides the GOP. House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell support additional arms for Ukraine, but former president (and current front-runner) Donald Trump is ambivalent, at best. Trump calls the shots in the Republican Party.
There is a chance that, by the time you read these words, Congress will have come together to pass President Biden’s $105 billion request for aid to Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan, and the southern border. Or perhaps the Biden administration will have discovered that, thanks to an accounting error, there is enough money to help the Ukrainians pin down and degrade the Russian military for another year. Perhaps not. America’s support for Ukraine may be coming to an end.
No one should have any illusions about what will happen next.
A lapse in aid would be a coup for Russian propaganda. Vladimir Putin would pocket another chess piece and scan the board for targets. America’s partners would recognize the arrival of the post-American world. China’s Xi Jinping, Iran’s Ali Khamenei, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, and countless other murderers, thugs, and genocidaires would be emboldened. Cutting off aid to Ukraine will not reduce violence or lessen the threat to America. It will amplify the carnage. It will enhance the risk.
Some people argue that stopping the flow of U.S. weapons to Ukraine will force President Volodymyr Zelensky to sue for peace. Maybe—though Ukrainians seem as willing as ever to defend their homeland. Let’s say that a broke and empty-handed Zelensky does call for a cease-fire and negotiations. Would Putin lay down his arms? There is no reason to think so. And yet, out of ignorance, indifference, or malice, a great number of Americans seem to believe that our assistance to Ukraine is what fuels this conflict. They seem to believe that Putin would like nothing more than for the war in Ukraine to end. He does not. On the contrary: The Russian dictator gives every indication that he is mobilizing for years of aggression against not only Ukraine but also America and the West.
Shortly after the Black Sabbath of October 7, Russian officials welcomed Hamas leaders to Moscow. The Russian government’s latest budget, authorized in November, devotes 30 percent of spending to the military. (Defense accounts for about 12 percent of the U.S. federal budget.) As part of this buildup, Putin will add 170,000 soldiers, bringing the total size of his armed forces to 2.2 million personnel. Also in November, Russia tested a submarine-launch intercontinental ballistic missile. Putin has strengthened his alliances with China, Iran, and North Korea. In early December, he traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, flexing his muscles as leader of the anti-American axis of resistance.
The Kremlin has identified and exploited loopholes in the sanctions levied against Russia. The durable Russian economy, flush with petrodollars, sustains Putin’s wars as well as Russian proxies in the Middle East and Africa. If Putin no longer feels the bite of the Ukrainian army, he will be free to maneuver. He will probe for weaknesses in his near-abroad and redeploy forces from Ukraine to build situations of strength elsewhere. Though the Russians may not be able to take Kiev, they certainly will gain territory if Ukraine lacks American aid. Putin may “freeze” the conflict in Ukraine and pursue his interests in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, while saber-rattling against NATO.
Taking a cue from his frenemy Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an of Turkey, Putin has seized the migrant weapon. Russia is helping illegal migrants from the Middle East and Africa enter the Baltic nations, pressuring democratic governments and generous social-welfare states. Finland has sealed its border with Russia to stop the traffic. Latvia and Lithuania are considering similar moves. Russia is fomenting unrest in Moldova and in Bosnia, as well. According to Jacek Siewiera, the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, Eastern Europe must act quickly. “If we want to avoid war,” he said on December 4, “the NATO countries on the eastern flank should adopt a shorter, three-year time horizon to prepare for confrontation.”
It did not have to be this way. Ever since February 2022, when he failed to deter Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, President Biden has played odd games with military aid. Rather than ask for one massive supplemental bill early in the conflict, when America was united in support for Ukraine and for President Zelensky, Biden instead asked Congress to approve several tranches of support. Each weapons package has been more controversial than the last.
Rather than supply the Ukrainians with everything they ask for, and as quickly as possible, Biden has sent over the most advanced weapons platforms reluctantly, in dribs and drabs, while withholding airplanes, armor, and long-range artillery that could give Ukraine an advantage. As the war went on, nationalist populists gained ground within the GOP, demonizing Zelensky, echoing Russian propaganda, and undermining the bipartisan consensus in favor of Ukraine. Biden may say that America will back Ukraine for as long as it takes, but he missed his chance to provide Ukraine with whatever it might have taken to roll back Putin’s armies. The result is a brutal war of position in Europe, a political stalemate in the United States, and an empowered Russia.
Not long ago, on a visit to Washington, a Ukrainian parliamentarian (and member of the opposition) delivered a grim assessment of the battlefield. He observed that this year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive culminated in limited gains, and that Russia is now on offense. He acknowledged the widening divisions in Ukraine, between Zelensky and political rivals and between Zelensky and parts of the military. He expressed concern that Ukrainian morale might waver if the United States cuts off aid. Yet he remained hopeful that America will continue to support his resilient country.
I asked him why. The parliamentarian replied that few members of Congress oppose weapons transfers to Ukraine in principle. Most critics take aim instead at the economic assistance we give to the Ukrainian government and civil society. What’s more, he said, the United States does not have a choice in the matter. The strategic price of leaving Ukraine to fend for itself is too high. America can’t afford it.
Abandoning Ukraine to the Russian bear would be a catastrophe of greater magnitude than the retreat from Afghanistan in 2021. The Afghan rout damaged America’s credibility. Defeat in Ukraine would shake the foundations of the transatlantic alliance and NATO and green-light a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Incompetence in Afghanistan pulled Biden’s approval ratings underwater. Losing two wars in one term would doom his reelection. The Taliban, for the moment, seem to be limiting their malign behavior to the Afghan people and to Pakistan. Vladimir Putin’s ambitions—and those of his Chinese patron—are global.
Opponents of aid to Ukraine evade the reality of Putin’s intent. For more than a decade—first in the republic of Georgia, then in Crimea and the Donbas, in Syria, and in the rest of Ukraine—Putin has sought to resurrect the Soviet Empire. He pursued his objective unencumbered until he met resistance in the battle for Kiev. If America abandons the fight for freedom in Ukraine, Putin won’t change. He won’t falter. He won’t stop. And the danger in which we will soon find ourselves will be matched only by our dishonor.
Photo: AP Photo
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