Biden’s Delicate Dance With Ukraine Is Becoming Even More Complicated

Joe Biden is, in several respects, far better positioned for a presidential reelection campaign than Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were at similar points in their first terms. Unlike those two, Biden isn’t coming off a midterm thrashing; Republicans continue to marginalize themselves by playing to the right-wing fringe; and the economy, while uneven, seems poised for a rebound just as the 2024 campaign ramps up.

Yet probably the greatest challenge—and achievement—of Biden’s first term has gone underappreciated: the president’s success in helping Ukraine fight off Russia. The one-year anniversary of the war’s start is nearing; for all the tragic losses on the ground in Ukraine, the American response should be recognized as a highlight of Biden’s presidency so far. But the dynamics at home surrounding American involvement in the war are about to grow even more complicated, just as Biden launches a likely bid for a second term. 

The president and Senate Democrats succeeded, at the end of 2022, in approving $45 billion in aid to Ukraine, money that should last through much of the New Year. Beyond that lies trouble. The new House Republican majority, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy, have been making noises about cutting or blocking American aid. “It would be an all-around disaster if that happens,” says Rhode Island Democratic senator Jack Reed, who traveled to Kyiv last week and met with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “It would be a signal to our allies saying, ‘Hey, we’re disengaging, so we can’t call you to task,’ and on the ground it would deny the Ukrainians the equipment they need. The Ukrainians would continue to resist, I’m sure, but the Russians would feel emboldened to slaughter even more people.”

As the war drags into a second year and the battlefield remains unsettled, other pressures will grow on the president. Around the corner are perilous decisions about how to handle Ukraine’s push to join NATO and to reclaim Crimea. “This is a big year,” says Michael Allen, a White House national security specialist under former president George W. Bush. “Escalation management is important, but it feels like Biden talks himself out of stuff that they end up doing anyway, starting with fighter jets at the beginning of the war to not sending Abrams tanks now.” 

The administration will need to extend the deftness with which it handled the first year of the war. Not only did Biden convince Congress to send Ukraine roughly $70 billion in aid, much of it in weaponry, but his team supplied Zelenskyy’s government with invaluable military intelligence. Perhaps most impressive, though, is that the president assembled and has held together an international coalition that has delivered everything from howitzers to economic sanctions, an effort that required Biden to rebuild the trust of allies that had been destroyed in the Trump years. “In some ways this crisis is uniquely suited to this president,” says Ivo Daalder, an expert in European security who was a top foreign policy adviser to Clinton and Obama. “It’s hard to see how anybody else could have done this, or could have done it better. Who would have thought that the Germans were going to cut off their dependence on Russian energy after 45 years? Yet that’s what they’ve done.”

How deeply American voters care about all this remains to be seen. Biden’s policy accomplishments in Ukraine may end up mattering less, politically, than the symbolic platform the war provides, especially because he would be the oldest president to ever seek a second term. “Biden’s actions on the global stage are more important for him than they were for past presidents. I think they’re actually critical,” says Cornell Belcher, a strategist who worked on both of Obama’s presidential runs. “It’s a unique opportunity to show strength and vitality, to show that he’s up to the task. When you stand on a stage with world leaders looking to you, looking to America once again, that leadership can help inoculate the president against the issue that is at the forefront of many American minds.”

There are, unfortunately, plenty of examples of the United States pouring money and guns into propping up dubious foreign actors. Ukraine is one of the rare times we’ve done it on behalf of the good guys. But foreign affairs are usually a low priority for American voters, unless US troops are at risk, and funding for Ukraine has increasingly become a partisan issue. Republicans have already tried to exploit that parochialism, arguing the billions being sent to Ukraine would be better spent at, say, the US Southern border. The stakes of that argument are highest for Ukraine, of course. But its national security will become increasingly entwined with Biden’s domestic political fortunes. 

For now, the president’s team believes Republican opposition on Ukraine could be perversely helpful to the president. “Kevin McCarthy has been saying things like he supports Ukraine but not a blank check,” a Biden adviser says. “If they start mucking around, there’s a real opportunity for Biden to make this about a bigger issue—about protecting democracy and caving to autocrats and dictators.” If Vladimir Putin’s friend Donald Trump were to emerge as the Republican presidential nominee, the contrast would become even starker.

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