For nearly a full year, President Biden and a deeply divided U.S. Congress have responded to the horror of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a strikingly bipartisan resolve. This near-unanimity held through an election year, and produced so many billions of dollars in military assistance—nearly fifty and counting—that, had one predicted such unprecedented sums a year ago, it would have seemed impossible. The united front for Ukraine has been a rare exception to the capital’s polarized politics and, along with his successful rallying of NATO allies to defend that country, perhaps Biden’s signal foreign-policy accomplishment. Whenever he speaks on the war, the President emphasizes this. “We are united,” Biden said last week, in announcing that the United States now planned to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine. “America is united and so is the world.”
Except, of course, it’s not really. Support for Biden’s approach to the war is ebbing, particularly among Republicans. The new House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, has warned there will be no “blank check” for Ukraine going forward, and a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that forty per cent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think the U.S. is providing too much support to Ukraine, up from just nine per cent who thought that last March. Over all, the share of adults in both parties who believe the U.S. is doing too much for Ukraine has gone up nineteen points since the war began, a year ago. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson harps on this theme night after night. In the House, vocal McCarthy supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has decried “the neo-Nazis in Ukraine,” blustered, after the G.O.P. won the House in November, that “not another penny” would go to their cause.
And speaking of bluster, there’s Donald Trump, who has lately grown louder and louder on the subject of a Russian war that he initially praised as an act of “genius” by Vladimir Putin. In recent days, as he opens his official campaign to return to the White House, Trump has trashed Biden’s handling of the war and criticized the decision to send the tanks. He’s labelled Americans “suckers” for providing the bulk of aid to Ukraine. He’s insisted he could negotiate an end to the conflict within twenty-four hours. He calls Biden “weak” while opposing Biden’s efforts to send the weapons that make Ukraine stronger.
In a campaign e-mail this week, Trump even seemed to suggest that the American tanks—which will take many months to reach Ukraine—were somehow already responsible both for destroying Ukrainian cities and putting the world on the brink of nuclear war. “Joe Biden is doing what he said ten months ago would cause World War III, sending American tanks into Ukraine,” the statement quoted Trump as saying. “Such a tragic waste of human life, when you look at all that’s happening there. Those cities are obliterated. First, come the nukes. Then, come the tanks.”
The statement, like a lot of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago stylings, makes no sense if you try to actually understand what he is saying: Does he mean that nukes will be used in Ukraine, or perhaps that they already have been? How is it that the tanks are going to roll in after the nuclear apocalypse? It’s all so confusing. An accompanying video from Trump has the tanks coming first, then the nukes. Whatever.
It would be easy to dismiss the pro-Russia, anti-Ukraine statements that so frequently emanate from the former President as the incoherent ramblings of a Florida retiree with a weird Putin fixation, if it weren’t for two inconvenient facts: 1) Trump remains the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination; and 2) there is an increasingly empowered group of his acolytes on Capitol Hill and in the far-right media who agree with him. Also, he won’t shut up about it.
When, in 2018, Trump met Putin in Helsinki and told a press conference that he would take Putin’s word over that of America’s intelligence agencies about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, many considered it one of the lowest moments of his Presidency. But Trump doubled down on it this week, admitting in a social-media post that he “trusted” Putin in Helsinki more than his own “ ‘Intelligence’ lowlifes.” “Who would you choose?,” he wrote, eleven months after the Russian autocrat unleashed a hellish military conflict, “Putin or these Misfits?”
My prediction is that you’ll hear much more like this from Trump about Putin, Russia, and Ukraine in the Republican primary campaign—not less. He thinks it’s a winner.
Later this month, on February 15th, Nikki Haley, a Trump-appointed ambassador to the United Nations and a sometime critic of his, will announce that she, too, is running for the Republican Presidential nomination. Haley has styled herself a hawk on Russia, and she will likely seek to differentiate herself from Trump by criticizing Biden for not doing enough to aid Ukraine—as she has ever since Putin launched the invasion. She represents the other end of the emerging debate: a vocal and growing faction of Republicans, and more than a few Democrats, who believe that the United States has pursued an overly cautious course with Ukraine, balking at doing what is necessary to defeat Russia, and in effect giving in to Putin’s nuclear blackmail.
The Biden Administration has responded to this critique with a now familiar cycle of first rejecting Kyiv’s pleas for this or that weapons system, before eventually handing it over. The list of weapons that Biden and his officials initially refused to send included, among others, longer-range artillery, armored tanks and vehicles, advanced howitzers, and Patriot-missile air-defense batteries. They’ve subsequently, belatedly, said yes to all of them. Now Ukraine, having finally secured the U.S. and European commitment to provide tanks, is asking for American F-16 fighter jets. On Monday, Biden was asked about this request. “No,” he responded simply. But, given the Administration’s pattern of the past year, it’s unclear what “no” actually means. Does it mean “no” for now? “No” forever? Putin must surely be confused at this point, too.
Many supporters of Ukraine believe it’s time for Biden to break this cycle. In Foreign Affairs, Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, and a Democrat who served as Barack Obama’s top Russia adviser, recently made “the case against incrementalism.” McFaul argued that, although Putin has so far failed in his strategic objectives in Ukraine, there is only a short window for Ukraine to make decisive battlefield gains before the conflict settles into a grinding war of attrition that could benefit Putin in the long run. This view is widely shared on the ground in Ukraine and among Western military analysts, who fear that the West has put Ukraine on a “drip-feed just enough for Ukraine not to lose,” but not enough for it to win, as retired British Air Marshal Edward Stringer recently put it to the Wall Street Journal. That article and others note that Ukraine’s battlefield gains have stalled; Russia’s mobilization of several hundred thousand additional soldiers has started to produce results; and promised new weaponry from the West may not arrive in time to blunt Russia’s expected spring offensive.
For Joe Biden, the would-be defender of Ukrainian democracy abroad and American democracy at home, the war is still much more precarious than he may admit, given the enormous commitment. Ukraine fights on, but its fate is not yet decided, and American unity, even if proclaimed again and again, may prove ever more elusive. Still, I would not have believed it had you told me a year ago that this President, with his understandable wariness about provoking a Third World War, would have gone this far down the road of waging a proxy war against Russia on its own border.
There has been much talk about Putin’s “red lines” in the past tragic year, about where and when and how the West might finally go too far in helping Ukraine and bring about some retaliatory response from Russia upon NATO itself. But the unlooked-for resolve shown by Biden—and the otherwise balky U.S. Congress—shows that we may have spent not nearly enough time considering America’s own red lines. Putin, for real this time, has gone too far. ♦