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President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv on February 20, 2023. ABACA/PA Images

Larry Donnelly One year on, Biden walks a tightrope on Ukraine

Our columnist looks at Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv this week and his challenges maintaining support for Ukraine at home.

“MR GORBACHEV, TEAR down this wall!” So exclaimed President Ronald Reagan in a deliberately challenging 1987 address in Berlin.

He was beseeching his counterpart from the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to dismantle the wall separating West Germany from communist East Germany – both literally and metaphorically. In any event, the Berlin Wall fell two years later and Reagan’s plea features prominently in the history books.

Joe Biden’s oratory on his brief trip to Kyiv will certainly not prove as memorable as the line delivered by the Hollywood movie actor and Republican icon who preceded him in the White House. His undertaking of an arduous, clandestine journey by plane and train to the besieged capital city, making brief remarks and walking the streets with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was significant nonetheless. Notably, Biden said that the United States would be with Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”

Continued support

This affirmation of American support a year on from Russia’s wholly unjustified attack on the proud nation it borders was broadly welcomed in Europe and elsewhere. There is widespread revulsion at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and the fallout therefrom.

Ukrainians have felt the repercussions most devastatingly, yet much of the rest of the world is now struggling with consequential inflation and the displacement of millions of vulnerable people fleeing the ravages of war.

Relative to its allies on this side of the Atlantic, the US, though not immune to it, has not been as adversely affected by the conflict. This can be attributed to its geographical remove and to its vast size and inherent self-sustaining capacities. While the US has provided tens of billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, with Biden pledging $500 million more this week, this represents a tiny slice of the annual spend on defence and an infinitesimal fraction of the overall budget.

That said, recent opinion polling reflects the fact that President Biden’s fellow citizens lack his resolve to have Ukraine’s back indefinitely. An Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research survey indicates that a minority (48%) of Americans want to supply additional weaponry; just over a third (37%) want financial assistance to continue. These numbers have declined from 60% and 44%, respectively, since May 2022.

Some of the sentiments of those who replied are instructive as to an emerging mood. “I am sympathetic for Ukraine’s situation and I feel badly for them, but I feel like we first need to take care of priorities at home,” said one. Another contended that “I think Biden isn’t worried enough about inflation… We should just stay out of it. Ukraine is halfway around the world and we have our own problems.”

There are harsher views on the far right. The well-known blogger Matt Walsh tweets: “I couldn’t care less about Ukraine and it doesn’t matter to me if Ukraine stands or falls. Normal Americans aren’t worried about Ukraine. Washington, DC stands with Ukraine. The rest of us are focused on our own country.”

The controversial, ultra-conservative Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz has introduced a “Ukraine Fatigue” Resolution, which has ten co-sponsors. Its key text reads “the United States must end its military and financial aid to Ukraine, and urges all combatants to reach a peace agreement.”

Political will

Despite the readiness – for the moment, at least – of the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill to align with Biden and the Democrats on this topic, Gaetz and Co wield a disproportionate influence, given how slender the GOP majority in the House of Representatives is. Speaker Kevin McCarthy cannot afford to ignore his “Freedom Caucus” colleagues, many of whom have an avowedly isolationist foreign policy mindset.

Leaving aside unpredictable and, occasionally, unhinged congressional Republicans, the Biden administration has a difficult job of work to convince a politically crucial, yet increasingly sceptical, segment of the electorate of the merits of an Associated Press-NORC poll respondent’s attitude. “It’s easy to say, ‘It’s a faraway country. That it doesn’t really matter.’ But if Ukraine goes, what is our attitude going to be when Putin decides to move on and threaten one of our smaller neighbouring NATO countries?”

A countervailing consideration vitiates fear of that harrowing possibility for millions of Americans who are deeply wary of further entanglement in tricky circumstances. For they can point to decades of interventions in the Middle East that have invariably made crises worse, not better, and cost many thousands of lives. Plenty have personal experience of family members and friends returning to the US in body bags or with physical and mental scars that won’t heal. Their reticence in this regard is only logical.

Obviously, President Biden has reiterated at numerous junctures that there will be no US troops on the ground in Ukraine and he has gently rebuked President Zelenskyy’s entreaties for more resources of all sorts.

Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is not receiving everything he wants from Uncle Sam. It seems that America is with Ukraine, to a point.

This indisputable, albeit simplistic, summation of the state of play prompts a question that is not amenable to a straightforward answer. What, then, is the end game here for the US? Manifestly, the Biden administration is determined to avoid a potential build-up to World War III. But it is probably untenable, politically and otherwise, to maintain the current course of action endorsed so emphatically by the president for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, what transpires between the two protagonists in the ongoing combat could be the dispositive factor on this front. And frankly, even the experts don’t have a clue as to what lies immediately ahead in this horrific war or the nature of its eventual denouement. Almost no one imagined anything remotely resembling this scenario could unfold on the European continent in 2023.

In the meantime, President Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv won him global plaudits. The decidedly mixed reaction in the US, however, shows that he is walking a political tightrope at home. Against a hugely complex backdrop – both foreign and domestic – the 80-year-old’s closest advisers and strategists are preparing an announcement of a bid for four more years and devising the campaign’s core messaging.

They shouldn’t plan on getting much sleep.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with 

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