The real test of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy is yet to come. For all the support it has shown the Zelensky government — and in terms of military aid that support has been unprecedented — it is what will happen in the months ahead that will determine whether Biden and his team will be viewed as having successfully risen to what is very likely the defining foreign policy challenge of the president’s first term in office.
As the war in Ukraine passes the 100-day mark, it is clear that the conflict has entered a new phase.
Russia probably controls about one-fifth of Ukraine, but it has come with terrible costs — more than 30,000 troops, massive amounts of military equipment, and economic calamity on the home front. But as both sides hunker down for what looks like many more months of fighting, Vladimir Putin has to be encouraged by some factors. Cracks are appearing in the Western alliance.
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Germany continues to drag its feet on supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine. Germany, France, and Italy continue to interact with Putin, to the frustration of Zelensky, and talk of finding a settlement which cedes some land to Russia continues from diverse sources — including, in the US, both left and voices on the right. former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Hungary refused to go along with a plan to stop imports of Russian oil into Europe. Turkey has said it would block the accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO. The global “new non-aligned” continue to both sides their way through the war. That has included even staunch US allies like Israel blocking the transfer of critical anti-tank weapons technology to Ukraine.
As the war drags on, maintaining Western resolve to support Ukraine is going to grow more difficult. Of all the world’s leaders, by far the most important in maintaining resolve to support Ukraine until the war reaches a juncture at which Kyiv chooses, from a position of strength, to negotiate, is Joe Biden.
The US was the first nation to warn of the impending conflict and has won praise for its diplomatic leadership in mobilizing NATO, the EU, and other global allies on behalf of the Ukrainian victims of Russian aggression. All eyes will be on America to see whether our resolve is faltering, and whether our aid flows are designed to help Ukraine actually defeat Russia.
While Biden and his team have received widespread, even bipartisan, support for their efforts to date, it is more than likely that their overall effort will be judged not by what has transpired to date — but on what they do in the next phase of the war.
There is a “what have you done for us lately factor in war-fighting and geopolitics. The world is watching to see if the US will amp up its support for Ukraine even when the war is not much on the minds of Americans, as other issues like elections and economic struggles vie for attention.
With that in mind, the final verdict on Biden administration’s efforts in Ukraine is likely to turn on its ability to do the following six things effectively.
First, the US will have to keep the alliance together.
A key signal about this will come at the Madrid NATO Summit later this month. Questions to be answered include: Is there a clear resolve to help Ukraine for as long as is required? What will it take to convince Turkey to accede to Finland and Sweden joining NATO? Is Europe’s “soft center” —Germany, France and Italy — gaining traction or will the US continue to work with smaller states closer to Russia (the Nordics) and the UK to set the pace for escalating support for Ukraine?
Second, at the core of this effort will be resisting the temptation to settle with Russia. The US policy is that the final disposition of the war is up to Ukraine. We must be unwavering in this view and aggressive in our desire to achieve the goal articulated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the “strategic defeat” of Russia. The months ahead are no time to let up. Russia must learn that the cost of war will only grow higher even as they are finding it harder and harder to resupply their own efforts.
This means, third, the US must provide support like there is no tomorrow, more weapons than we think Ukraine needs, not less. The recent decision to provide longer range missiles and precision artillery is encouraging. More can and must be done. Further, we must make it very clear that in the regions of Russia claims, they will face a well-armed, well-financed insurgency that will never give up, that today’s territorial gains are only temporary and come at an unsustainable cost.
Fourth, with each passing week, the sanctions burden on Russia must grow. Finding a way to stop their export of natural gas as soon as possible must be a priority. So too should be punishing international firms that help Russia evade sanctions.
Fifth, all of the above requires maintaining the political will in the US to continue to lead. That will require clear, effective communication on an on-going basis to the American people about why supporting Ukraine is vital to US national interests.
Attentions will drift. Recent events illustrate that. An election looms. Bringing former Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby to the White House is an encouraging sign the administration understands that clear, effective communications on this front are essential.
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Finally, in addition to the above, we must be prepared for contingencies.
The Russians will commit more atrocities. The US must try to prevent them, and ensure Moscow is held accountable. In addition, we will need a plan to address the impending global food crisis, and we should consider whether this will warrant bringing together an international coalition to challenge and ultimately break the Russian blockade. There are risks to be sure. But the risks to not doing so — for hundreds of millions at risk of starvation — may be even greater.
The first 100 days of the war have seen inspiring Ukrainian successes in the face of unspeakable Russian barbarity. They have also seen great leadership from President Biden and our allies worldwide. But at this juncture, we must accept the sobering reality that the greatest challenges of the Ukraine War will lie ahead of us in what is likely to be a long, bloody struggle to come.
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