The symbolic significance of President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv cannot be understated: An American president took a substantial risk by entering an active war zone without any U.S. military presence, on the anniversary of the beginning of the deadliest war in Europe since 1945, to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to standing with Ukraine and democracies globally, and against Russia and their autocratic partners.
“I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt – none whatsoever – about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden said in Kyiv on Monday. “This is so much larger than just Ukraine. It’s about freedom of democracy in Europe, it’s about freedom and democracy at large.”
This trip was perhaps one of the strongest moments of Biden’s presidency. While unprecedented for an American president, it was quintessential Joe Biden, made complete by his ten-hour train ride from Poland – where an Air Force C-32, not the typical presidential plane, landed – to reach Ukraine’s capital city.
Nevertheless, there are two big, unanswered questions coming out of Biden’s trip: First, how substantial will America’s and NATO’s commitment to Ukraine going forward be? Second, what is the end game of the U.S. and NATO beyond simply supporting Ukraine’s justifiable goal of getting back all the territory Russia has occupied between 2014 and present day?
With respect to the first question, Biden has largely been successful over the last year in underscoring to the American people how critical supporting Ukraine is to ensuring the stability of global democracy. But as the conflict rages on with no signs of slowing, public support has softened.
As Biden prepares for a tough reelection campaign where he’ll need to defend his record on an international war that is now tied to his political legacy, the public’s wariness toward this conflict is growing. Roughly one-half (48%) of Americans now say they favor the U.S. providing weapons to Ukraine to counter Russia, down from 60% last May, per recent polling.
Occurring concurrently with the president’s Kyiv visit, Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination, gave a speech in Ohio criticizing Biden for focusing on Ukraine at the expense of focusing on national and local issues, like the train derailment there two weeks earlier.
Last year, Trump also praised Vladimir Putin as a “genius” for invading Ukraine.
Counterpoint: The tragedy in Ukraine could have been avoided
While the far-right has been most vocal in their opposition to maintaining current levels of U.S. aid for Ukraine, the left-wing of the Democratic Party has also expressed hesitancy, with some progressives painting the ongoing conflict as a byproduct of NATO’s and America’s pro-war policies.
At the Munich Security Conference last weekend, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said definitively that “Republican leaders are committed to a strong trans-Atlantic alliance” and are “committed to helping Ukraine.” But Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy’s views are less clear, as he recently indicated that he would no longer support a “blank check” to aid the country, though he has clarified that he does support Ukraine.
The Biden Administration thus far committed nearly $50 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, and the president announced an additional $500 million in new military aid during his visit to Kyiv. Yet, securing additional aid beyond that could prove very challenging going forward, given the power that far-right House Republicans wield over McCarthy, in light of the concessions he made to secure his speakership.
If America wavers, other Western nations will almost certainly follow suit, which would be nothing short of catastrophic. This would embolden Putin to continue his expansionist efforts, perhaps into NATO territory, increasing the risk of a direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia.
As such, Biden’s Kyiv trip was also intended to reinforce to our NATO allies, who have grown increasingly wary of the cost of defending a non-NATO nation, that the U.S. is committed to supporting Ukraine for, in his words, “as long as it takes.” Biden stopped in Kyiv before heading to a summit in Poland with the leaders of the Bucharest Nine, who often call on the U.S. to do more in repelling Russian aggression.
Adding to the challenges Biden faces vis-à-vis shoring up support for Ukraine, there is lingering ambiguity as to what outcome the U.S. and NATO would consider to be a “victory” against Russia. This question remains unanswered, though will be an important one for President Biden to address in the coming weeks and months.
Notwithstanding these obstacles, Biden has led a strong and unified NATO response since Russian forces rolled into Ukraine one year ago, providing billions of dollars in critical aid, all while keeping American soldiers out of the conflict.
If nothing else, the President’s time in Kyiv underscored these successes, and sent a broader message to the world about American leadership in these dangerous times, during which autocracy is on the rise – not just in Europe, but globally as well.
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Russia, along with Iran, China, and North Korea have effectively created a new ‘axis of evil.’ Biden’s visit to Kyiv sent a powerful message to these nations that America will not stand by as democracy is actively threatened abroad by autocratic rule.
Ultimately, Biden’s trip to Ukraine’s capital was a symbolically important act that reinforced his own leadership role and that of the U.S., but triumphalism would be premature.
If Russian soldiers remain on Ukrainian territory, Putin will bide his time and destabilize the rest of the country, which could prompt renewed fighting in a few years’ time – in other words, a repeat of the low-level conflict in the Donbass between 2014-2022.
In order to defeat Russia, Ukraine needs the means to decisively expel Putin’s soldiers from their country. As the conflict settles into a war of attrition, accomplishing this will require resources on par with the Marshall Plan that followed World War II.
Thus, one year later, there is still much work to be done to ensure a victory for Ukraine. We can only hope that Biden’s visit to Kyiv brought us closer to making that a reality.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.