AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Late last week, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that in order to establish a better defensive line, Russian forces would withdraw to the eastern side of the Dnieper River, abandoning the city of Kherson which they had held since the first weeks of the conflict – a clear admission of defeat for Russia.
As has become a pattern, the victory for Ukraine came at an awkward time for the Biden administration, which only days before had begun briefing the press that the United States expected Kyiv to open talks with Russia, lest support for Ukraine begin to wane. The incident again demonstrated the problem with U.S. President Joe Biden’s insistence on viewing the conflict through a domestic lens and as a weapon with which to attack the GOP, attempting to sell his policy as a Biden policy rather than an American policy.
The irony is that the United States has not done particularly badly when it comes to supporting Ukraine. Without a doubt, the Biden administration’s belligerent tone towards Russia, combined with a shockingly blasé attitude toward the possibility that a cornered Putin might lash out rather than retreat, contributed to the outbreak of conflict. Mixed messages to European allies regarding energy policy meant that Europe was far less prepared for Russia’s weaponization of energy than it otherwise would have been. Biden’s alienation of Saudi Arabia closed off an alternative source of energy, while sanctions were designed in a way which hurt the West as much as Russia.
Nonetheless, on the military and political side, the United States performed much better, perhaps because the military operated outside the control of political actors. Ukraine’s forces were clearly prepared for the Russian assault, with the initial blitzkrieg failing to achieve air superiority or to cripple Ukrainian command and control. Not only were Ukrainian forces awash with Javelin missiles, but they knew how to use them, and the same was true for an ability to exploit satellite intelligence and communications. While U.S. aid has been expensive in absolute terms, as a relative matter $50 billion is barely 8% of the U.S. annual military expenditure, and it has served to humiliate Russia and secure U.S. dominance in Europe without the loss of American lives. Compared to the trillions poured into Afghanistan and Iraq for no, or limited gains, it is a bargain.
The Biden administration, however, has failed to sell the efficiency of this success, because it finds itself trapped in a messaging contradiction. On the one hand, the Biden administration has argued that they have fought the war relatively on the cheap, if not as cheaply as they could. But on the other hand, the Biden administration has sought to blame Putin for inflation in general and higher energy prices in particular. If the “cheapness” of the conflict is emphasized, it is hard to then argue that the war and Putin are responsible for inflation and high energy prices rather than other policies over which the administration has control. On the other hand, blaming Putin and the “war” for inflation creates the false impression that the war is much costlier than it in fact is. How can anyone hold it against Americans wondering if defending Ukraine is worth 9% inflation and $4.50 gas?
The Biden administration, then, by trying to blame Putin for inflation, has undermined support for Ukraine by convincing many that the cost of the war is inflation and high gas prices.
The administration has compounded this messaging failure by trying to use the war as a manner of trying to attack the Republican Party in general, and supporters of Donald Trump in particular. Suggesting that the Republican Party is soft on Russia has been a core part of Democratic messaging since 2016, and Ukraine has been a key part of this messaging since Donald Trump’s first impeachment in 2019. The result has been that Democrats have rushed to identify themselves with President Zelensky, while also implying that Republicans are secretly unsupportive of Ukraine. At the same time, they have seized on examples of the minority of Republicans who are seen to have said things sympathetic to a negotiated settlement while deliberately isolating or ignoring those who support Ukraine. The result has been to promote the former at the expense of the latter.
Republicans, feeling attacked, can be forgiven for resenting the way Democrats use Ukraine even if they support Ukraine’s fight against Russia. Even if they support Zelensky and understand he has no choice but to indulge the Biden administration, which after all controls the support upon which his country depends, they can resent his inability to resist being used as a prop in the very way Democrats accused Trump of attempting to do in 2019.
Democrats now appear to have become prisoners of their own politicization of the conflict. For months, the need to create a clear distinction between the parties on Ukraine took precedence over policy. The Biden administration always had to be more hawkish than the GOP on Russia, and as the GOP was plenty hawkish, this reached farcical proportions. In the spring, that meant calling for Putin’s overthrow or suggesting he should be tried for war crimes. Later, it involved rejecting any calls for negotiations and even flirting with support for Ukraine retaking Crimea.
The problem was that the contradictions between what the Biden administration could sustain in terms of support for Ukraine and what it was publicly calling for were widening. If Biden called for negotiations, he would be embracing a position that he had suggested was seditious when Republicans or members of the House Progressive Caucus suggested it. If he rejected that position, he would be urging Ukraine to fight indefinitely when he could not promise infinite monetary support for an indefinite period.
The solution from the start has been to selectively leak certain information to the press. The Biden administration has generally leaked to the press that U.S. officials “privately” urge Ukraine to do “x or y.” Earlier this year, this involved a withdrawal from Luhansk, as well as complaints about Kyiv not being forthcoming about objectives. Reports that U.S. leaders were advising Ukraine to open talks with Moscow were merely the most recent example of this strategy in action.
It would be one thing if these leaks were driven by actual strategic considerations for Ukraine. But the stunning thing about the recent calls for talks prior to the Russian withdrawal from Kherson was the timing. It was so sudden that many assumed some sort of conspiracy. There was speculation that the withdrawal was intended to set up a ceasefire line.
The Biden administration is not entirely wrong to warn Ukraine about the limits of U.S. support, or the need for an endgame. But the administration owes it to Kyiv and to the American people to be straightforward about what its objectives are. Right now, the politicalized, leak-heavy approach is directly contributing to the decline in unanimity for further support for Ukraine in the United States, and causing confusion in Kyiv and Moscow, not to mention European capitals, about what the U.S. wants. If Germany or Hungary were to offer to mediate backchannel talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials, would they be taking a “hint” from the Biden administration and facilitating direct talks between Kyiv and Moscow? Or would they be denounced by a string of Democratic Senators and media personalities for once more “proving” their disloyalty to NATO and the Western Alliance? Too many are being burned.
The Ukrainians are fighting heroically and achieving results. Their war is too important to everyone to be treated like a political football, much less as a second tier one. Winning should be a priority for both parties. But to that end Biden and his team must stop using the war as a political weapon and be willing to attach their names to their policy demands. They should not take one approach in public and another in anonymous leaks to the media.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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