Fig. 1. “Destroyed Russian military vehicles located on the main street Khreshchatyk are seen as part of the celebration of the Independence Day of Ukraine in Kyiv, August 24.” Photograph by Gleb Garanich for Reuters, August 24, 2022, fair use.
For all the on-the-record praise of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy, a different story emerges off the record:
It turns out that Washington’s foreign policy set has grown increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy. What is it, exactly? On one hand, the administration has been consistent in its line on Ukraine: Ukraine must win, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine, this must not turn into World War III, and we must defend and strengthen the rules-based (and American-designed) international order.
But what does any of that really mean? What does winning in Ukraine even look like? Do we agree with Ukraine that it means restoring its 1991 borders? If we advocate for “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” then what did it mean when Antony Blinken—just “Tony” to the community—told a group of experts that Crimea was Putin’s red line, and therefore America’s as well? Does our concept of victory actually diverge from the Ukrainians’ vision? And what does “as long as it takes” mean in the context of providing Ukraine with more sensitive weapons systems, like ATACMS, or dwindling weapons stocks in the U.S. and Europe? How “all in” are we? “If they have a strategy, it hasn’t been shared,” one expert on these regular briefing calls with administration officials complained.
The fear is that U.S. support will expire this autumn as both Republican and Democratic Party Congress members’ constituents’ questions intensify about the level of U.S. financial support for Ukraine.
“We rhetorically say something and then we revert to incrementalism,” one participant in the calls told me after dutifully praising the president. “That’s a bipartisan comment, by the way. We engage in this really high rhetoric and we just hope no one’s going to call us on it. But we’re going to get called on this one. We’re not playing for success, we’re playing for stalemate—and stalemate is not going to be successful for us.”
More than a year into an invasion that, according to Russian planning, was supposed to take weeks, Vladimir Putin’s government is putting society on a war footing with the west and digging in for a multi-year conflict.
Really, this question has been with us from the beginning: How long will the west support Ukraine? And from long before Vladimir Putin’s latest invasion of Ukraine, is it merely that a determined dictator can outlast so-called “democracies?”
We see that Russia’s military is preparing for a long war. [Vladimir] Putin is banking that his country’s resources will trump Ukraine’s as the west gets tired of helping Kyiv.
Wars of attrition shed lot of blood for not very much. Ukraine therefore has a tall, existential order: It must, as Julia Ioffe reports, achieve significant successes on the battlefield to forestall western malaise. But really, it must also persuade a delusional Putin—and the Russian population he has deluded—that he cannot prevail in this way.
[Vladimir] Putin has practically stopped talking about any concrete aims of the war. He proposes no vision of what a future victory might look like either. The war has no clearcut beginning nor a foreseeable end.
The latter part of that order seems unlikely.
Julia Ioffe, “Biden’s Private Ukraine Deadline,” Puck, March 28, 2023, https://puck.news/bidens-private-ukraine-deadline/
Pjotr Sauer and Andrew Roth, “Putin prepares Russia for ‘forever war’ with west as Ukraine invasion stalls,” Guardian, March 28, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/28/putin-prepares-russia-for-forever-war-with-west-as-ukraine-invasion-stalls
Fig. 1. Photograph by Joachim F. Thurn, August 1991, Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F089030-0003, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.
Critics of Joe Biden’s Summit For Democracy rightly point to hypocrisy. Defenders say it’s better than nothing.
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Steve Hendrix and Shira Rubin, “Netanyahu fires defense minister who called for halt to judicial overhaul,” Washington Post, March 26, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/03/26/israel-netanyahu-gallant-defense-minister/
Patrick Kingsley, “Israel Boils as Netanyahu Ousts Minister Who Bucked Court Overhaul,” New York Times, March 26, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/26/world/middleeast/judiciary-overhaul-benjamin-netanyahu-israel-parliament.html
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Tracy Wilkinson and Laura King, “Israel’s protests, Netanyahu and the crisis his government unleashed,” Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2023, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2023-03-27/can-israels-netanyahu-escape-crisis-his-government-unleashed
Ishaan Tharoor, “Netanyahu’s Israel finds kindred spirits in Hungary and Poland,” Washington Post, March 28, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com//world/2023/03/28/netanyahu-israel-hungary-poland-orban-illiberal-nationalist/
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Ishaan Tharoor, “Biden’s Summit for Democracy is a tough hill to climb,” Washington Post, March 29, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com//world/2023/03/29/summit-for-democracy-biden-critics/