Biden Administration Signals Limits to Its Support for Ukraine’s Just War

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 30

The Munich Security Conference, running from February 17 to 19, and the upcoming one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24, 2022, are high water marks of support from the United States and Europe to Ukraine. These two events are made-to-order for the Western allies in announcing more ambitious levels of political-diplomatic, military and economic support to enable Ukraine to win this war for itself and the West writ large.

The calibrated assistance delivered thus far has led to a military stalemate on the battlefield, which would amount to a Russian victory as long as the frontlines cut across Ukraine. Indeed, Western assistance has not prevented Russia from devastating Ukraine’s economy and demography, striking from Russia’s home sanctuary with impunity. This situation demands moving from the calibrated, “incremental” support to war-winning aid for Ukraine without further delays.

Latest signals from the Biden administration, however, seem to suggest something else. A number of unnamed senior officials have combined their voices to disclose the administration’s—or at least this group’s—war policy to the press. The collective leak also unveils the gist of some recommendations made confidentially to the Ukrainian leadership on Kyiv’s war policy (The Washington Post, February 13).

The core message is that US economic, military and political resources to support Ukraine in this war are approaching their limits in terms of quantity, sustainability over time and political patience. The salient justifications include:

  • It is far from certain that the US Congress would continue approving the administration’s funding requests for Ukraine. It is the administration’s “very strong view” that it will be hard to maintain the same level of assistance since the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives in January 2023.
  • “European allies are concerned that the war in Ukraine will persist indefinitely, overburdening Europe as it grapples with inflation, high energy prices and other challenges. Europe’s long-term appetite for funding the war effort remains unclear.”
  • The Biden administration’s stated commitment to “stand with Ukraine ‘as long as it takes’ pertains to the duration of conflict, but does not pertain to the amount of assistance.” The administration will “continue to impress upon Ukraine’s leaders that we cannot do anything and everything forever.”
  • Given Ukraine’s goals to restore its territorial integrity, the Biden administration needs to “bring Ukraine’s goals in line with what the West can sustain.”
  • Following an anticipated Russian offensive, the administration will support a counteroffensive “to empower Ukraine to retake as much territory as possible in coming months, before sitting down with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin at the negotiating table.”

These were the messages that four senior administration officials—the deputy secretary of state, undersecretary of defense, deputy national security adviser to the president and Central Intelligence Agency director—each carried to the Ukrainian leadership in Kyiv throughout January 2023. Their messages to Kyiv were “frank” and “blunt” and mentioned that “we will continue to impress [these messages] upon them [Kyiv].”

This unusual orchestration of leaks seems intended to prepare the atmosphere for accepting a ceasefire in place on Ukrainian territory after one final counteroffensive, holding negotiations with the Kremlin and potentially winding down military support for Ukraine in that new context. The intended audiences of such disclosures apparently include domestic constituencies and the Ukrainian leaders themselves. The Kremlin, however, may have become the most eager and welcoming audience to such sentiments, whether these US officials intended that or not.

The administration seeks to justify this course of action by hastening to anticipate Republican Party obstruction (yet to be tested and proven, however) and presuming European fatigue (see above). President Biden, however, has never made a strategic case for Ukrainian victory to either Republicans or Europeans. The White House has all along been content to play for a draw with Russia in Ukraine (i.e., “Ukraine should not lose, Russia should not win”) and has time and again signaled its preference for a ceasefire in place in Ukraine.

A Ukrainian counteroffensive could not be fully successful without those weapons systems that have, thus far, been denied to Ukraine. A ceasefire in place on Ukrainian territory followed by negotiations on that basis would cement Russia’s territorial gains de facto. Recommendations recently offered to the administration suggest some “creative” solutions whereby the US could countenance Ukraine’s territorial losses without officially recognizing the new situation (see EDM, February 10, Part One and Part Two).

One highly authoritative military view suggests that Russia has already lost the war in Ukraine. According to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, Russia has “lost strategically, operationally, and tactically” in Ukraine (YouTube, February 15). Even so, Ukraine is certainly not winning and is currently being decimated territorially, economically and demographically (Euromaidan Press, February 11). According to present trends, Russia is the net strategic winner. Denying Ukraine the long-range weapons for its counteroffensive would force the country into negotiations from a position of weakness with Putin.