Understanding Biden’s bet on Kiev

For better or worse, and regardless of who the candidates are, if you want a preview of the likely outlines of next year’s American Presidential election, you could do a lot worse than read this tweet:

East Palestine, Ohio, for those of you who don’t know, was the site some weeks ago of a major train derailment, where hundreds of tonnes of industrial waste were spilled into the area. It has been declared a major environmental disaster.

The US Government, of course, has the resources both to help East Palestine, and to continue to aid Ukraine: For context, the US’s spending on Ukraine is less than 1% of what it spend on the Iraq war. If you ever wanted a cost-effective military operation, then crippling your biggest and oldest geopolitical enemy – the Russians – for a few hundred billion dollars and the lives of exactly zero serving US soldiers, you couldn’t do much better than what the Americans are doing in Ukraine.

But politics is not about facts. It never has been. It is about sentiment, and the Republicans will prosecute the case that Biden cares more about Ukrainians than he does about the poor and dispossessed working class people of Ohio. They will do so, likely, regardless of whether their nominee is Donald Trump or someone else.

That is, of course, bad news for the Ukrainians. The more their cause becomes polarised in America, the more likely it is that the supply of military equipment will dry up, because someone wants to pose as being an “America First” candidate. Whomever the Republican candidate is, primary politics will almost certainly drag them to a Ukraine-sceptical position. That is just American political gravity, of which more below.

It’s ironic, then, that Biden had this to say yesterday:

It’s a bit early, champ, to be bragging that you’ve outlasted Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin has no domestic opposition of consequence, and can continue doing as he has been doing these past months – pouring Russian lives into the war in Ukraine without thought of consequence. For better or ill (and in my view, deeply ill) this war is already much more popular in Russia than it is in the United States. Mainly because the Russian opposition does not exist, and less mainly because in the US, the President (of either party) supporting something means that a good chunk of the other lot will oppose it, out of reflexive partisanship.

To illustrate the point, imagine for a second that the present situation was unchanged, except for the identity of the man in the White House. Had this all unfolded under President Trump, I think it a relatively safe bet that sentiment on the global populist right would be much different: We’d be talking about the best, smartest, most cost-efficient, most beautiful, least bloody US war in history – a major enemy crippled for a tiny cost, without a single American life lost in uniform. MAGA!

Nor is it particularly compelling to argue, as some do, that “Trump would never have gotten involved”. If the argument for your candidate is that he would have let Russia walk all over US interests in Ukraine without so much as a by your leave, then that is to suggest that he would be, as the man himself would say, weak. American Strongmen do not let themselves get out-arm-wrestled by Russians.

In any case, turning back to Biden, to brag of “outlasting” the Russians seems to me to be deeply foolish. It under-estimates the degree to which the Russian people have been fed on a diet of propaganda telling them that the “special military operation” in Ukraine is a civilisational struggle on a par with the second world war. That war, of course, lasted four years and cost 30m Russian lives. Say what you want about the Russians – and I do – but it seems to me to be very optimistic to believe that they will just get bored and go home. The war will end in one of three ways: Either the Russians will be totally humiliated and defeated, the west (read: America) will get tired of aiding Ukraine and allow the Russians to win a costly victory in the end, or some form of peace will be negotiated that allows Mr. Putin to claim a historic victory, even if he has achieved nothing of the sort.

Biden’s visit to Kiev yesterday, then, has a political as well as a military significance. He is betting on the idea that the American public like a winner: His projected confidence in Ukrainian victory is designed to pressure Republicans: Are they really going to cut off support to a gallant underdog fighting against an invading behemoth, and winning? That’s a very difficult proposition for Republicans, which is why only the kookier and nuttier people in Republican ranks have descended into the “Zelensky is a nazi” nonsense favoured by some western Russia-simps on social media. The smarter members of the Republican party are instead focusing on the idea that the war has no winners, and an honourable peace should be negotiated. That, presumably, will be the line of a Republican Presidential candidate focused on winning. Whether it might be Donald Trump’s line, I’ll leave readers to imagine.

The other thing here is that Biden will want to up support for Ukraine this year for two reasons: First to make it harder to pull that support back later, and second in the hope that Ukraine can repeat in 2023 its significant offensive successes of 2022. It will become almost impossible for any Republican candidate to argue for a pullback in the war next year if the Ukrainians are objectively advancing. “He wants to turn victory into defeat” is a pretty good line, after all.

All of this is, of course, depressing for the Ukrainians: They are increasingly at the mercy of domestic US opinion. If the war is seen as a hopeless stalemate, Russia’s chances of US voters turning on the war increase. If the war is seen as a valiant and advancing crusade, it becomes much harder for Putin’s allies (intentional or accidental) in Washington to defund it.

Americans love a winner. That’s why Biden is in Kiev. For his own selfish sake, he’d be best go all-in on making the Ukrainians a winner. Because if the war starts looking like a loser, well then…. so will he.

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