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The Ukraine War: Four Looming Challenges for Biden

How they are handled will do much to define his presidency and America’s future role in the world.
November 4, 2022
The Ukraine War: Four Looming Challenges for Biden
(Composite / Photo by Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)

While there is plenty to criticize in the Biden administration’s response to Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine, there is perhaps more to be surprised by, especially given the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago. The president’s claim that the United States is “back” as the world’s leading power is an exaggeration, but the proposition is once again laid upon the table.

However, the administration’s attenuated approach to the war is in for a series of challenges that will raise the degree of difficulty, forcing the president and his team to make commitments and take risks they have thus far been reluctant to take. And each will demand a level of sustained presidential attention and bully-pulpit effort for which President Biden has, till now, shown no inclination or aptitude.

1. The strength of America’s commitment to Ukraine.

The first and perhaps largest hurdle will surface in the wake of the midterm elections. Even though the polls in many races remain closer than the margins of error, the weight of opinion in that the result will be a red wave of some sort, likely delivering both houses of Congress into Republican hands. Among the cadre of election-denying, Trump-endorsed candidates that has captured Republican hearts, skepticism amounting to open opposition to continued aid to Kyiv is a core campaign theme. They have already begun to cow prospective House Speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who in mid-October complained the administration was writing “blank checks” to Ukraine. How serious McCarthy was is hard to say, but his statement is clearly an indicator of weak leadership. The House of Representatives has become increasingly unruly in recent decades, but the coming Congress promises to establish a new standard of chaos.

Biden is also likely to face rebellion from within Democratic ranks. The letter to the president from thirty members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus urging “direct talks with Russia” to end the conflict was a textbook example of a Kinsley gaffe—when a politician inadvertently admits an inconvenient truth. Caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal was particularly clumsy in trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube, simultaneously blaming “staff” and saying that she stood by the statement but that it was poorly timed. To be sure: Seeming to stand with McCarthy and the Trumpy types was an egregious own goal, but House progressives have chafed in the collar Biden has held them in for the last two years. If the Democrats lose their already-tenuous majorities, the progressives are going to blame Biden and insist that only ideological purity—including the traditional “anti-war” posture—will do for the future.

The White House may well be able to get a Ukraine appropriation through a lame-duck congressional session, but it will be hard to match the $40 billion package of this past spring. And it is further probable that a pro-Ukraine bipartisan majority will endure into the new Congress, but the White House will have to work harder to win support and have to ask for smaller amounts each time and ask more frequently. Beyond Biden’s efforts, the administration would be well advised to start lining up visits by the U.S. European commander, Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, and other articulate advocates, such as the German head of the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen. Biden should also himself strongly consider paying a call on Volodymyr Zelensky.

2. The fortitude of Western Europe.

Uncertainties about America’s commitment to Ukraine will exacerbate the second challenge: getting Western Europe through the winter with a stiff upper lip. Europe has thus far been enjoying relatively mild temperatures; the blazing summer has faded into a gentle autumn. (Thanks, global warming?) Still, some European governments have tried to set indoor temperatures down to 66 degrees. And whatever the actual degree of shivering that is asked, the anxieties about the café-society standards that are the European ideal—and expectation—are perhaps greater, inflamed by inflation far higher than in the United States, anti-immigrant fears, Russian information warfare, and many other factors, including a general disregard for Eastern Europeans in general and Ukrainians in particular. Moreover, European politicians (and industrial elites) are more anxiety-ridden than European publics; even in Germany, polls show 70 percent support for Kyiv.

Nonetheless, Biden must lend his voice to cheering Western Europe through their trials. Part of that effort must be to demonstrate that this is a one-time event, that “just one winter” of discomfort will be worth it because 2023 can be a decisive year on the battlefield and that Vladimir Putin’s leverage over European prosperity can be made to go away. Announcing a comprehensive program of military aid to Ukraine and NATO support (including a stepped up and continuous presence in the Black Sea) are essential not just in themselves but in building alliance political resilience.

3. Equipping Ukraine for victory.

This marks the third challenge: giving Ukraine the tools it needs to reclaim its sovereign territory in a timely way. The sooner this is in place—and made public—the better. Ukraine’s needs are, by now, obvious and well-known: layered air and missile defenses, recent-generation Western combat aircraft and ground combat vehicles and longer-range strike systems; as Ukrainian forces near their eastern borders with Russia, the need to hold Russian assets at risk will, if anything, increase. Nor is it likely to be very long before Russian positions and bases in Crimea will be under sustained Ukrainian strike. ’Twere well it were done quickly to permit Ukrainian forces to properly prepare for these critical campaigns.

4. Beyond the war.

Finally, there is a fourth leadership challenge facing President Biden: defining success—not the wartime victory, but the desired post-war political order. The greatest danger isn’t that Russia will stymie Ukrainian forces in the field, but that what will result is not peace but simply a cessation of hostilities. The experience of the last nine months has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that Putin is not merely the cause of Russian aggression but also the symptom of a larger disease that is not likely to be cured by reclaiming Ukraine alone, or even by Putin’s passing from power or from the world. One may hope for eventual Russian reform, but it is madness to assume it.

It is not premature for the United States and its European allies to begin to hash out what to do when the guns fall silent. The temptation to return to the status quo, to think that relations with Moscow can be moderated by trade and open human exchange—Wandel durch Handel, as the Germans said—will be strong, natürlich. But we must think under what conditions, and particularly under what security and military conditions, that might again be contemplated. Perhaps President Zelensky and Ukraine can contribute to how we envision this future, but it will necessarily fall to the United States to make it real.

How President Biden meets these four challenges will do much to define his presidency and America’s future role in the world. It is no hyperventilation to think that the result will either be a larger and more durable European peace and a sign that the United States is indeed back as not just a world-shaping power but as a beacon of liberty or a further step into a world of Hobbesian darkness.

Giselle Donnelly

Giselle Frances Donnelly is a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a co-host of AEI’s ‘Eastern Front’ podcast, and the author of Empire Imagined: The Personality of American Power. Twitter: @DonnellyGiselle.