The Uncertain States of America. What challenges to backing Ukraine are not addressed by aid bill adopted by Congress?

Wednesday, 24 April 2024 — , New Europe Center
President Biden visited Kyiv in February 2023 to demonstrate his courage to citizens. US policy towards Ukraine, however, has yet to show similar courage. Photo AFP/East News

The long-awaited and indeed vitally important bill on aid to Ukraine has been approved in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The US President promptly signed the bill into law after that. It is worth noting several moments that shed light on the aspects of Washington’s actions that are not really changed by this aid package.

We need to talk about this openly, because even western countries refer to the United States as the "window of vulnerability" when it comes to Ukraine. Further work on Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic pathway depends on how these issues are addressed.

First, the approval of the aid does not change the overall US policy on ending the war against Ukraine. Moreover, this general policy is shared by both President Biden and presidential candidate Trump.

In their opinion, the war should end with a "negotiated settlement".


Of course, their positions as to what that should involve are different.

Biden would like to do everything elegantly, so as to give the impression that such negotiations take place at the initiative of Ukraine and taking its interests into account, while Trump does not hide that he wants to act according to his own plan for settlement "within 24 hours".

Another significant difference is that Biden would not likely agree to any form of legitimation or recognition by the US of the Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine’s territory, whereas Trump has repeatedly indicated that he does not consider the territorial integrity of Ukraine a particularly valuable asset (nor, by the way, the territorial integrity of some other countries).

Readers who have followed the news from Congress may well ask: what about the references to Ukraine's victory in the bill adopted by both the House and the Senate? 

Individual mentions of Ukrainian victory are certainly important, because they ensure this concept is not marginalised, even in cases where Ukraine, as in 2022, is once again forced to fight for its very survival. But at the same time, such statements should not mislead us. It is important to distinguish clearly among the American political elite between:

  • a. the voices of those who genuinely support Ukraine's victory and Russia's defeat and those who use the demand for the US president to develop a strategy for Ukrainian victory as a kind of political trap, on the understanding that the latter will not do so;
  • b. the voices of those who use the word "victory" in the way Ukrainians do and those who try to package the word as the act of preserving Ukraine's statehood, albeit with 20 per cent or even more of its territories occupied by the Russian Federation.

The second position is not even concealed. There have been numerous public statements by the current administration that "Russia has strategically lost, Ukraine has strategically won." Thus, these statements twist the facts, equating Ukraine's victory with its survival, saying: you have survived, so this is your victory.

Considering Washington's stake in a "negotiated settlement", it is important for Ukraine not to stop explaining that its position is different and to undergird it with the help of like-minded Republicans in Congress. These include, in particular, the trio of supporters of the Reaganite concept of "peace through strength", known in Washington circles as the "three Mikes" (Turner, McCaul, Rogers). This approach is an alternative to the concepts popular among Trumpist analytical circles, such as "sleepy NATO" and the like.

The fact that the formula "peace through strength" is reflected in the title of the bill adopted in a package with the Ukrainian "supplemental" sends an important signal that this approach has supporters. And those who are familiar with the recent discussions of its relevance within the Republican party will understand why the Ukrainian Ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, praised the title of the bill on two separate occasions on social media.

For Ukraine, the formula "peace through strength" means that it is impossible to force us into "peace" through the de facto capitulation of Ukraine. 

Second, the approved aid package does not change the character of American leadership in the war with Russia. Zelenskyy praised Biden for "true global leadership of the United States" in his phone call on Monday. But let's face the facts: although it's leadership, it's hardly global and definitely not "true".

Rather, in the context of the White House actions, it is worth talking about the US’ leadership by restraint, which does not always come across as inspiring, and can even be discouraging. It is not only about the political dysfunction in Congress over the past six months. There are a whole range of issues on which the US is restraining other allies from making certain decisions or from providing Ukraine with certain types of weapons or equipment.

During the author's recent visit to European capitals – Paris, Rome, Berlin – there were repeated stories about how a respected representative of the Biden administration had called NATO countries advising them not to participate in the "Macron summit" on 26 February which the French president was gathering to form a coalition of states ready for decisive resistance to Russian aggression.

The choice of representatives of Washington who attended the summit was eloquent: while the vast majority of European participants were represented in Paris by their leaders, the US sent an assistant to the deputy secretary of state.

What Ukraine needs, however, is not "restraining leadership", but a coalition of the determined.

The United States of America can still join it.

The decision that was announced to send more military advisers to Ukraine is the right move. But it should be followed by appropriate decisions on ATACMS with a range of over 300 km, on permission to strike key targets within Russian territory with Ukrainian and American weapons, and on unblocking Ukraine's invitation to join NATO.

At present, perhaps the only point regarding the war in Ukraine where US leadership is unquestionable is the confiscation of frozen Russian assets. This needs to be properly recognised.

Third, the American view of the war in Ukraine has not changed with the approval of the aid.

Washington considers and will continue to consider it a European war. 

Therefore, according to this logic, Europe should pay more attention to Ukraine and provide more resources. It is rumoured that one of the arguments (though not the main one) that softened Trump's position on Ukraine's aid bill was the realisation that Europe is already sending more assistance to Ukraine and committing to send even more.

Let's remember that when Trump was in office, he believed that not just Europe, but specifically Germany should provide the most assistance to Ukraine. This is exactly what is happening now. Berlin has become the European leader in this regard.

Therefore, it is important to explain in the US that although the hot phase of this war is taking place in Europe, it cannot be considered solely a European war, if only because it already involves North Korea, Iran and China, which actively back Russia's fight against Ukraine.

It is of utmost importance to emphasise, in the US, the true narrative that Ukraine is being attacked not only by Russia but also by China, North Korea and Iran. These states, unlike Russia, are high on the threat scale in the perception of the American public today.

But we also need to realise that, despite all efforts at persuasion, we will not change the interdependence of assistance from Europe and America. The more Ukraine receives from Europeans, the more arguments it has for receiving more aid from the US.

Hence, fourth, the aid that has been approved does not change the fact that the US is in a state of strategic uncertainty. The solidarity of American players in relation to the re-election of Biden or Trump has become more important than solidarity with Ukraine. It is thus important to continue working in the European capitals, some of which may become pillars of the coalition of the determined.

Unfortunately, several important European countries still tend to respond to the war in Ukraine within the parameters of restraining US leadership. The very real chance of Trump being re-elected, and over six months of blocking aid in Congress has given some "encouragement" to Europeans and made many of them give more thought to Europe's security and increased independent support for Ukraine.

Ukraine's task is to ensure that the approved aid and Biden’s improving ratings do not derail European countries from this trajectory.

Fifth and last, the aid provided is unlikely to fully restore Ukraine’s trust in the US and its major partners.

The losses from the prolonged deliberate blocking of aid are too high. Requests from the Ukrainian Armed Forces, even for purposes of "stabilising" the eastern front, exceed the willingness of the Pentagon to meet them. To overcome this crisis, it is necessary to use all possible aid options and tools available to the US president, including the EDA programme (Excess Defence Articles). So far, the White House has been unwilling to use the latter, probably believing that doing so could weaken arguments for the critical need for immediate aid approval by Congress. Now this particular concern no longer applies. Instead, there is pressure on Congress for the US to send ATACMS 300+, which puts Biden at a crossroads…

It is also necessary to bid farewell to the popular rhetoric that the US "owes us nothing", meaning the US is not obliged to help and is focused solely on its national security interests.

From a legal standpoint, indeed, the US may not bear any responsibility, but from political and moral perspectives, which are equally important to average Americans, the US bears direct responsibility, at least as initiators of the Budapest Memorandum. So, in addition to statements about bipartisan support for Ukraine from the US, it is important not to forget also to talk about bipartisan responsibility, while continuing to explain why backing Ukraine is in the interest of American security.

Currently, Ukraine is working on promoting these ideas. Paradoxically, it was the months of US aid being blocked that pushed Ukraine towards significant changes in this regard, towards working with audiences whose voices are particularly important for the Republican political establishment (for example, with evangelical groups).

This is perhaps the most undeniable advantage (alongside Europe's awakening) of the prolonged blocking of aid to Ukraine in the US Congress.

Alyona Getmanchuk

Founder and Director of the New Europe Center, 

Non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center

Translated by Daria Meshcheriakova

European Pravda

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