Ukraine Aid Held Hostage by US Politics

Ukraine is caught in the riptide of political currents generated by the unique illogic of the “silly season” of US presidential politics. In the months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and for the better part of the two years that the Russia-Ukraine conflict has raged since then, the administration of US President Joe Biden has set the tone and pace of international support for the Ukrainian government, providing billions of dollars in financial and military assistance, and encouraging other nations, in particular Nato allies, to follow suit. This assistance has been critical to Ukraine’s ability to resist Russia’s military onslaught. But in autumn 2023, the US pipeline of assistance slowed to a drip when a $95 billion supplemental spending bill, which includes $64 billion earmarked for Ukraine, got tied up in Congress over an ongoing dispute between Republicans and Democrats over immigration and border security reforms, which has come to define the political battlefield of the 2024 US presidential election. While most of the Congress — Republicans and Democrats alike — has expressed support for continuing aid to Ukraine, the imperative of doing so has not, yet, outweighed the importance of toeing the line on partisan domestic politics. This casts a shadow not only over Ukraine’s prospects in its war with Russia, but over the future viability of Nato itself, as allies begin to question what Biden has called an “iron-clad” US commitment to European security.

In the lexicon of political reporting, the term “silly season” is used to denote a period where there is little in the way of real news, creating an opportunity for more frivolous stories to seize headlines otherwise reserved for more serious reporting. However, when applied to US presidential politics, the term “silly season” flips the script, with the inanities associated with domestic politics taking precedence over what would, under normal circumstances, be stories of headline-generating potential. Expanding upon the age-old adage that all politics are local, domestic issues of varying importance and relevance tend to push aside foreign policy and national security matters which, individually or collectively, often constitute problems that are existential in nature.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

This mindset became part of US political lore when, in 1992, James Carville, an adviser to then-candidate Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, posted a note on the door of the campaign office that read “It’s the economy, stupid.” At the time, the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, was riding a post-Gulf War political high that saw his approval ratings reach 90%. By avoiding playing to Bush’s strength by talking foreign policy, Clinton was able to exploit an economic recession and prevail on election day.

In 1992, President Bush was only a year removed from an impressive military victory over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In 2024, President Biden is more than two years into a Ukrainian conflict with Russia that has seen hundreds of billions of US taxpayer dollars flow into a war where the side the US is supporting — Ukraine — is struggling on the battlefield. Furthermore, Ukraine’s leadership is increasingly coming under scrutiny over its commitment to democracy (presidential elections scheduled for this year have been canceled) and alleged corruption (which causes many in the US to question the wisdom of sending more money without proper accountability). Under normal circumstances, the ability of the Biden administration to continue writing large checks for Ukraine would be problematic. Under today’s political conditions in the US, securing continued funding for Ukraine has become an uphill struggle that increasingly looks like a mission impossible.

The biggest roadblock is the controversial issue of border security and immigration reform. Biden used then-President Donald Trump’s border security policy, with its emphasis on building a wall along the border with Mexico and restricting immigration, as a weapon against the incumbent in the 2020 election. However, the reality of the complexities of US border security policies, combined with the deep partisan divide in the US Congress — where every issue is viewed from a zero-sum game perspective — resulted in policy paralysis.

The Biden administration’s unwillingness to be seen as supporting the Trump posture on border security led to liberal enforcement of existing laws, while congressional policy paralysis prevented the advancement of any meaningful border security legislation. The result was a prolonged crisis along the US’ southern border, with millions of undocumented aliens illegally crossing into the country and overwhelming existing border security and immigration control resources. This crisis has extended into the depth of the US heartland, making border security a national domestic issue that has seized the political agenda of both parties.

Policy Held Hostage

The Republican Party in particular, gripped with the reality that Trump has emerged as its presumptive candidate for this year’s presidential election, is unwilling to yield on the issue, leveraging the Biden administration’s desire for Ukraine aid (and aid to Israel and Taiwan as well) by holding the supplemental funding bill hostage until the Biden administration agrees to providing more money for border security. “Supplemental Ukraine funding is dependent upon the enactment of transformative change to our nation’s border security laws,” Speaker of the House Mike Johnson has said. But Biden cannot enact such change without conceding critical political ground to Trump in an election that will be as closely contested as the one in 2020.

The result is that Ukraine finds its future caught up in a domestic US political squabble. The consequences for Ukraine are dire — CIA Director William Burns has warned that Russia is on track to seize significant territory from Ukraine if the deteriorating situation on the battlefield is not reversed. Moreover, the inability of the US to live up to its commitment to “stand by Ukraine until the end” has thrown its Nato and European allies into flux. France and Poland have declined to rule out the presence of Nato forces in Ukraine to help alleviate a critical shortage of Ukrainian forces, while noting there is no consensus or anything officially agreed on this. The reality is that any such step would require US backing. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear on more than one occasion than any direct intervention by either the US or Nato in the Ukraine conflict would precipitate a general war that could lead to a nuclear conflict, a risk no nation seems eager to take.

The inability and/or unwillingness of Congress to pass a funding bill that would free up money for Ukraine has already led to a policy reset by the Biden administration. The architect of US-Ukraine policy over the past decade, Victoria Nuland, has resigned her position, settling into a new role at Columbia University. Her replacement, John Bass, is best known for overseeing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Unless a miracle occurs, the Ukraine funding package looks unlikely to get passed, and the situation in Ukraine will only get worse. With the Biden administration unlikely to want to be haunted by a failing Ukraine policy in the November elections, Bass may end up seeking another diplomatic offramp for a US military misadventure.

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