When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the vicious unprovoked war galvanized a response at home and abroad that surpassed even the Biden administration’s most ambitious expectations for retaliation. But now that the war is entering its ninth month, the full-hearted backing of American voters is fading, and the vast bipartisan support in Congress is beginning to crumble.
Americans who said they were extremely or very concerned about Ukraine fell from 55 percent to 38 percent from May to September, according to a Pew Research poll.
That hesitation on Ukraine is making its way through the halls of Congress just two weeks out from the midterm elections, leading to squabbles over whether and how the United States should support more assistance. Republicans are warning a GOP red wave could leave Ukraine aid sidelined. Some progressive Democrats are starting to warn this week that their support for Ukraine aid might not be endless, either.
The turbulent and evolving political calculus surrounding Ukraine aid in Washington has experts questioning whether American support for Ukraine is on the verge of splintering, just as Ukraine needs all the help it can get. Ukrainian forces have begun to make progress with the military aid they have received from the United States and other allies. After launching multiple counteroffensives last month, Ukraine has begun to take back swaths of its own territory, which has left Russians retreating and Putin scrambling to mobilize more troops.
Ukraine has exhausted much of its Soviet-era weaponry and begun to rely almost completely on Western aid to keep up the fight. For Moscow, which has shown no signs of stopping, a faltering America might be just what Putin needs to win the war.
Already Putin has been latching on to some of the divisions, noting Thursday in a speech there is no unity in the west. “If I were a Western [leader], I would seriously think about this future,” Putin said. “Some… politicians in the U.S. itself are contemplating the current situation.”
The impending stumbling blocks present a key negotiating and foreign policy test to see whether Biden’s approach to Ukraine has the political staying power to last through the war. Just over one year after his chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has left a refugee crisis and the Taliban taking power, allies rooting for Kyiv have hopes that the outcome for Ukraine will be significantly different.
GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy acknowledged last week that if the Republicans win back the House of Representatives in the midterms, that the Republican Party would likely make it more difficult to pass Ukraine aid.
“I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” McCarthy told Punchbowl News.
Other Republicans have previously told The Daily Beast that they “absolutely” will not approve more Ukraine aid, citing concerns about inflation and Taiwan aid funding.
Some progressive Democrats are also pushing the Biden Administration to adjust its stance on Russia and run harder at a diplomatic solution. In a letter that Russia and military experts have widely derided as misguided, a group of lawmakers from the Congressional Progressive Caucus urged Biden Monday to seek a negotiated settlement and ceasefire (a move Ukraine has rejected), with “security guarantees” for Ukraine (something the United States has avoided giving Ukraine for decades), and sanctions relief and direct talks with Russia.
After swift backlash from fellow democrats, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the caucus chair, issued a clarification claiming Democrats still support Ukraine. By Tuesday, Jayapal announced she wanted to “withdraw” the letter.
But the latest flurry of doubts about the course forward on Ukraine from the likes of vocal members including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who each originally signed onto the letter, is an important signal for Biden and his aides; the back-and-forth is a hint that the current plan to help Ukraine for however long it takes, until victory, might be politically untenable—even among seeming allies on Capitol Hill.
The progressives, like many Republicans wary of green lighting Ukraine aid, cited concerns that the war is posing key pocketbook problems for Americans: The war has “contributed to elevated gas and food prices at home, fueling inflation and high oil prices for Americans in recent months,” the Democrats said in their letter.
And the effort to walk back the letter doesn’t necessarily negate some of the proposals and sentiments the Democrats mentioned, according to Jim Townsend, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for European and NATO Policy. “It was too late and weak coming after the fact,” Townsend told The Daily Beast. “Having to put out a clarification on such an important letter was a real screw up and must have been embarrassing.”
Some of the latest protests from lawmakers align with Americans’ evolving thinking on Ukraine; 32 percent of Republicans say the United States is providing too much support for Ukraine now, an increase from 9 percent in March, according to Pew. Democrats have also grown more concerned about providing too much support for Ukraine, albeit to a lesser degree—11 percent of Democrats said the United States is doing too much now, compared to 5 percent in March.
Biden’s path ahead is treacherous. On top of trying to maintain aid to Ukraine and deter Russia from expanding the war, Biden now clearly has to be looking over his shoulder to see if lawmakers are going to upset his agenda, according to Townsend.
“It is difficult for this administration… to deal with the danger that we have here now with Russia, while having such turmoil at home and having such a hot environment for election season,” Townsend said. “We’re in such a polarized state. And Ukraine has suddenly become part of the political discourse.”
The Biden administration’s tack has so far been reactive. Following McCarthy’s threats, Biden acknowledged he is concerned about Republicans hampering Ukraine aid.
“I am worried,” the president said, according to a pool report. He claimed, however, that he can work with Republicans if they win. “I’ve always been able to do that.”
The White House responded to the progressives’ letter with affirmations of support for Ukraine.
“We’re not going to have conversations with the Russian leadership without the Ukrainians being represented," White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby said.
“We will continue to support them... as long as it takes,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
But abroad, some U.S. diplomats are already hearing rumblings from foreign governments that unified support for Ukraine’s defense without a timetable for peace is quietly losing support.
“Kissinger said that the United States has no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests,” one U.S. Foreign Service officer posted in an allied nation told The Daily Beast. “But that’s not just true of the United States—it’s true of every nation, and the domestic interests of coalition members of keeping their citizens from freezing due to restrictions on Russian [oil and natural gas] supersede friendship.”
The official called the potential weakening of support for Ukraine’s defense, both in Europe and at home, “troubling.”
“Putin thought this… would be over in a week, a miscalculation that has cost him and the Russian military dearly,” they said. “But he may not have been the only person who thought this war, and the West’s commitment to it, would be done by now.”
Backlash to the progressives’ letter indicated some lawmakers are not interested in caving to Putin yet.
“This letter is an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war,” Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) tweeted. “We stand with Ukraine in all seasons,” Auchincloss added in a comment to The Daily Beast.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, lambasted the progressives’ approach as well, insisting the United States must provide more weaponry to beat Russia.
“Russia doesn’t acknowledge diplomacy, only strength,” he told The Daily Beast.
The concern is that if American backing looks like it is drying up, Putin might smell blood and double down in Ukraine once key American assistance falters. If U.S. aid peters out, Putin might bide his time and plot to go after other countries in Europe, too, warned Townsend.
What some Americans don’t seem to deeply grasp yet, is that if Russia manages to win in Ukraine and then lashes out at NATO countries, that could pull the United States far beyond the commitments Biden has made now, and into wider war, he said.
“If the U.S. elections, the midterms, bring in some rhetoric that says ‘we're gonna have to pull back the throttle on this Ukraine support,’ Putin might say, ‘that's all I need to know,’” Townsend warned.
Fears have mounted around the globe for months now that Putin might be waiting for the political tides in Washington to change. The U.S. intelligence community warned in an alert earlier this year that Russian influence operations were focusing on convincing Western audiences that their aid was contributing to the war dragging out, in an apparent effort to dilute support to Ukraine, according to a U.S. intelligence memo, as The Daily Beast first reported.
Another intelligence memo warned the Biden Administration expected Russia to try interfering in U.S. midterms.
There may still be time to pick up the slack on messaging, according to some in diplomatic circles, as the polling on Americans’ sentiments about Ukraine support are reflective of a White House that has failed to adequately sell to the American people why the United States is supporting Ukraine in the first place, according to John Herbst, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.
“The Biden Administration understands that it would be disastrous if Russia were to win in Ukraine and has established a framework for preventing that—a sensible framework, including by strengthening NATO in the East, sending arms to Ukraine, sanctioning Russia,” Herbst told The Daily Beast. “But it has implemented that framework slowly, timidly and the support we provide, which is substantial, has not included the more advanced weapons that would help Ukraine defeat Russia faster.”
Not breaking down the big picture systematically, clearly, and consistently to rally Americans behind the cause is Biden’s fumble, he said.
“That's a failure of leadership,” Herbst said.
The Biden Administration and lawmakers in Congress need to make the argument for Ukraine aid “over and over” and “loudly” for the American people now, Bill Taylor, another former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, told The Daily Beast.
“Make the case that support for Ukraine is support for U.S. national security. We’re not doing this out of the goodness of our hearts. We're supporting Ukraine because if they win—when they win—that will be a defeat for Russia, which is the most acute threat to the United States right now,” Taylor said. “It’s a recognition that Ukraine’s victory is our victory… because we recognize that the Ukrainians are stopping that evil at their borders instead of our borders.”
Biden might do well to share more analysis and messaging from the administration about why the United States is so firmly behind Ukraine in its war-time footing, Townsend suggested.
”This could become a wider war in Europe, and that will pull NATO in and that will pull us in,” Townsend said. “But I'll tell you, I don't think the American people really get it. Biden, maybe he should get on TV and make a public [announcement]—I don't know if that's the right thing to do, either. You know, I'm not sure he would really do anything but puzzle everyone.”
It’s not clear if Biden is the best surrogate on the matter; although he has been raising the grave situation at private receptions with Democratic fundraisers ahead of midterms. The president has brought up Putin’s increasingly explicit threats of using nuclear weapons frequently in those events, a decision that has perplexed and occasionally alarmed attendees, as The Daily Beast reported.
“It’s clearly on his mind,” one Biden bundler said. “Didn’t make me want to cut a check, particularly, but it’s valuable to know that he’s taking the threat seriously enough to discuss it with people whose perspectives he values.”