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The Memo: Cracks grow in US response on Ukraine

Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, attends a meeting
Associated Press/Andrew Harnik
Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, right, attends a meeting with first lady Jill Biden in the Blue Room at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

Questions are mounting over America’s response to the crisis in Ukraine, even as the Eastern European nation’s first lady prepares to address Congress.

Olena Zelenska is scheduled to address lawmakers on Capitol Hill around 11 a.m. Wednesday.  

She is already in Washington, where she has met separately with first lady Jill Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power.  

President Biden also greeted Zelenska at the White House on Tuesday, though the two did not have a formal meeting scheduled. 

But Zelenska’s visit comes at a troubling time. Russia is making advances in eastern Ukraine, cracks are developing in what was initially a highly unified U.S. response and there is a tangible sense that American public interest in the war may be waning. 

Back in May, a $40 billion supplemental bill providing aid to Ukraine passed both houses of Congress with comfortable majorities — but also with a level of Republican dissent that could not be ignored.  

Fifty-seven House Republicans and 11 GOP senators voted against the measure. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) complained at the time that the measure amounted to a decision by Congress to “do what Congress does best: spend other people’s money.”  

Paul did note that the “vast majority of Americans sympathize with Ukraine,” but he argued that Congress should have taken any aid money it wished to provide from elsewhere in the budget. 

In the House, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) contended that part of the money amounted to “a massive slush fund that goes to the State Department.” 

The fear among Democrats, as well as others who favor aggressive U.S. action to back up Ukraine, is that those partisan fissures will grow wider, especially as Biden’s overall approval numbers remain low and the midterm elections loom.

Such a shift seems all the more plausible as Americans grapple with rampant inflation and elevated gas prices. 

“As inflation continues, energy insecurity continues and wheat prices rise, the temptation [for Republicans] is to blame Biden for all of it,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joel Rubin told this column. 

Rubin, a Democrat, added that the reality of the matter is, “if you support Ukraine, you are potentially complicit in the economic impact of the war. And you should own it. But Republicans don’t want to own it. They want to weaponize it against Biden.” 

But there are, too, conservatives who want the U.S. to maintain its current stance, and who fear its willingness to do so might begin to taper off. 

“There is a real danger of Ukraine fatigue setting in here in Washington as the political focus overwhelmingly shifts to domestic political matters. It is vital that the United States and key allies maintain their resolve and determination to support Ukraine in the face of Russian barbarism,” said Nile Gardiner, the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation. 

“I think there is a growing concern that the war in Ukraine and Russia’s savage invasion is being forgotten. It is far less of a focus on U.S. media, television than it was before,” Gardiner added.

Biden has tried to ameliorate some of the political damage from high inflation and high gas prices by pinning the blame on the Russian invasion, at one point trying to tag the phenomenon as “Putin’s price hike.” 

But that effort is widely judged to have been ineffective. Polls repeatedly show Biden getting the blame for inflation, consistently the single issue on which he scores worst. 

The American people are not yet peeling away from support of Ukraine, however. 

The issue does not dominate the nightly newscasts the way it once did. Americans are contending not just with economic problems but with divergent dramatic stories and national traumas, from the Jan. 6 hearings to several mass shootings. 

Still, in an Economist-YouGov poll released last week, a sizable 63 percent of Americans believed that the U.S. government response to Russia’s invasion has been either “about right” or “should be tougher.” Just 14 percent said it should be less tough — though a sizable 23 percent expressed no opinion. 

Yet the same poll found an element of fatalism also characterized American public attitudes. A plurality, 34 percent, predicted that Russia would emerge the victor in the conflict, against 21 percent who believed Ukraine would prevail and 14 percent who believed both outcomes were equally likely. 

Similarly, a CNN-SSRS poll released Monday found Biden scoring better on Ukraine than other issues, but still falling victim to majority disapproval. The poll found 46 percent of adults approving of the president’s handling of Ukraine but 52 percent disapproving. 

Findings like that point to the political complexity of the issue. 

GOP strategist Doug Heye acknowledged that opposition to the administration’s stance was “more political on the Republican side,” where there are many people “who don’t necessarily want to be supportive of a president of the other party.” 

But he also asserted that at a time when inflation is still going up, rising from an annualized 8.6 percent in May to 9.1 percent in June, “those things that are immediately impacting families are going to outweigh” anything relating to foreign policy, including Ukraine. 

Zelenska’s address might change that picture — for a day. The first lady has been living in hiding, apart from her husband, President Volodymyr Zelensky, since Russia invaded in February. They have two children. 

The first lady is not a seeker of the spotlight, nor is she herself a politician or activist.  

Her speech will likely be stylistically very different from her husband’s dramatic virtual address to a joint session of Congress in mid-March, when the war still dominated headlines in the U.S. 

But Zelenska hopes to push the idea that Russia should be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism — and, of course, to highlight the plight of her people. 

She will likely be successful in the short term.

But looking further ahead, the outlook for U.S. engagement in Ukraine seems much more fogged in uncertainty. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. Laura Kelly contributed. 

Tags Antony Blinken Chip Roy Foreign policy Jill Biden Joe Biden Olena Zelenska Rand Paul Russia Russia Samantha Power The Memo Ukraine Ukraine
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