The Memo: US faces big test as Ukraine war enters new phase

The war in Ukraine is entering a new phase — and that is bringing new challenges for President Biden and other Western leaders.

The question facing the White House is whether the American public will stay emotionally engaged with the war.

If they do, they will likely be willing to accept continued costs, such as elevated gas prices, in pursuit of the bigger goal of pushing back the Russian invasion. If they are not, it could weaken the sanctions process over time and give Russian President Vladimir Putin leeway to recover from early setbacks.

The question is much more salient now that Russia has switched its focus away from Kyiv and onto the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian defense of its capital in the early phase of the war was heroic by any reasonable measure — and commanded enormous media coverage in the United States and elsewhere in the West.

But the new fight — described by White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday as “a different kind of war on the ground” — will be long and arduous. 

Prior to February’s invasion, fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine had dragged on for eight years without a definitive conclusion.

Experts and Washington insiders express some concern about what comes next. But they also note the high level of American public interest in the war so far.

“Without a doubt, the American public’s attention will have highs and lows in the war in Ukraine,” said Joel Rubin, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State during President Obama’s administration. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it wanes a little bit as this war of attrition begins to take place,” Rubin added. “But as long as there is continued heroism and leadership from President [Volodymyr] Zelensky, and as long as there is this continued ‘Great Power’ conflict, and as long, of course, as the humanitarian catastrophe continues to unfold, this will not only command President Biden’s attention, but congressional attention and the American public’s attention.”

Biden praised the Ukrainian people for being “tougher and more proud than I thought” when he spoke at the White House Wednesday at a dinner with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and high-ranking military leaders

The U.S. has provided well over $2 billion in military and security aid to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began, even while rebuffing Ukrainian President Zelensky’s requests for the imposition of a no-fly zone. Biden has been adamant that he does not want to spark a direct war between American and Russian troops.

Meanwhile, Zelensky has captured the American public’s attention with big moments like his virtual address to Congress on March 16 and more recent TV interviews with CBS’s “60 Minutes” and CNN.

The Ukraine war has not, so far, joined the long list of ultra-polarizing political issues in the United States. While a small number of Republican politicians have been skeptical of the need for Washington to get involved so heavily, most Republicans have been fairly mild in their criticism of Biden on the topic.

If Biden takes stronger action, for example by ramping up sanctions further, “there will not be partisan complaints from Republicans that he has gone too far,” according to Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former communications director of the Republican National Committee. “He will be in a very safe political space if he does that.”

Still, Heye acknowledged that continued American public attention on Ukraine was not assured.

“It certainly is part of Putin’s calculations that the longer this goes on, even though it is attrition for Russia, the attention of America and the attention of Europe gets distracted elsewhere by the million other things we all have going on — inflation being a prime example.”

The conflict has clearly fueled inflationary pressures, in areas from gas prices to food. 

But that has not so far come close to sapping Americans’ desire to back Ukraine. A new Economist-YouGov poll released Wednesday indicated 65 percent of American adults approve of U.S. sanctions on Russia and only 17 percent disapprove.

Some experts in Ukraine point to a kind of grim calculus. The revelations of apparent Russian war crimes, they note, may have further galvanized Western public opinion, stiffening the resolve that the Kremlin simply can’t be allowed to prevail.

Joshua Tucker, a fellow at the Kroll Institute and a professor of politics at New York University, noted that such atrocities may prevent Western weariness about the war from taking hold.

“As we become aware of more and more Russian atrocities in Ukraine, they may have the countervailing effect of building the desire to do more to help Ukraine,” he said.

Max Bergmann, the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, took a similar view.

Bergmann acknowledged that “as soon as any conflict becomes more static and fixed, attention inevitably shifts.”

But, he added, “I don’t think we are in danger of a loss of support for sanctions, or anything like that. Also when it comes to the security assistance, there is tremendous bipartisan support there to keep doing more.”

All that being said, the U.S. and its allies are now bracing for a prolonged conflict. 

“Our allies are stepping up,” Biden said at the White House Wednesday. “And NATO is united, focused and energized as it’s ever been.”

But that doesn’t make the task ahead easy.

Asked if the current approach from Washington will work, the Kroll Institute’s Tucker weighed his answer.

“It depends on how you define ‘will work.’ It absolutely worked, already, to prevent a quick overthrow of the Ukrainian government and the quick putting-into-place of a puppet regime in Kyiv,” he said.

“But if you think we will only know it is working when the Russians pull out of the Donbas and give Crimea back to Ukraine — well, you might be waiting a very long time.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Inflation Joe Biden Joe Biden Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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