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Don’t let Ukraine become just another partisan divide

AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral on a surprise visit, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, in Kyiv.

Americans support Ukraine. It was a fact long before Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year that support for the nation’s resistance against Kremlin aggression is one of the few remarkably bipartisan issues in U.S. politics. But more than a year into Russia’s full-scale invasion, that support is slipping — and leading Republicans are exploiting it.

Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared that helping Ukraine beat back Russia’s invasion — which he described as a “territorial dispute” — is not a vital U.S. interest. DeSantis also repeated faulty talking points that the U.S. is writing Ukraine a “blank check” and that giving Ukraine better weapons could spark a direct war between the U.S. and Russia.

DeSantis’s statement drew swift rebukes, particularly from fellow Republicans and conservative media. This response should be a reassuring reminder that support for Ukraine remains a bipartisan issue and that Americans don’t want to abandon Ukrainians as they fight for survival.

But these isolationist messages aren’t going away. “This is not our fight,” says former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, “We are ‘America First!’” Donald Trump, whose hostility to Ukraine became particularly clear after he was impeached for attempting to extort President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019, has mused about making Lake his running mate for the 2024 election and says Russia should be able to “take over” parts of Ukraine.

Despite serious shows of Western resolve to continue support for Ukraine “as long as it takes,” President Joe Biden has largely stopped making the case to Americans for why this support is critical and what Washington’s ultimate goal is. It’s time for that to change.

Biden needs to stop ceding space to increasingly loud Ukraine skeptics and instead go on the offensive, bringing together leaders from across the political spectrum to make the case for continued pragmatic support for Ukraine’s swift victory.

Overall American support for arming Ukraine has fallen from 60 percent last May to 48 percent, according to new polling, and a Pew Research Center poll shows that 26 percent of Americans think the U.S. has given too much to Ukraine, up from just 7 percent a year ago. These widening gaps are being fueled and exploited by figures such as DeSantis, Lake, and Trump, who see political value in the division.

Every day that the White House leaves the domestic information environment unfilled, the easier it is for Trump and his fellow travelers to fill it with messages about how Biden cares more about Ukraine than struggling Americans. It also means support for Ukraine gets closer to becoming a fiercely partisan issue in the next election rather than a clear refuge of bipartisanship, jeopardizing future aid, and making America’s allies worry that the U.S. will renege on its commitments to European security.

This is a solvable problem.

Biden often goes out of his way to showcase the bipartisan support that certain issues attract. This was on full display with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, getting Republicans like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to stand alongside him in public appearances to show the issue isn’t up for partisan debate. Ukraine needs the same treatment.

The White House has plenty of partners to choose from. Both McConnell and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have put a spotlight on the risks to U.S. national security if Russia succeeds in defeating Ukraine or freezing the conflict, showing both the need for victory and dispelling the notion of a “blank check.”

With robust Congressional support, including the longstanding bipartisan Ukraine Caucus in Congress, Biden’s potential Ukraine coalition has a shot at resetting the debate before it gets out of hand.

Trump’s hostility to Ukraine and its democratic system is unlikely to change. But as likely Republican presidential contenders like DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley take the pulse of the electorate and formulate foreign policy platforms, creating a clear consensus on Ukraine can prevent the issue from becoming a defining partisan divide in what will undoubtedly be an electoral slugfest.

But part of this public opinion offensive means defining a clear end goal for the U.S., something the White House has yet to establish. “As long as it takes,” has been Biden’s line. But “as long as it takes,” signals to Americans that this war will indeed last longer than they may have an appetite for and suggests that Washington may be able to live with it simply becoming a new frozen conflict.

It’s critical to make clear exactly what Americans are supporting Ukraine in achieving. “To a swift victory” is the clear answer and it signals there is an end to this conflict in sight. As numerous American military leaders have detailed, Ukraine’s path to victory is real — as is the consistently shattering Russian morale. Sending more and better weapons to Ukraine, such as ATACMS and fighter jets can help bring the war to a quicker — and more permanent — end.

The moral case for Ukraine has proven effective in rallying Americans, with images of Russia’s genocidal massacres in Bucha and Irpin, as well as new information about its program of kidnapping Ukrainian children and raising them as Russians ready to fight their own country, sparking outrage.

But the strategic case may be more convincing. Russia made clear that its ambitions stretch beyond Ukraine, repeatedly threatening NATO Allies with further aggression — the threat is real enough that Sweden and Finland abandoned their long-standing neutrality to seek protection from the alliance. Under Putin and his imperial ambitions, Russia won’t end its expansionism until it is stopped. Ensuring Russia is swiftly stopped in Ukraine by the Ukrainian soldiers already beating it back is a clearly preferable option to having to stop it with American soldiers further west.

These are specific arguments, and with the right messengers, they stand a chance of reaching the Americans whose views have shifted in recent months, while strengthening existing support. Biden knows that the result of the war in Ukraine could be the defining issue of his presidency — if he wants to get it right, he needs to keep the American people on his side.

The case of a fledgling democracy resisting colonial tyranny is one that Americans might be more willing than others to identify with — but the case has to be made.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its second year, the Biden administration needs to change course and make that case to the American people before it becomes the latest divisive partisan issue, showing exactly why Ukraine’s victory is in America’s national interest and that this isn’t another endless war.

Doug Klain is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Find him on Twitter at @DougKlain.

Tags Bernie Sanders Bipartisanship Donald Trump Joe Biden military aid to Ukraine Mitch McConnell National security NATO Nikki Haley Public opinion Ron DeSantis Russian war in Ukraine support for Ukraine U.S. military aid to Ukraine Ukraine military aid US military aid to Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky

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