Why Ukraine’s battlefield wins are raising fresh questions for Biden
Ukraine’s success on the battlefield in recent weeks has led to a ripple of fresh decisions facing the Biden administration around how to best support the country as its war against Russia shifts, escalates and threatens to drag into a harsh winter.
The White House has been steadfastly supportive of Ukraine since Russia invaded in February, sending billions of dollars in military aid. But as the Ukrainian army mounts successful counteroffensives, administration officials are faced with new questions about whether to provide longer-range weaponry, how to address pleas from Ukraine to join the NATO alliance and how to nudge the war toward its end.
“We have some real difficult decisions to make, relative to what’s going on in Ukraine, and we’re going to continue to support them. But first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of the nuclear weapon if, in fact, things continue down the path they’ve been going,” President Biden said at a fundraiser on Thursday.
The situation in Ukraine has dramatically changed over the past month. Ukrainian forces made significant gains to retake territory captured by Russia after it launched its invasion in February.
In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of men to help the military effort, raised the specter of using nuclear weapons if Russia came under attack and annexed four Ukrainian territories through what international officials condemned as “sham referendums.”
Ukraine, meanwhile, has continued to push for longer-range weapons systems in the fight against Russia, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged NATO members to admit his country into the alliance to provide greater protection.
Each of those factors has prompted new decisions for the Biden administration, which has been clear from the beginning that Russia must be defeated to avoid an escalation of war in Europe.
“I wouldn’t say business as usual because anytime Putin threatens use of nuclear weapons, that’s not business as usual,” said David Kramer, a former deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs during the George W. Bush administration.
“The Ukrainians are on the march and that should be in our interest, to see Ukraine win this war,” added Kramer, who is an advisory board member to the Vandenberg Coalition.
On the question of NATO membership, U.S. officials have been clear that they are not interested in admitting Ukraine at this time. With Russian forces invading Ukraine, NATO admission at this point would trigger the mutual defense clause within the treaty.
The issue of annexation also creates potential dilemmas for the Biden administration. Putin now views the Luhansk, Kherson, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine as Russian territory, and the Russian leader has warned he could escalate the fighting with a tactical nuclear weapon if Russian territory is attacked.
“It’s an interesting standpoint that Washington will say, ‘We don’t recognize that as Russian territory.’ But for Putin and many of his compatriots … these are all now effectively considered just the same as St. Petersburg and Moscow,” said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official during the Obama administration.
“So the notion that our weapons shouldn’t be used to attack Russian territory because that could provoke Russia, I think is drawn further into question,” Bruen added. “We are really only convincing ourselves of the logic that is being deployed here.”
Bruen noted Biden also faces questions about how the U.S. can help facilitate an end to the conflict.
U.S. officials have been adamant that Russia could end the war anytime it wants to by withdrawing its forces from Ukrainian territory. But Biden himself on Thursday acknowledged Putin’s rhetoric has complicated the matter.
“We’re trying to figure out: What is Putin’s off-ramp? Where does he get off? Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position that he does not not only lose face, but lose significant power within Russia?” Biden said at a New York City fundraiser.
In the meantime, some experts argue there’s little reason for the Biden administration to deviate from its plans.
“I don’t think it really complicates their thinking, because they’ve always been committed to, essentially, Ukrainian victory,” said Mark Cancian, a former Pentagon official who serves now as a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The U.S. has committed more than $17.5 billion in aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration, including $16.8 billion since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Congress set aside roughly $12 billion in additional economic and military aid last month, meaning the support will continue at least through the first quarter of the 2023 fiscal year.
Biden has been consistent on a few topics, most notably that he will not send U.S. troops to fight on the ground in Ukraine. He has also been consistent about avoiding a strike inside Russia’s borders and about ensuring no decisions are made about Ukraine without consulting the country’s leaders.
“So given the goal, given the parameters, they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing,” Cancian said.