Though Congress has averted the indignity of another shutdown, both Congress and the Biden administration have failed our allies and American national interests. Congress failed because it did not appropriate the funding necessary for Ukraine and Israel. The administration failed as well, but not only because it did not secure the funding that both our allies need (in Ukraine’s case, needs desperately).
The administration’s larger failure is that it continues to refrain from telling Congress, the American people and quite possibly Ukraine and our NATO allies what its objectives for Ukraine are.
Although Republican objections to funding Ukraine are numerous and, as I’ve written before, quite misconceived, the administration has yet to answer the crucial question of what its goals are in the country. It has also failed to communicate them to the public — a tried and true method for garnering public support and shaping opinion in a mission’s favor.
Beyond public and congressional ignorance of the administration’s policy, the lack of clarity has rendered the mission vulnerable to Republican charges that there is little rationale for authorizing new funding to Ukraine. We now have an impasse that can only further undermine Ukrainian capabilities, if not morale, while the Biden administration’s hands are tied for several weeks or months.
This is a clear policy failure and a failure towards our partners and allies. This delays and undermines the transfer of funds and weapons essential for Ukraine to survive, let alone win. Moreover, it calls into question the ongoing support that Washington has given Ukraine up to this point and U.S. reliability and credibility as an ally. More generally, it also raises the specter of further polarization of American politics in both domestic politics and foreign affairs.
Meanwhile, the only beneficiary of the impasse obstructing coherent American policies in Ukraine and the Middle East is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Failure to sustain American assistance would validate his overall belief that the West lacks the will and strength of character to stand up for Ukraine. Indeed, Putin recently commented that without American support, Ukraine would last only “a week.”
Subsequently, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin confirmed that if American aid is not forthcoming Ukraine will lose. Yet the administration, which obviously understands the implication of cutting off aid to Ukraine, still has neither taken its case to the public nor even made public what it sees as the endgame. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Republican opposition to Ukraine funding is either based on the administration’s communications breakdown or hides behind it as a pretext. Either way, the Biden administration must now address this question.
This problem may well become a major issue and indictment of the Biden administration in the 2024 election. It also raises serious questions about NATO’s cohesion and utility as the primary instrument for defending European security. One reason for not discussing our objectives in public may possibly be the fear of exposing differing objectives among NATO members that would only strengthen Putin’s obstinate desire to prolong this war and stay in power.
For all these reasons, the administration must put its cards on the table and build public support for continuing to support Ukraine, if not Israel. It also needs to show unity among its own officials and other members of NATO. It needs to reassure domestic and foreign constituencies about its competence and its strategic vision for Europe. Only by building public support can it provide Ukraine with the weapons and subsidies it needs to survive and prevent a recrudescence of Russian power which, in turn, could lead to further crises across the globe and very likely to a bigger, more costly war in Europe.
Not doing so immediately only prolongs Kyiv’s agonies, as well as the administration’s own, while needlessly aggravating U.S. polarization and discord as well as international insecurity. If it continues to avoid taking the public into its own confidence, that decision might, in turn, contribute to the public’s refusal to give the administration a second term, for it is already clear that public support for Ukraine is waning.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.