President Biden deserves more political credit for his Ukraine stance

The US leader has done the right thing abroad but is on the backfoot at home

July 19, 2022
UPI / Alamy Stock Photo
UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

When Joe Biden took office in 2021, most European governments heaved a sigh of relief. At last, they thought, the nightmare years of Donald Trump were over and American foreign policy would revert to its traditional form. Biden was well known in Europe from his time as vice president under Obama (a more popular and respected figure in Europe than in his own country) and it was assumed that he would follow Obama’s example in placing a high value on the United States’ relationship with, and commitment to the defence of, Europe.

Things didn’t quite turn out that way. Within months, Biden was undertaking a tilt to Asia and characterising the containment of China as his main priority. He implied that though America continued to have an interest in the security of Europe, Europeans themselves would be expected to take up more of the slack. The tone of his pronouncements was different to the stridency of Trump, but the underlying message was disconcertingly similar.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed all that. Biden’s team were quick off the mark in identifying a full-scale invasion as probable (President Zelensky was reluctant to believe the warnings) and in realising that Ukraine would need substantial amounts of military and financial help. They provided it rapidly, in a form which reflected a well-thought-out policy. Ukraine has been supplied with state-of-the-art American kit including long-range artillery, rocket launchers and anti-ship missiles; and the United States has brokered arrangements whereby Nato countries with inventories of Soviet-era systems (which the Ukrainians are familiar with operating) supply them rapidly in return for replacement American models. Although many Nato countries have also supplied lethal weaponry to Ukraine, the United States’ contribution is by far the biggest (the second biggest is that of the United Kingdom). The US has also provided intelligence to help with targeting.

At the same time, Biden has shown restraint over the provision of systems capable of hitting targets in the territory of the Russian Federation itself (such attacks as have taken place there have been relatively minor sabotage operations by Ukrainian special forces). He has not given Ukraine cruise missiles of the kind which the Russians are using against cities all over Ukraine. It is possible (though we cannot know) that he has warned the Ukrainians not to retaliate, even if they have the means to do so, against sensitive installations such as the Kerch Strait bridge linking Russia with Crimea.

With the help of this military support the Ukrainian army has been able to limit the Russian advance in Donetsk and even launch some small counterattacks in the south around Kherson. Many American experts, notably the former secretary of State Henry Kissinger, have expressed the view that Ukraine will need to negotiate a settlement with Russia at some stage. Biden may privately believe this himself, but he has been reticent about saying so in public. He has avoided grandstanding of the kind which President Macron likes to engage in and has not spoken to President Putin since February.

Biden’s policy on Ukraine has broad domestic support. It’s not a war which is costing American lives and there is widespread revulsion at the brutality of the Russian attacks. It seems unlikely that any successor to Biden would change the policy. Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state and head of the CIA who is contemplating a run for the Republican candidacy, has said that he would be even tougher on Russia.

But the policy hasn’t given Biden any electoral boost. His personal ratings are low and his party is facing a hammering in the forthcoming mid-term elections. He hasn’t yet confirmed whether he will run again, and many in his party are urging him not to do so because of his age (he will be 81 at the next election) and his apparent physical frailty. More significantly, the war in Ukraine is beginning to have a perceptible impact on ordinary Americans’ lives. Inflation is on the rise, as is the cost of living—especially petrol prices.

Biden has just returned from a trip to the Middle East, a principal aim of which was to try to persuade the Gulf States to increase their oil production in order to bring the price down. The trip was something of a voyage of Canossa. Shortly after taking office, Biden published an intelligence report which analysed the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and concluded that the Crown Prince, and effective ruler, of Saudi Arabia had likely authorised it. Biden vowed to make his kingdom an international pariah. Now he has been photographed bumping fists with him and asking for his help—so far fruitlessly.

Outside Europe and the Anglosphere there is not much interest in the war in Ukraine. Biden’s readiness to step up to the plate in countering Russia’s aggression has been admired by his Nato allies but hasn’t brought him any kudos elsewhere. In most of the world he is seen as a weak president with an uncertain future.