By Simon Lewis, Patricia Zengerle and Humeyra Pamuk
US President Joe Biden dramatically emphasised US backing for Ukraine this week with a trip to the wartorn country, but back home public support for sending weapons to Ukraine is softening as the conflict enters its second year with no end in sight.
Support among Americans for providing military aid to Ukraine has fallen to 58 per cent, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos survey of more than 4,000 Americans, conducted from Feb. 6 to Feb 13, a drop from the 73 per cent who said they backed the transfer of weapons in an April 2022 poll.
Signs of waning enthusiasm come at a difficult juncture in US politics that may restrict Biden’s ability to deliver fully on his promise of unwavering US support for as long as Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil.
Republicans are in a standoff with the White House on raising the debt ceiling – which caps how much money the United States can borrow. They are demanding steep spending cuts to tame the deficit at a time when the United States is pumping billions of dollars in military and other aid into Ukraine. A number of Republican lawmakers allied to former President Donald Trump have called for restrictions on the aid.
The aid could become a political football in the 2024 presidential campaign, which is already under way. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination, this week criticisd what he called Biden’s “blank cheque” policy on Ukraine.
For now, Republican leaders in Congress, who fiercely oppose Biden on most issues, support aid for Ukraine’s defence, even calling for Washington to send more powerful weapons, more quickly. The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said on a visit to Kyiv on Tuesday that momentum in Washington was shifting toward sending long-range missiles and fighter jets to Ukraine.
But the party is fractured on Ukraine. Right-wing Republicans in the House of Representatives put forward a so-called Ukraine Fatigue resolution that proposed cutting off aid earlier this month, but it lacks enough support to endanger aid in the near term.
Just 11 Republican lawmakers out of 222 in the House signed on to the resolution. Not many, but Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Centre in Washington, warned it could be a mistake to dismiss them.
“The pull that small group has on the party is still yet to be seen, but I think it’s something that’s concerning for all of us,” Rizzo said.
Congress has approved each new tranche of funding the Biden administration has requested since the war began, with aid and military assistance worth $113 billion pledged to Ukraine and allied nations so far.
‘CAN’T GO ON FOREVER’
Asked about weakening public support for military aid to Ukraine, White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson did not respond directly, but said Americans know what is at stake and can relate to Ukraine’s fight for “freedom and independence”.
“Americans’ support for Ukraine is reflected in strong bipartisan support Ukraine assistance has received in both houses of Congress,” Watson said.
One US official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about US support for the war, said the administration has told the Ukrainian government that US resources are not infinite.
“Everybody understands that this (war) has to end at some point. And we all would like to see it end sooner rather than later,” the official said.
Zelenskiy’s stated goal is to reclaim all territory seized by Russia since 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea, and he has said negotiations to end the conflict cannot take place with Russian President Vladimir Putin due to a lack of trust.
Jeremy Shapiro, who served in the US State Department during the Obama administration, said officials also recognise that the war risks escalation and is a distraction from other issues like US competition with an increasingly assertive China.
But the Biden administration’s ability to propose compromises to Kyiv and Moscow is inhibited by the risk of appearing weak in the face of an adversary like Russia, said Shapiro, who is director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
MAKING THE CASE
While aid to Ukraine has bipartisan support in the US Congress, some Republican lawmakers are questioning why the United States is spending billions to help Ukraine while Americans cope with high inflation and a troubled economy.
The administration needs to continue making the case to the American public for supporting Ukraine in the face of legitimate concerns among voters, Democrat Bob Menendez, who chairs the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told Reuters.
“I’ve been around long enough to see that engagements, especially costly engagement, don’t have an eternal lifespan, especially if you’re not making a case,” he said.
Ukraine’s ability to fight Russia’s invasion depends on consistent support from Washington and its Nato allies, said Mark Cancian, a former Pentagon official who is now a senior advisor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Victory will come from the cumulative military capability produced by weapons and munitions that are sent, training that Nato provides, and the resilience of the Ukrainian people,” Cancian said.
A global Ipsos poll late last year found that majorities in Nato members including Canada, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Poland back continued military support to Ukraine. Only in Hungary and Italy did more oppose than support it, and those countries’ leaders have fallen in line with European initiatives to support Ukraine.