(PONARS Eurasia Commentary) Ukraine is facing a critical, existential crisis, and the United States stands as its most crucial ally. Over thirty years, bilateral relations went through ups and downs and were suddenly brought closer this year due to Russia’s invasion. The war—a watershed moment globally and locally—provided an unusual, tense circumstance for Kyiv and Washington to cooperate for the benefit of democracy, as many might argue. It is a serious test of the character and connections between the two countries, formal and informal. It is a test the Trump administration would most probably not have passed, but President Joe Biden often communicates with President Volodymyr Zelensky, assuring him of multi-million-dollar security assistance packages and rallying “the world behind Ukraine’s efforts to defend its freedom and democracy, as enshrined in the United Nations Charter.” However, limitations persist as groups of U.S. politicians call into question the amount of money being spent on Ukraine while others push Biden to negotiate directly with Putin. U.S. support for aid could become more complicated once Republicans take a slim majority in the U.S. House of Representatives this year.
Reverberations of War
About one year ago, the United States started raising the alarm about Russia’s latest military preparations on Ukraine’s borders. Russia had rotated garrisons near the border for years, but this time, something was different. It looked like real preparations for a full-scale invasion. Yet, in most Western capitals and even in Washington, there was no complete consensus as to what Russia was really doing. Russian rhetoric sounded ominous but not necessarily indicative of a plan for an attack on Kyiv. It all still could have been a massive intimidation campaign on Moscow’s part to force Ukraine toward certain concessions. Washington began to reach out to allies in an urgent manner and also to Kyiv while, at the same time, engaging in diplomacy with Moscow, but not with confidence that it might produce real results.
The several months prior to the invasion on February 24, 2022, are destined to loom large in our minds. Were opportunities for conflict resolution lost? Why exactly did the invasion happen when it did? Ukrainians at all levels had been skeptical of Washington’s warnings because they had lived with the Russian military on their doorstep for years. One way to explain the reluctant beliefs was that the bilateral Washington-Kyiv relations were in a position of fairly low trust. The first significant aspect that Zelensky encountered in his political dealings with Washington was former President Donald Trump’s political extortion and blackmailing operation in 2019. This left a lasting, indelible impression on the Ukrainian government and people. The lesson was that Washington could play political games with states like Ukraine for domestic political gain.
Optimism arose when Biden came to power, but openly assisting Ukraine was a low priority. Even if he wanted to “establish a sharp break from the warm rhetoric often displayed toward Putin by his predecessor,” he decided not to sanction the controversial “Nord Stream 2” project while reaching out to Putin in late January 2021. Quite predictably, he doubled down on messaging for Kyiv to intensify its anti-corruption efforts and reforms.
Ukraine’s leaders were not convinced when Washington started to increasingly sound the alarm in late fall-winter 2021. There were some public and energetic rebukes, much to the exasperation of the Americans. The prevailing reaction in Ukraine was quite dismissive. If Washington was so positive about the imminent Russian invasion, why did it not act, such as introducing more sanctions or providing weapons? In short, the Biden administration was cautionary, trying to avoid escalation with Moscow. It is doubtful that extra sanctions and weapons supplies provided before February 24 would have stopped Putin. In reality, the U.S. government was not just limiting itself to issuing warnings, it was actively preparing for the invasion. It worked closely with its allies, forming the basis of that pro-Ukraine/anti-Russia international coalition. Some plans were being made, both conceptually and practically. The White House was in a standby position.
When the invasion happened, many became impressed by the swift resilience of the Ukrainian people. This response made a strong impression on the West, U.S. policymakers, and the U.S. public, becoming a factor in driving support further down the road. Ukraine emerged from the initial attacks not as a failed state but as a country, which emboldened support from the international community.
Opening and Closing Cracks
Assuredly, Washington has its own values and interests vis-à-vis the conflict. Beyond being a “regional” war, Moscow’s threats and actions are often meant to undermine U.S. positions, interests, and security. In June, Putin “issued a scathing critique of the United States,” blaming it for a wide range of local and global problems from food security to trade. For its part, Washington strongly maintains its vested interest in helping Ukraine and protecting its allies and the Euro-Atlantic zone of responsibility. In the post-Trump era, the United States again symbolizes the upholding of international law and the defense of sovereignty and territorial integrity. In Ukraine, the hope and expectation, of course, is that the support of Ukraine would crystalize as a staple of U.S. policy for years to come.
However, American politics is lively. Cracks may form that endanger support for Ukraine. Biden’s approach toward Ukraine has been doomed to be criticized by influential individuals and groups. Incongruities have risen. For example, some Republicans say that he is not doing enough to help Ukraine, while others (MAGAs) say he is doing too much. The executive branch has been in the driving seat, but the role of the U.S. Congress has also always been critical for the development of support for Ukraine. It has passed a number of seminal laws aimed at punishing Russia and helping Kyiv. When the White House and Capitol Hill work together, we can see important acts such as the passage of the lend-lease law for Ukraine that provides equipment and other support.
So far, Congress has passed three aid packages for Ukraine totaling $68 billion. However, we also see divergences, for example, on the issue of whether there is a need to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. Disagreements became especially public during the U.S. midterm elections in late 2022 as U.S. politicians used the Ukraine card in different ways. The main worry was that Trump-aligned candidates would win their mid-term elections and create obstacles for the White House going forward in many dimensions, including on Ukraine. But those numbers did not materialize. To their credit, both the president and Congress have avoided making “nuclear” gestures, which could truly destroy communication and diplomatic channels with Moscow.
Certainly, Ukraine has become hugely dependent on U.S. support, but at the same time, it has shown its own enormous resilience, willpower, and capability. Even if it has been under the U.S. security umbrella this year to some extent, Ukraine acquired an unprecedented amount of its own dignity in the international arena due to its display of wartime unity and resolve. This helps it make many decisions about its own next steps—an important position because some in Ukraine see the United States as waging a proxy war against Russia at the hands of Ukrainians. These people tend to believe that it was Washington’s role over time (“interventions”) that pushed Moscow to full-scale war. But considering that Ukraine is in an existential fight, there is heightened attention across the country as to how fast and what kind of U.S. aid is coming. Indeed, we are seeing an unparalleled degree of cooperation between the two countries in all domains. Military-to-military interaction has been especially impressive and crucial, but other connections, such as Elon Musk’s provision of Starlink satellite Internet, have also been extraordinary. For its part, Ukrainian “outcomes” are valuable. For example, the liberation of the southern city of Kherson after severe battles was significant, among other things, by showing to U.S. supporters that U.S. military assistance had not been in vain.
In a sign of deepening bilateral relations, U.S. red lines about supplying more or new weapons to Kyiv have continued to shift in Ukraine’s favor. In December, after Zelensky visited Biden in Washington, it was announced that the United States would send Patriot missile systems and Bradley armored vehicles to Ukraine. In early January, this package included Humvee vehicles, mine-resistant vehicles (MRAPs), missiles, and ammunition. European partners also agreed to send more weapons and assistance. All the while, eyes are on possible reactionary escalations by Russia. Beyond weapons, financial and humanitarian assistance has been indispensable. Massive Russian strikes in recent months on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure created more challenges. One side effect of this is that the West sent more generators (and arms) to Kyiv.
Zelensky’s landmark visit to Washington last month was his first foreign trip since the start of Russia’s invasion. The meeting was a defiant, confident message in itself. He gave thanks for the support in person, asked for more, and received it. His visit was significant for the White House as well to help it consolidate U.S. support for Ukraine across government branches and agencies and among the broader U.S. public. The year ended, and the new one began, therefore, on a high note. The countries reaffirmed the spirit of their strategic partnership. But no doubt 2023 will contain new dire Russian confrontations to test their collaboration.
Volodymyr Dubovyk is Professor of International Relations at Odessa Mechnikov University, Ukraine, and Visiting Scholar at the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.