Signs of American support fatigue for Ukraine
President Biden is preparing to request an additional budget of $24 billion for Ukraine. If Congress approves this budget, the total aid provided by the United States to Ukraine since the beginning of the war will reach $135 billion. A significant portion, around 40%, of this assistance goes to support Ukraine in the war through American government institutions. Public support for the aid, which is primarily allocated to the Pentagon and the State Department, is gradually declining. The inability of Ukraine’s spring-launched counteroffensive to progress as expected has led to a 55% opposition among the American public towards providing additional support. It is evident that the patience of the American people in this matter is wearing thin, and the Biden administration will need to develop a strong argument explaining the rationale behind the aid. Otherwise, getting future additional budget requests through Congress could become much more challenging.
ASSESSMENT BY US INTELLIGENCE
Recent reports regarding the expectations of American intelligence regarding Ukraine’s counteroffensive have been drawing attention. According to these reports, American intelligence assesses that Ukraine’s goal of capturing the city of Melitopol in the southeastern part will not materialize, and consequently, Russia’s connection to Crimea via land will not be cut off in the near future. Various reports on the pace of the offensive highlighted the impact of Russian-laid mines and a robust defense line they established.
The extensive minefields laid by Russia are believed to have prompted Ukrainians to opt for smaller-scale operations rather than an all-out assault, as it would result in significant casualties. While the Pentagon recommended a concentrated push in a single region, it appears that the Ukrainians are pursuing a different strategy, and the details suggest that the slow progress of the counteroffensive is attributed to the Ukrainians. Such reports underscore the fact that American intelligence and the military do not fully endorse Ukraine’s operational choices.
RUSSIAN AIR SUPERIORITY
Despite the assistance provided by the US and the West so far, the sluggish advancement of the counteroffensive and the inability to breach Russia’s main defense line could lead to further scrutiny of new aid packages. Additionally, critics point out that the reason for Ukraine’s slow progress lies in its inability to effectively combat in the air, citing the delay in providing advanced warfare systems (especially missile systems like F-16s and ATACMS) by the Biden administration. The administration has been cautious not to provoke Russia by providing long-range missiles and underwent approximately a year-long evaluation process before approving the transfer of F-16s.
For instance, a Wall Street Journal op-ed gives credit to Biden for keeping NATO united in supporting Ukraine, but it argues that the administration’s sluggishness in providing more sophisticated weapons is contributing to Ukraine’s slow progress. In a January 2023 op-ed, while the Russians were retreating, the delayed provision of weapons is attributed to the cost of Russia’s recovery. The op-ed also criticizes the year-long delay in providing F-16 training. Biden’s aid has set Ukraine on a path of deep integration into NATO systems. However, the fact that these aids haven’t reached a level to neutralize Russia’s air superiority emerges as a factor slowing Ukraine’s advancement.
BIDEN’S COMMITMENT TO THE END
The diminishing prospect of aid to Ukraine ending the Russian occupation enables Republican candidates to criticize Biden and gain political leverage. Potential candidates who might cut aid to Ukraine if they were to become president, similar to Trump, have the narrative that so much aid is going to waste. Faced with Republican candidates’ declarations to withdraw support from Ukraine, it’s evident that Russia is playing into the American presidential election timeline. A Russia that doesn’t lose its gains on the ground until November 2024 would find relief if a Republican candidate wins, as American support could end.
If the counteroffensive doesn’t achieve concrete success as hoped, voices from Europe and NATO countries might rise, advocating for Ukraine to accept territorial losses. The words of NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg’s Chief of Staff, Stian Jenssen, which he later had to apologize for, indicate that such scenarios are being subtly discussed. Strengthened domestic opposition due to the slow progress of the offensive could make it challenging for Biden to request new aid packages. Internationally, some NATO allies might increase their suggestions for Ukraine to adopt a ‘more realistic’ stance. Biden, who promised unwavering support to Ukraine, needs to convince the American public domestically and keep NATO allies on the same page.