US domestic woes could push Ukraine to sidelines of American public discourse
The recent trip of Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky to Washington is significant in a couple of ways. It is worth mentioning that the destination of Zelensky’s first trip abroad since the beginning of the conflict is the geographically remote US, rather than nearby Brussels or Berlin. This is a clear sign that in Kiev they count on the US, rather than on Europe, as their most important strategic partner and the leading champion of the Ukrainian cause.
Second, the trip is an indicator that at this point the Biden administration is not willing to change its overall approach to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The most intriguing outcome of the negotiations in Washington was the decision by the White House to provide Ukraine with the Patriot Air Defence System, capable of bringing down cruise missiles, short range ballistic missiles, and aircraft at a significantly higher ceiling than previously delivered US air defence systems.
The decision, however, should be regarded more as a symbolic political gesture rather than as a signal that the US military assistance to Ukraine is now raising to a new level. The Patriot system can hardly be considered a modern system – it is already in operation for almost four decades.
It might be more efficient than any air defence weapon that Ukraine has now, but it is not going to be a game-changer in the conflict. Besides, it will take some time to deliver the Patriots, deploy them and properly train the Ukrainian military personnel how to operate them.
Third, the trip and, especially, the Ukrainian president’s address to the US Congress confirmed that there is a strong bipartisan consensus in Washington on the Ukrainian issue. In general, Republicans are no less supportive of Kiev than Democrats are. However, at least some Republicans, such as Kevin McCarthy, the likely new Speaker of the House, are going to raise specific questions regarding the US military, financial and economic assistance to Ukraine.
In particular, they will call for more scrutiny and more transparency in assistance deliveries and they will insist on more rigid accounting procedures. Moreover, GOP leaders will not miss their chance to insist on changes in Ukraine related burden-sharing between the US and its European allies.
It seems that the real problem of Zelensky is not to convince the US political establishment about the need to continue supporting Kiev, but rather to preserve the Ukrainian narrative in the focus of the US public. As the conflict goes on, this is becoming increasingly difficult, since many domestic US problems inevitably push Ukraine to the sidelines of the American public discourse.
The recent midterm election was a visual manifestation of this challenge – in the election campaign, Ukraine did not make even to the ten top political issues. The Washington performance of Volodymir Zelensky, who is undoubtedly a PR pro, is apparently an attempt to prevent this routinization of the Ukrainian file from continuing.
Zelensky and his team did everything they could to turn his trip into a dramatic performance. When the Ukrainian president visited the US capital last time back in September of 2021, he had been just another foreign leader with plummeting public support back home desperately looking for attention and recognition by the US establishment.
In December of 2023 he has positioned himself as a war hero, a historic figure of the scale of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He replaced his standard dark suit with an olive green battle fatigues and pullover. He was no longer clean shaven – his beard and his weariness were meant to demonstrate the immense physical and psychological pressure that he had been exposed to since the beginning of the conflict.
Whether this powerful performance has a lasting impact on the US public opinion is yet to be seen. In any case, US military support will continue throughout 2023, and can even be increased in terms of supplying Kiev with more sophisticated and more advanced military hardware.
Putting emotions aside, one has to accept that the conflict has already become existential not only for Ukraine and Russia, but for the US as well: the Biden administration cannot accept a defeat in Ukraine without facing major negative implications for the US positions all over the world.
In sum, recent diplomatic activities around Ukraine imply that Russia, Ukraine, the US and the West at large are approaching 2023 with no immediate prospects not only for a comprehensive political settlement, and not even for a ceasefire. The conflicting sides count on their ability to prevail on the battlefield rather than on the skills that they can demonstrate their gains at the diplomatic table. One can only hope that this dire situation will not last for too long and that in the coming year peace will get a chance.