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Will stalemate in Ukraine sink Biden?

President Joe Biden welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the White House on December 21, 2022 in Washington. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There’s a world in which everything breaks Joe Biden’s way next year and he wins reelection easily. One can imagine it, with effort.

Imagining a world in which things go sideways for him is easier, though, and not just because worst-case scenarios come more naturally to a pessimist like me than best-case scenarios do. His liabilities should be apparent even to the optimists among us: The economy could slide into recession, House Republicans could deliver the goods on family corruption, the old man could suffer an “episode,” or any combination of the above.

His job approval stands at 41.2 percent, lower than Donald Trump’s approval on this date four years ago. Already, there isn’t much margin for error.

The state of the war in Ukraine looks poised to shrink that margin even further.

“Silly pundit,” you reply, “voters don’t care about foreign policy. Not unless their own sons and daughters are fighting and dying somewhere.” That’s basically true, enough so that I doubt an unsatisfying outcome on Ukraine’s battlefield would cost Biden reelection in and of itself. If his health holds up, if the economy keeps growing, if the Hunter scandal remains a Hunter scandal, a stalemate in America’s proxy war with Russia probably isn’t enough to get a twice-impeached, four-times-indicted putsch enthusiast elected instead.

But if the president’s other liabilities start to weigh him down, Ukraine strikes me as an issue that some conflicted “double haters” might seize as a “tipping point” to justify handing Trump another term.

The Republican strategy for winning the next election will be thin on affirmative reasons to reelect Trump and thick on reasons not to reelect Biden. That’s the same playbook from 2016, but with a higher degree of difficulty: Post-impeachment, post-coup plot, post-indictments, how does one plausibly argue that Trump remains the lesser of two evils? You can’t. Not seriously, anyway.

What you can do is mitigate his liabilities by convincing voters that he’s no more compromised—or not much more compromised—than his opponent is. The Hunter Biden investigation aims to prove that both candidates on the ballot are corrupt, even if only one is corrupt enough to warrant criminal charges. The focus on Biden’s age aims to show that both are unfit for office, even if only one appears to suffer from several personality disorders.

You, the swing voter, will be asked not so much to decide which candidate is the lesser of two evils but simply to accept that both candidates are evil and to vote on the basis of relative competence. If they’re both evil, wouldn’t you rather have an evildoer who oversaw the gangbusters 2018 economy and cracked down on the border?

That’ll be the Republican messaging strategy in 2024, and a bad outcome in Ukraine fits into it neatly. Sure, fine, Trump disgraced himself and embarrassed the country when he stood next to Putin in Helsinki and took sides with Russia against the U.S. intelligence community, but Biden and his son are jungled up with crooked oligarchs in Ukraine. At least Trump didn’t blow $100 billion on a war that now looks likely to end with the same sort of frozen conflict that’s been the status quo in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

You deserve a president who doesn’t get sucked into aimless international conflicts. The occasional plot to end democracy in America seems like a small price to pay for such wisdom.

It’s trivially (and ironically) easy to argue that the war in Ukraine has been a major strategic success for the U.S. from an “America First” standpoint. Even if it ended today, with the front line converted into a new Ukrainian border, Biden could credibly say that we’ve gained much more from supporting Ukraine than we’ve lost.

The army of one of our two great enemies has been wrecked without a single shot being fired at—or by—American troops. Putin is diminished, having survived an aborted coup attempt in June that led to him purging some of his most capable generals. Moscow has been isolated economically by the West and is reaping the whirlwind. NATO’s support for Ukraine has been impressive enough to have attracted new members despite the ongoing crisis, bolstering the deterrent against Russian expansion. Eastern Europe has united enthusiastically behind Kyiv and seems gung ho to repel any Russian incursion themselves if it comes to that.

It’ll be a long time before the Kremlin threatens U.S. interests globally in a serious way. And meanwhile, our friends in Beijing are watching all of this and calculating how much steeper the cost of their own expansionism might be than what they had presumed two years ago.

There are also moral benefits, of course. Only God knows what sort of depravity the Ukrainian people would be suffering if Russia had overrun the country, but we can guess. And insofar as authoritarians here and abroad draw inspiration from Putin’s ruthless bravado, take heart in the fact that his humiliation is their humiliation. Populist tough guys have never sounded more absurd than when they admired the machismo of Russian military propaganda shortly before that military got pantsed by a fledgling European country armed with a hodgepodge of NATO surplus.

What’s bad for Moscow is good for the broader liberal order. Raise a glass to Ukraine and its allies.

Joe Biden could argue any or all of that next fall, and I expect he’ll try. But he isn’t great at selling his own accomplishments as president, and I’m skeptical that voters will be in any mood to hear it. Americans are a bottom-line bunch: We’ve spent $100 billion. Did Ukraine win?

Ukraine has not won. It’s unlikely to win, frankly.

The summer counteroffensive that everyone was rooting for appears to have fallen short of expectations. The Wall Street Journal reported ominously last month that Ukrainians lacked the training and the weapons they needed to advance significantly, but that Western military officials remained optimistic because, and I quote, “They hoped Ukrainian courage and resourcefulness would carry the day.” It turns out that courage and resourcefulness can only do so much against vast minefields, miles of trenches, and an enemy that continues to enjoy major battlefield advantages. “America would never attempt to defeat a prepared defense without air superiority, but they [Ukrainians] don’t have air superiority,” one retired U.S. general warned the Journal.

That was late July. By early August, sources were whispering to CNN that reports of Ukrainian progress were “sobering.” One diplomat told the network that the “Russians have a number of defensive lines and they [Ukrainian forces] haven’t really gone through the first line. Even if they would keep on fighting for the next several weeks, if they haven’t been able to make more breakthroughs throughout these last seven, eight weeks, what is the likelihood that they will suddenly, with more depleted forces, make them? Because the conditions are so hard.”

Last week, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials now expect the counteroffensive to fail, at least in its core mission of retaking Melitopol and severing the “land bridge” between Crimea and Russia proper. Ukrainian casualties have been so steep that Kyiv chose to change tactics and push forward with smaller units to make incremental gains instead of plowing ahead to try to break the main defensive line, as its Western allies envisioned.

Low morale has been, and allegedly continues to be, a problem for Russia since the start of the war. Morale has now begun to ebb in Ukraine as well, per the Post, as soldiers missing limbs return home with little to show for it and civilians continue to die from wanton Russian potshots at residential neighborhoods. Indiscriminate killing and maiming, millions displaced, no end in sight: Some experts now expect the war to last years.

“Only a few more years” will be a hard sell for Joe Biden in November 2024.

It’s a hard sell now, actually. Earlier this month, CNN found 55 percent of Americans oppose further congressional funding for Ukraine, while 51 percent say the U.S. has done enough. Among Republicans, those numbers are 71 and 59 percent, respectively; among independents, 55 and 56 percent. In all three partisan groups, more than seven in 10 say they’re worried the war will drag on without resolution for a long time.

As chance would have it, Joe Biden will soon be forced to go hat-in-hand to Kevin McCarthy and the Republican House and ask for another aid package for Kyiv. Mitch McConnell, a staunch supporter of Ukraine, was asked recently about the prospects for new funding and replied, “If it looks like a total stalemate, that’s not helpful.” Suddenly, however, a total stalemate is what we have. Putin seems determined not to lose this contest of wills despite the fact that Russia can’t advance meaningfully on the battlefield, yet increasingly the same is true of Volodymyr Zelensky and his government. 

Biden 2024: Total Stalemate. How does that grab you for a campaign slogan next fall?

The president has two political problems related to the war. One is that he can semi-plausibly be accused of having done both too much and too little. When you have doves mad at you and hawks mad at you, you’re in a tough spot.

That he did too much is a common theme among MAGA types, including the formerly principled conservatives at the Heritage Foundation. 

That second tweet is especially dimwitted, as we could just as easily compare a luxury resort on Maui that was untouched by wildfires with one of the burned-out husks of what used to be cities in Ukraine. The math is dodgy too, as our progressive tax system means that the burden for funding the war (or any government initiative) doesn’t fall equally on every American household, as Heritage folks know.

Still, one can appreciate the crude moral power of their “America First” critique and recognize that Trump himself will use it effectively against Biden next year. It’ll be cited many times by House Republicans who end up voting to block new funding for Ukraine. In fact, the top three candidates in GOP primary polling right now are all skeptics to various degrees of sending more aid to Kyiv, which should further entrench grassroots Republican opposition. Biden won’t have an easy time with doves next year.

But he won’t have an easy time with hawks, either. Having horribly botched America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, a man who ran on restoring competence to the White House can now be credibly accused of having made a second horrible foreign policy blunder. His half-pregnant approach toward escalation in Ukraine, in which we continue to arm Kyiv day by day but never too much at any one time lest we provoke Russia into a reprisal that widens the war, has given Zelensky’s troops the weapons they need to hold off the Russians but not the weapons they need to advance. Shortsightedly, the White House has engineered the very stalemate that now bedevils it politically.

A drawback of the U.S.’s incremental approach to military aid: Without a battlefield breakthrough, Kyiv doesn’t want to negotiate peace—and Moscow doesn’t have to.

“By structuring our approach around the goal of no escalation, around what we don’t want to happen, the U.S. has set itself up for a drawn-out conflict,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. “You end up in a strange middle ground where you’re not necessarily able to accomplish that second goal of putting Ukraine in a position of strength that makes negotiations possible.”

How many times during this war has the Ukrainian government lobbied the White House for some sophisticated weapons system and been told no, that it’s too provocative—only to have its request granted later, when that system is no longer as useful tactically as it might have been if supplied earlier? Jim Geraghty of National Review noted recently that officials in Ukraine began calling for F-16 jets as far back as March 2022, the second month of the war. The White House finally got around to approving that request … a few weeks ago, and it’ll likely be a few months more until the planes are of much use on the battlefield.

Imagine how the summer counteroffensive might have proceeded if those F-16s were already in service, degrading Russia’s air superiority. Doing enough to keep the Ukrainians from losing but not enough to help them actually win: Somehow Biden will need to convince swing voters that that was the right approach.

Which brings us to his second political problem. A peace deal between Ukraine and Russia is probably the best outcome electorally for the president at this point, even if the terms are suboptimal. Any deal will necessarily recognize Ukraine’s survival as a sovereign state—although with a smaller land mass than it used to have—and will mark the end of Americans needing to shell out to keep the Ukrainian war effort going. (Of course, soon we’ll be shelling out for the Ukrainian reconstruction effort.) Those are both good talking points for Biden headed into the election, more so than “war without end” would be, certainly.

The problem: How does that deal come together? If neither side is willing to make territorial concessions, what’s to talk about? As of August 2023, the total-stalemate nightmare scenario in November 2024 also appears to be the likeliest.

One cynical thing Biden could do is quietly hope that congressional Republicans will solve his problem for him. If McCarthy and the House GOP end up being muscled by their nationalist base into blocking further funding for Ukraine, the president could blame his opponents for the eventual collapse of the Ukrainian military and wash his hands of the war. But that would require being awfully cavalier about Ukraine’s suffering after spending the last 18 months championing the cause. And it probably wouldn’t do Biden much good with voters since presidents always bear ultimate blame with voters for foreign policy failures. If he and Zelensky had made better use of the money that was appropriated in 2022, voters might argue, the war would have been won without need for further outlays.

Another thing the White House could do to make a peace deal happen is introduce NATO membership into the negotiating mix.

Ukraine has been petitioning to join NATO for months, understandably, but the U.S. and Germany have been standoffish about it, also understandably. It’ll happen eventually, alliance members agreed at a meeting in July, but only after “conditions are met”—that is, after the war is over. Last week, though, former Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski floated another possibility: What if Ukraine were admitted to NATO while the war is still, technically, on?

In this scenario, the United States would give the Ukrainian military whatever it needs to advance as far as possible in its counteroffensive. At an appropriate point next year, Ukraine would declare a pause in offensive military operations and shift its primary focus to defending and rebuilding liberated areas while integrating with Western institutions. Then, at its July, 2024 summit in Washington, NATO would invite Ukraine to join the Western alliance, guaranteeing the security of all territory controlled by the Ukrainian government at that point under Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

The Biden administration has said the war must end before Ukraine can join NATO, because it does not want to risk direct U.S. involvement. But it has not defined what it means, in this context, for the war to be “over.” Must there be a formal peace treaty? Must there be a period of months or years in which Russia does not fire a single shell into Ukraine? Tying Ukrainian NATO membership to such conditions would give Putin another incentive never to meet them.

Under the Malinowski plan, if NATO membership ends up working the way it’s worked historically, Russia will be deterred by Ukraine’s inclusion in the alliance and immediately cease fire. Knowing that continued attacks would drag the U.S. into the conflict under Article 5, it’ll stand down. War’s over.

If, on the other hand, Putin decides that he won’t let NATO strong-arm him into a peace settlement, he might keep bombing and dare America to intervene. Maybe Biden will flinch, declining to enforce Article 5 in the thick of a presidential campaign and emasculating the alliance. That would be dangerous.

Or maybe he won’t flinch and will enforce Article 5 in the middle of a presidential campaign. That would be really dangerous. 

Even if Biden were game to try the Malinowski plan, there’s no reason to think Zelensky and his government would be. When a NATO deputy raised the prospect recently of Ukraine joining the alliance in return for conceding some territory to Russia, Ukrainian officials were irate. Kyiv doesn’t want NATO negotiating in public on its behalf, and it most assuredly doesn’t want to reward Putin for his terror campaign by signing away its land. The deputy retreated. The matter was hurriedly dropped.

So there’ll be no peace deal soon, it appears, even with NATO membership being dangled as a carrot. Instead, there’ll be new requests for more weapons that the White House will find it ever more politically painful to meet.

By next spring, with the election months away, I suspect Biden and his team will lean heavily on Zelensky in private to propose terms for a settlement. They’ll remind him that he’s unlikely to have a stronger hand with Putin if and when Trump returns to the presidency. The best bargain he’s going to get from Russia is one he negotiates with Joe Biden as his wingman, so he’d better negotiate quickly.

Once Zelensky realizes that joining NATO will no longer be on the table once President Trump is back in charge, that land-for-membership deal might not sound so bad.

But until then, “total stalemate” is the likely scenario. It’s not one that’s going to get Joe Biden closer to a second term.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.