Could a US budget fight end the Ukraine war?

Kyiv's day of reckoning may be here, as citizens of the West seek a swift end to the expensive conflict

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It’s been more than two months since Ukraine was front-page news in the US media. It had become an old story and was being displaced by the horrors unfolding daily in Gaza.

This past week, however, Ukraine came back into the headlines not so much for changing developments in the war but because the US Congress balked at approving the Biden administration’s request for an additional $61 billion in funding to resupply Kyiv’s dwindling weapons arsenal.

Congress’s hesitation in acting on this matter is born of a number of factors. Some legislators didn’t support the war from the outset and now see it as an almost two-year-old deadly stalemate.

There are partisan concerns as well. Some Republicans, for example, see the urgency behind President Joe Biden’s Ukraine aid request as an opportunity to use this issue as leverage to push for increased funding to “secure the southern US border”. Other Republicans have sought to tie approving Ukraine aid to cuts in domestic spending, while some Democrats have argued that the funds should be reallocated to prioritise increases in some of the very same domestic programmes Republicans want to cut.

The internal GOP friction caused by how best to deal with Mr Biden’s aid request has already toppled one Republican, Kevin McCarthy, from his post as Speaker of the House and is now causing headaches for his successor, Mike Johnson. How this will end is uncertain, but what’s clear is that there are vocal minorities in both congressional delegations who are not on board with continued funding for the war in Ukraine.

To some extent, this reticence among legislators reflects US public opinion on how best to deal with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There is no combination of European countries with the resources to match the level of funding the US has been providing to support Ukraine

In October, Zogby Research Services conducted a survey of attitudes towards the war in Ukraine in seven European countries and the US. In most countries, there is a growing weariness with the costs of the war and a desire to see it come to a negotiated end.

In the US, one in five respondents see the US as the main party responsible for the war as well as the major obstacle to peace between Ukraine and Russia. This view is shared by equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.

At the same time, seven in 10 Americans agree that the costs of the war are concerning and believe that a compromise should be found to end it. This is the position of three-quarters of Republicans and six in 10 Democrats. It’s also worth noting that a plurality of Republicans now sees the war as having weakened the US on the world stage.

Opponents of continued US funding argue that European countries should step up and foot the bill for Ukraine. This ignores important political changes that are unfolding across the European continent.

In the first place, there is no combination of European countries with the resources to match the level of funding the US has been providing to support Ukraine. In several European countries, there is also a growing rightward-leaning populist current that has a strong nativist and isolationist bent. As such, European support for increasing arms shipments and aid to Ukraine has declined.

While the poll shows that three-quarters of Europeans continue to hold Russia responsible for the war and support sanctions against that country, the increases in the cost of living and, in particular, the cost of energy brought on by this war and the sanctions against Russia have taken a toll on European opinion.

Eight in 10 now say that the increase in the cost of living is their greatest concern with this war. The same percentage now say that costs of continuing the war are too high and a compromise should be found to save lives and resources.

Despite the fact that US opinion is divided on continuing this war and Europe is increasingly questioning its costs, Mr Biden has doubled down on elevating his support for Ukraine and Israel as his administration’s signature foreign policy issues.

In a piece he authored a few weeks ago, Mr Biden attempted to tie together the wars against Moscow and Hamas as defining battles of our generation. The US President cloaked himself with a neoconservative mantle channelling Ronald Reagan confronting the Evil Empire and George W Bush challenging his invented Axis of Evil.

America, in Mr Biden’s view, is the force of good in the world facing down the forces of evil in a battle that must be won for the future of humanity to be secure.

This formulation is questionable on many levels. Hamas is not Russia and Israel is not Ukraine. Neither of them poses the existential challenge to the West that was once posed by the Soviet Union. And while both are involved in wars, Russia is seen by many as the occupier and aggressor in Ukraine, but Israel is seen by many as the occupier and aggressor in Gaza.

The bottom line is that there is a growing body of opinion in Europe and the US questioning the wisdom of having Ukraine be yet another “war without end”. This poses a challenge not only for Ukraine, but for the Biden administration.

By removing Ukraine from the headlines for a few months, the war in Gaza delayed Congress and the White House having to make tough decisions about the future. But with budget matters needing to come to a conclusion by year’s end, the day of reckoning is at hand.

Published: December 11, 2023, 2:00 PM