The debate about how much aid the U.S. should send to Ukraine often skips past a strange and likely counterproductive pattern in the Biden administration’s decision-making.
Biden and his team will often say things like, “The United States is committed to ensuring that the brave Ukrainian people can continue to defend their country against Russian aggression as long as it takes.” And then President Zelensky will ask for a long list of weapons systems, and the Biden response will be, “We will send you A and B, but not C and D.” And then a few months later, the Biden team will conclude they should send C and D.
Have you noticed that the possibility of sending a particular U.S. weapons system to Ukraine is usually considered unwise, unhelpful, and even escalatory and dangerous . . . right up until the moment the Biden administration changes its mind? And then all of a sudden, sending those weapons is absolutely the right thing to do?
The Biden team usually sends the disputed weapons, but only months after the Ukrainians asked for them, and with many Ukrainian soldiers and civilians dying in the interim.
I’m not alone in this observation. Jimmy Quinn reports below that Representative Michael McCaul, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Representative Mike Rogers, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, are comparing the refusal to approve certain weapons shipments to the failure to kill the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project in 2021.
And this morning the Wall Street Journal editorial board asks what the U.S. hopes to achieve by arming Ukraine slowly and intermittently:
The U.S. Marines recently retired their tank battalions as part of a strategy shift, and those Abrams could be put to good use in Ukraine.
Yet the Biden Administration is leaking that the aid it plans to announce this week won’t include tanks. Neither will the U.S. offer the Army tactical missile system, which would allow the Ukrainians to strike targets from afar, launched off the Himars systems that have been deployed to such great effect.
This reluctance is a profile in puzzling timidity. The White House fear is apparently that the war will escalate if Mr. Putin continues to lose ground. The Russian is capable of anything, but there is no moral or strategic case for giving Ukraine just enough weapons to bleed for months with no chance of victory.
If you’re worried about any move the U.S. government makes being perceived as “escalatory” by Vladimir Putin, then you’ve effectively given him a veto over your decision-making. Every step to victory is inherently “escalatory” because it raises the stakes and raises the odds of defeat for Putin. There is no safe or low-risk path to winning a war.
For an administration that keeps telling us how it’s willing to stand by Ukraine through thick and thin, the Biden team keeps finding reasons to hem and haw about sending over any weapons system that could turn the tide. For a long time, I’ve written we’re led by a president paralyzed by wanting two contradictory goals — a Russian defeat, and for the war to end as soon as possible.
Biden gets a lot of credit for the Ukrainian resistance so far – too much credit, I would argue — but you’re starting to see the friction from internal White House divisions. The Biden team praises Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the record and then trashes him on background. They insist they would never tell Zelensky to make concessions, but then tell him he has to appear open to negotiations. In a New York Times op-ed, Biden pledged he “would not pressure the Ukrainian government — in private or public — to make any territorial concessions.” Privately, Biden’s team doubts Ukraine will be able to retake all of its conquered territories, and think “Zelensky should shift his definition of a Ukrainian ‘victory’ — adjusting for the possibility that his country has shrunk irreversibly.”
What does Biden want to do? Some days he wants to avoid escalation and get the war over as quickly as possible. Some days he wants to defeat Putin and expel the Russian invaders, even if the cost is high. And a lot of days, he seems to waver between those two contrary goals.