The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Biden’s Ukraine strategy benefits from Republican opposition

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Biden at the White House on Dec. 21. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
5 min

The usual assumption is that presidents benefit from having Congress united behind their stated foreign policy strategy. Partisan discord can call a strategy’s durability into question. But sometimes discord provides a president with an opportunity that can be exploited for political and strategic benefit.

In the second year of the war in Ukraine, President Biden will be positioned to do just that, with populist Republicans who oppose continued support for Ukraine as his foil. Republican sniping about his trip to Kyiv this week offered a glimpse of what lies ahead. The administration might even be furtively grateful for divided government if it helps bring the war to an end on terms favorable to the United States.

Start with the fact that the president is not, on the evidence of the war’s first year, an enthusiast for what strategist Edward Luttwak has called “the victory lobby.” Many in Western capitals and the media believe that the only acceptable outcome to the war is a total defeat of Russia, including its expulsion from all of occupied Ukraine and possibly the collapse of the government in Moscow.

That has not been Biden’s inclination. He has emphasized the importance of defending Ukraine while avoiding the risk of direct war with Russia. In the war’s first year, the steady escalation in Pentagon military assistance to Kyiv — culminating most recently with battle tanks — has not been led by the White House. It has been driven by Congress and sustained media pressure, which the administration tends to resist before falling in line.

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Opinions on the war in Ukraine after one year
One year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Post Opinions is marking the anniversary with columns looking at all that has transpired and what may lie ahead.
Post Opinions partnered with the Brookings Institution to visualize the war’s effects on Ukraine’s economy, immigration trends and more. Together, these indicators suggest the fighting is unlikely to end anytime soon, write Michael O’Hanlon, Constanze Stelzenmüller and David Wessel of Brookings.
The Editorial Board looked for solutions, calling on the United States and its European allies to intensify their military, economic and diplomatic support for Kyiv. Vladimir Putin hopes for a stalemate, the Editorial Board writes, and the West needs to fuel a game-changing shift in momentum.
In an op-ed adapted from her Feb. 9 speech at the “Rebuilding Ukraine, Rebuilding the World” conference at Harvard, Oleksandra Matviichuk writes that it is not only wrong but also immoral not to provide weapons for Ukraine.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling describes the Ukraine war as a slugfest, not a stalemate. He outlines five phases of the war and predicts that Ukraine’s forces will ultimately prevail.
Columnist Jason Willick looks at the war through the lens of U.S. politics. President Biden, he says, is positioned to take advantage of divided government by using as his foil Republicans who oppose continued support for Ukraine.
Antony Beevor, a former tank commander with the British Army, says the Ukraine war has revived the role of the main battle tank.
Columnist David Ignatius examines three main characters of the war: Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden. A year into the war, Ignatius writes, Putin’s staying power begins to seem questionable, while Zelensky and Biden have never looked stronger.
Columnist George F. Will discusses the importance of continued support for Ukraine, writing that Putin can win only if Ukraine’s allies neglect to maximize their moral and material advantages.
Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard, reconsiders what it would mean to win in Ukraine. A new Cold War, he writes, might not be the worst outcome.


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This demonstrated caution runs counter to Biden’s soaring rhetoric about the war. He has cast it as part of an existential struggle between “democracy and autocracy,” declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” and insisted that his administration will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”

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Meanwhile, Republican voters’ enthusiasm for a forcefully pro-Ukraine policy has waned, and some of their representatives are following suit. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri delivered a speech criticizing U.S. policy on Thursday, citing the threat from China, and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who helped hold up Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid for House speaker, introduced a resolution this month against further support for Kyiv. This conservative tendency will have greater expression in the GOP-controlled House, making Biden’s incremental approach appear more hawkish by contrast.

That contrast might well work in Biden’s favor. He can take political credit for the United States’ record of strongly supporting Ukraine — broadly popular with Democrats and independents — while attributing limits on that support to recalcitrant Republicans. For example, The Post last week reported on remarks by a “senior administration official” who said, “We will continue to try to impress upon [Ukraine’s leaders] that we can’t do anything and everything forever,” citing the likelihood of resistance from Congress.

That remark sparked outrage within the victory lobby, but the stance it revealed was hardly a surprise to close observers of administration policy and media messaging. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in November raised the possibility of a negotiated end to the war, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently signaled that he is thinking actively about the war’s endgame. As Bloomberg’s Hal Brands observed this month, “The US doesn’t want the war to drag on forever, because it is turning much of Ukraine into a wasteland while taking a toll on Western treasuries, arsenals and attention.”

See more charts on the war in Ukraine

That is not what the influential liberal internationalists in Biden’s elite base want to hear, or what Biden’s rhetoric has suggested they can expect. Nor, of course, is it what Ukraine’s courageous defenders want to hear. While Biden clearly envisions a viable, well-armed Ukraine as part of any settlement, he likely sees the risks and costs associated with Kyiv’s version of victory as too high for the U.S. government to bear.

Politically, Biden and his allies can cast populists in Congress as their chief ideological opponents — as heartless at best and opponents of democracy at worst. But behind the scenes, I suspect, some officials are grateful that Congress is no longer united in support of escalating America’s role in the war.

That gives the administration more flexibility in the next year. It can say that while it wants to make available the full suite of American weaponry until Kyiv’s vision of victory is achieved, it is politically constrained at home. The presence of a “bad cop” in Congress could help the “good cop” administration nudge Kyiv toward the negotiating table while maintaining its trust (which is crucial to making any settlement sustainable).

Signs of internal American discord over the war in Ukraine could embolden Putin, it is true. But democracies rarely have the luxury of fighting wars as a unified front. The challenge for a foreign policy leader isn’t to create uniform agreement, but to leverage disagreement in pursuit of the national interest.

Republican skepticism of the war is likely to persist, and one interpretation is that this will undercut America’s strategic objectives. Another interpretation is that it will help the Biden administration triangulate and make its real objectives — the degradation of Russia’s military, the preservation of Ukraine’s independence and the avoidance of direct war — more likely to be vindicated in the end.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.