Half a year has passed since Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine. It’s a European war, but the one who has been instrumental in helping the bravely fighting Ukrainians to repel Russian aggression, hold most of their territory, and in some places even go on the counteroffensive, is the United States. So far, the latest military delivery last week, which includes additional HIMARS missile launchers, brings the total amount of US arms aid to date to $10.6 billion (260 billion crowns). And that is just less than a fifth of the funds the US Congress has made available to Ukraine since the war began. In addition to weapons, this is $54 billion (CZK 1 323 billion, or three-quarters of the Czech state budget) in financial and humanitarian aid. By comparison, America’s traditional ally Israel receives less than 5 billion a year.
For Americans, Ukraine is an unknown country somewhere in the eastern reaches of Europe. Just as most Europeans would not find South Dakota or Iowa on a blind map of the US, the average American would not be able to tell where Ukraine is. And yet, in a fresh poll for the think tank The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a majority of Americans still agree with continued military (72 percent of respondents) and economic (71 percent) support for Kiev. How to explain this? And how much longer can it last? The answers are crucial not only for Ukraine, but for Europe as a whole.
Without the US, Western aid to Kiev would be totally inadequate. While we do not know what form Moscow’s victory would have taken then (whether Putin would have settled for Ukraine or moved on), it would have been inevitable without American involvement. And therein lies the key to answering the first question. For the Americans, it is not a “war in Ukraine” as we say here in Europe, but a “war against Russia”. A war against a familiar enemy. For the older generations of Americans in particular, it comes as an unpleasant surprise that they have to go up against Moscow again, because they have already defeated the Russians once in the Cold War. But all the more so now that no one has to convince them of what Moscow is.
Even if they did not see what the Russians are capable of on television again today, they would still know who they are dealing with. A regime that is strangling freedom in its own country in order to drastically try to stifle it elsewhere. A country that was already economically weak compared to the US as the Soviet Union and which is now utterly futile in the eyes of the Americans in this regard. Only two percent of them think Russia is a global economic competitor for their country.
It just has nuclear weapons. So direct military conflict with Moscow is not what Americans want, it is not a war in which American soldiers should die. But this uncrossable red line also has a second powerful reason why the American public stands with Ukraine. Americans are impressed by how Ukrainians themselves are defending their country, their families, their independence. In Europe, where we tend to view this with doubt because ‘we know that things are not black and white in Ukraine’, this motive escapes us. But in the US, it is strong. The Americans appreciate that Kiev is asking for American weapons and money, but not soldiers.
The answer to the second question raised above – How long will US aid to Ukraine last? – is not so clearly hopeful for Kiev and Europe. Certainly not as President Joe Biden declared at the NATO summit in Madrid in June, when he said that Washington would “support Kiev against Russian aggression for as long as necessary”. In the US presidential system, the White House does have great powers in foreign policy, but it is also true in the US that foreign policy is a reflection and extension of domestic policy. And the view into the political bowels of Washington is uncertain.
The Republican Party is still completely in thrall to former President Donald Trump and his transactional “America First” foreign policy, which is realpolitik on steroids. If Henry Kissinger claimed that “America has no friends but its interests”, Trump today says de facto that “the interests of the US are me and my interests”. Trump proclaims that if he were president, Putin would not have attacked Ukraine because he was afraid of him. But at the same time, Trump torpedoes Biden’s current support for Kiev.
“Democrats are sending another 40 billion to Ukraine while parents in America are struggling to feed their children,” Trump attacked the May congressional vote on a military and financial package for Ukraine. His statement was misleading, as is the norm with Trump, because Republicans voted overwhelmingly for the bill in Congress. But on the other hand: a quarter of Republican lawmakers in the lower house, the House of Representatives, and a fifth in the upper house, the Senate, were against it.
And this view, that America must look after its own troubles, could be greatly strengthened if, as all the evidence so far suggests, the Republicans win a majority in the lower house in this November’s elections. This is a new paradox of American foreign policy: the Democrats are now more hawkish than the Republicans have historically been.
But even the Democrats are not entirely without question on Ukraine. This May, in his response to a previous critical editorial in the New York Times, the voice of the Democratic establishment, President Biden had to explain to his fellow party members what the White House’s goals in Ukraine actually are. “The United States will continue to work to strengthen Ukraine and support its efforts to reach a negotiated end to the conflict,” Biden wrote at the time, wanting to help Ukraine on the battlefield so that it can force the “strongest possible position at the negotiating table” with Russia.
Biden’s text was surely read carefully by Putin, who is adamant that the Russians’ patience and ability to endure hardship is far more enduring than the willingness of Americans to spend tens of billions of dollars far overseas. So far, Vladimir Vladimirovich has miscalculated; Ukrainians have decisive, differential support in America.
The United States is, as Madeleine Albright once put it in general terms about the U.S. role on the international stage, “an indispensable country” for Kiev. But at the same time, Václav Havel’s famous quote holds true: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worthwhile – no matter how it turns out.” The persistence of U.S. support for Ukraine will increasingly depend on its own will, courage, and conviction about the meaning of its struggle.
This article was translated from the Czech original published at časopis Přítomnost.
published: 29. 8. 2022