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Mission creep or mission critical?

Ukrainian servicemen drill at the Belarusian border, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine near Chornobyl, Ukraine

Ukrainian servicemen drill at the Belarusian border, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine near Chornobyl, Ukraine

REUTERS/Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Get ready for the coming American debate over US support for Ukraine.

For now, Americans have Ukraine’s back. In an exclusive new poll conducted by Maru Public Opinion for GZERO, more than three-quarters of respondents say they want the US to remain "involved" in the war, with the majority favoring the supply of weapons and money to help that country repel Russia’s invasion.

But as the newly restored Republican majority in the House of Representatives builds its political agenda, and as GOP presidential candidates look for lines of attack on the Democratic incumbent, we’ll hear more Republicans argue that active support for Ukraine is a prohibitively expensive Biden administration policy. Some Republican lawmakers have already threatened to block further funding. Your GZERO Daily team will be watching these poll numbers in coming months to see just how polarizing this policy becomes.

In particular, more Republicans will warn that President Joe Biden is leaving the United States vulnerable to “mission creep,” the risk that any government can lose control of its own policy as war takes on its own logic. The American taxpayer, they’ll say, has already paid too high a price as Biden deepens his commitment to an increasingly dangerous war with a nuclear-armed enemy.

Here are the best arguments on each side of this coming debate.

Mission Creep

  • President Biden is involving the US in a war against a hostile nuclear power to protect a country that’s not a member of NATO and isn’t relevant to US national security. Accidental spillover of this war beyond Ukraine’s borders could suck the US into the riskiest military confrontation in its history.
  • Russia doesn’t threaten the US in any important way. Why is this conflict any of our business?
  • Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for tanks. When he got them, he immediately asked for fighter jets. What will he ask for next? How many tens of billions of dollars should US taxpayers spend on this war? In tough economic times, let them keep that hard-earned money in their pocket.
  • Is there a rigorous process for determining what Ukraine actually needs? Our own Ian Bremmer, who broadly supports US military backing for Ukraine, has cast doubt on that question. The Biden folks dragged their heels on providing Abrams tanks with arguments they might prove more trouble than they’re worth on this particular battlefield. Then they agreed to send them anyway. What changed?
  • Biden has said the US won’t send weapons that Ukrainians could use to attack Russian territory … but then announced this week it will send longer-range artillery and ammunition, though not long-range missiles. Why should Americans have confidence these escalations are carefully thought through?
  • Ukraine is a famously corrupt country. How much US aid will be stolen or wasted?
  • The risk: The more you invest, the more reason you have to ensure your investment is successful … which in this case means still more investment. When and how does it end?

Mission Critical

We’ll then hear pushback against these arguments from Biden, from Democrats generally, and from hawkish Republicans.

  • Russia is a threat to the US and the security of its European allies. If Vladimir Putin takes Ukraine, he’ll want more. He’ll restore the constant threat to NATO and Western democracies we thought had ended with Soviet implosion in 1991.
  • If Ukrainians have the guts to fight a nuclear-armed invader to protect their independence and democracy, shouldn’t those who preach to the world about Western values make a real contribution to defend them? This isn’t a civil war or a complex multi-sided conflict. It’s Putin’s full, frontal assault on international rule of law. Put up or shut up!
  • The world is watching, and a precedent is being set. Putin apparently believed his bold invasion would force a quick Ukrainian surrender and present the West with a fait accompli. If the West backs off in coming months, and Russia ultimately wins this war, what message will this retreat send to those who believe borders can still be redrawn at gunpoint. Both China and Taiwan would like to know.

The two arguments aren’t mutually exclusive. Yes, time is of the essence on the battlefield, but US and European leaders can still scale their commitment to ensure Russia can’t win, work to limit the risk that an accident can force a dangerous escalation, and manage the process in a cost-conscious way.

Or can they?

Tell us what you think. Is expanding US military support for Ukraine a case of mission creep or mission critical?


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