Biden’s visit to Ukraine signals US commitment, but war gets tougher
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody, Ian Bremmer here, and a happy Monday to you, a Happy President's Day.
I'm just back from Munich Security Conference, and of course today the big news, President Biden, with his surprise trip to Kyiv. And this is just before the first anniversary of Russia's invasion into Ukraine, last February 24th. Also, since the Russian annexation in Crimea in 2014, and their intervention in Southeast Ukraine, the first American president to visit Ukraine. That means including Obama, including Trump, including the first year of the Biden administration. This is a big deal symbolically for the US in showing continued commitment. It is a big deal for the Ukrainians in helping support their morale. It is a big deal for NATO, in helping to get them to believe that the Americans are undiminished in the prioritization of Ukraine, even after tens of billions of dollars, and a year of serious fighting.
For all of those reasons, I wouldn't underestimate the importance of this trip. So a few things talk about it. First of all, yes, it's an active war zone, and of course that does mean some level of risk. Russia has attacked Kyiv on many, many days over the past year, they could do it again. But of course, they're warned in advance as they would be warned with any US Cabinet official making that trip. And of course, the level of escalation that would be involved in the Russians engaging in anything that looked like a threat against Biden in Kyiv or against the path of the train when he leaves, all of that stuff would be an extraordinarily stupid thing for the Russians to order. I mean, never say never.
But honestly, it's a marginal risk. And I think there's no way that the President would've made that trip if they thought there was any significant danger in doing so. Let's keep in mind that most every other NATO leader has already made that trip. I think a bigger point is that it does show Biden's personal support for Zelensky, which I mean, of course was on display when Zelensky made his first international trip to Washington, and meeting with Biden. But, this is not a relationship that was great before the war. And indeed, I would say there was a lot of mistrust, mistrust of the Ukrainians in terms of concerns of corruption, concerns of Zelensky's capability. But, of course, so much of that is washed away with the level of personal courage that he has shown every day in defending his nation and also risking his own life, the lives of his families, which of course is a very different story than just showing up for a few hours in Kyiv.
And, I do think that the level of improvement in that personal relationship between Biden and Zelenskyy, is something that we have seen really grow over the course of this year. And at this point, Biden would consider it to be absolutely one of his two top foreign policy priorities and commitments for the remainder of his term. The second being the nature and stability of the US-China relationship. Also, Republican leaders going forward. I mean, there's been a lot of media attention given to a quite a fringe group of leaders, mostly on the Republican side, some Democrats as well, that really question the war and want the Americans to pull out their support. But the Republicans in Congress have overwhelmingly been supporting the Biden administration on Russia and Ukraine policy. We've seen that very strongly from Senate minority leader McConnell, who if anything, has been more hawkish in terms of the levels of military support and advanced weaponry, that the Americans who should be providing.
Also House Speaker McCarthy who says he's very much on Team Biden, when it comes to Russia and Ukraine policy, to the extent that people are questioning it is the Republican base, much lower support among rank and file voters, for the Americans to continue to provide tens of billions of dollars of support for Ukraine, I expect that will continue to erode over the coming months. Same thing for independence, though not as sharply. I think this will lead to some more NATO support, more European support. And the Japanese just made an announcement hours after Biden made the trip for $5.5 billion in additional direct aid for Ukraine as well, all of this is welcome. Now, that's all the positive. Is there any negative? There absolutely is. And I would say that what we hear from Biden, and we heard it today, and I heard it from Vice President Harris a couple of days ago, secretary of State Blinken a couple of days ago in Munich, that the US will support the Ukrainians as long as it takes.
Is that credible? This is credible for Biden, an 80-year old to actually say, as long as it takes in a war zone like this. Of course, at some level the answer is no. Is it credible for someone that has to stand for reelection in 2024? And the answer of course is, not really. It's a performative statement, it's an important statement, but it is not necessarily a realistic statement. I also heard from Vice President Harris directly, the Russians have committed crimes against humanity and that Russian leaders would be held individually accountable. How are the Americans meant to do that? How's anyone in the international community meant to hold Russian leaders with 6,000 nuclear weapons accountable? And the answer is, of course, it sounds great, and it has moral conviction, but it's not practical at all. And of course, down the road frequently when you say things ,like that, you can get yourself in trouble.
And so I mean, the question is might as long as it takes, become Biden's Assad Moscow moment in another year or two? And the answer is, at the very least, possibly, momentum has been shifting somewhat. I hear many Ukrainian leaders that I spoke with directly in Munich saying, look, don't say as long as it takes, because we can't fight as long as it takes. We need more support now, and we need to end this war sooner rather than later. We're getting tired. Our economy is a lot smaller than the Russians. It's harder to raise the kind of troops that the Russians can raise. We are worried, meaning, we the Ukrainians, they're not getting the ammunition they need right now to launch a counter-attacks against the Russians on the ground. And frankly, the United States really doesn't have the wartime economy, and isn't ramping one up to produce that ammunition.
So the US can do a lot in trying to scour the rest of the world to get that ammunition to the Ukrainians, that's probably not enough to maintain a war that would get their territory back, at least everything that was taken by the Russians, February 24th. In the context of that, Putin giving a very big speech tomorrow, and he's going to do everything that he can to show that the Russians are resolute. They're not backing down one inch on the back of Biden's trip, and on the back of NATO's support for Ukraine. And I think that's credible. I think it's credible what the troops they're throwing at this. And some 85% of all Russian ground troops are presently being fielded on the ground in Ukraine, and they're raising a lot more. And so, I mean, it's much more credible that the Russians would say, as long as it takes, frankly, then the Americans would. And I think that that has to be a concern for a lot of NATO allies and for the Ukrainians themselves, going forward.
Xi Jinping, China's president, leaning into the relationship as well, warned by the United States not to provide weapons directly for the Russians. And of course, if they were to do that. And Chinese leaders have said that they are considering doing very much that. That would be a game changer, both in terms of US-China relations, which would become much more confrontational. The US would directly put secondary sanctions on the Chinese. That is a dramatic shift in the relationship between the world's two largest economies, if it would've come to pass. And also it would require a significant escalation in NATO weapons to be provided to the Ukrainians, which again, have already been running up against some level of political constraint because of concerns of escalation of what that war would mean for spillover beyond Ukraine, between NATO and Russia itself, increasingly looking like a proxy war.
So, I mean, I do think that President Biden deserves very high marks for how he has managed the war in Ukraine, especially in terms of the coalition since February 24, a year ago. And in that regard, today's trip very successful. But let's not pretend any of us, that this war is now close to over. And I do think that the fight, in many ways gets tougher going forward than it has been for the first year. That's it for me, and I'll talk to y'all real soon.
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