WASHINGTON (AP) — A year ago, President Joe Biden braced himself for the worst as Russia massed troops to prepare to invade Ukraine.
While many in the West, and even in Ukraine, doubted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, the White House was adamant: war was imminent and Kiev was woefully defeated.
In Washington, Biden’s aides were preparing contingency plans and even drafts of what the president would say should the Ukrainian capital quickly fall to Russian forces — a scenario considered likely by most US officials. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was offered help to leave his country if he so wished.
But as Russia’s invasion hits the one-year mark, the city stands and Ukraine has exceeded even its own expectations, buoyed by a US-led alliance that has agreed to outfit Ukrainian forces with tanks, advanced air defense systems and more , while it remains the Kiev government swam with tens of billions of dollars in direct aid.
For Biden, Ukraine was an unexpected crisis, but one that fits squarely into his broader foreign policy perspective that the United States and like-minded allies find themselves in the midst of a generational conflict to demonstrate that liberal democracies like the US are better at delivering on autocracies.
According to the White House, the war turned Biden’s rhetorical warnings – a staple of his 2020 campaign speeches – into an urgent call to action.
Now, as Biden prepares to travel to Poland for the anniversary of the war, he faces a moment that will shape his legacy.
“President Biden’s job is to advocate continued free global support for Ukraine,” said Daniel Fried, a US ambassador to Poland during the Clinton administration and now a distinguished Atlantic Council official. “This is an important journey. And truly, Biden can define the role of the free world in averting tyranny.”
Biden administration officials are quick to redirect credit for Ukraine’s staying power to the bravery of its armed forces, with a supporting role for the Russian military’s ineptitude. But they also believe that without their early warnings and the massive support they orchestrated, Ukraine would have been all but wiped off the map by now.
Keeping Ukraine fighting while preventing the war from escalating into a potentially catastrophic larger conflict with NATO will go down in history as one of Biden’s enduring foreign policy achievements, they argue.
In Poland, Biden will meet with allies to convince them of US commitment to the region and help Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” It’s a promise met with skepticism both at home and abroad as the invasion enters its second year and Putin shows no sign of retreating from an invasion that has killed or wounded more than 100,000 of his own forces, combined with tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians – and millions of refugees.
Part of Biden’s job now is to convince Americans – and a global audience – that staying in the fight is more important than ever, while warning that an endgame is unlikely to come anytime soon.
His visit to Poland is an opportunity “to convey to countries that reject archaic notions of imperial conquest and aggressive wars the need to continue to support Ukraine and oppose Russia,” said John Sullivan, serving as US Ambassador to Poland resigned Moscow in September. “We always preach we are trying to protect a rules-based international order. It’s dead if Russia gets away with it.”
US resolve to stand up to Russia is also being tested by domestic concerns and economic uncertainty.
48 percent of the US public say they support the US supplying arms to Ukraine, with 29 percent opposed and 22 percent saying they are neither for nor against, according to a poll released last week by the Associated Press- NORC Center was published for public affairs research. It is evidence that support has waned since May 2022, less than three months after the war began, when 60% of adult Americans said they were in favor of sending arms to Ukraine.
Additionally, according to the AP-NORC poll, Americans are roughly evenly divided when it comes to sending government money directly to Ukraine, with 37% in favor and 38% against, with 23% saying neither .
This month, 11 House Republicans introduced the so-called “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution, calling on Biden to end military and financial aid to Ukraine while urging Ukraine and Russia to reach a peace deal. Meanwhile, the GOP’s more traditional national security wing, including just-announced 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley, a former UN envoy, has criticized the pace of US aid and pushed for faster transfers of more advanced weapons.
“Don’t look at Twitter, look at those in power,” Republican Senate Chairman Mitch McConnell said at the Munich Security Conference on Friday. “We are determined to help Ukraine.”
But Senator Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he wanted the president and his administration to inculcate the need for allies to share the burden as Americans grow weary of current levels of U.S. spending in support of Ukraine and Baltic allies become.
Sullivan said he’s hearing from Alaskans, “Hey, Senator, why are we spending all this? And how come the Europeans aren’t?”
The US has provided more economic and military aid than any other country since the war began, but European nations and other allies have collectively pledged tens of billions of dollars in support to Ukraine and taken in millions of refugees fleeing the conflict.
Since the beginning of his tenure, Biden has argued that the world is at a pivotal moment in which autocracies are being pitted against democracies.
The argument was originally formulated in terms of China as America’s biggest economic and military adversary and Biden’s attempt to refocus US foreign policy on the Pacific. The swing to Asia is an effort each of its recent predecessors tried and failed as war and foreign policy crises shifted their attention elsewhere.
With that goal in mind, Biden sought to quickly end the US military presence in Afghanistan seven months into his tenure. The end of America’s longest war was eclipsed by a chaotic retreat when 13 US troops and 169 Afghan civilians trying to flee the country were killed in a bomb attack near Kabul International Airport by the Afghan subsidiary of the Islamic State Group was conducted.
US officials say the decision to pull out of Afghanistan gave the government the bandwidth and resources to focus on supporting Ukraine in Europe’s first land war since World War II, while increasing its focus on fighting China’s focus on assertive action in the Indo-Pacific.
While the war in Ukraine led to large price hikes in energy and food markets — exacerbating rampant and persistent inflation — Biden aides saw domestic political benefits for the president. The war, they argued, allowed Biden to demonstrate his ability to work across the aisle to maintain funding for Ukraine and demonstrate his leadership on the global stage.
However the coming months play out, it’s almost certain to be messy.
While Biden last year had to hit back a public call for regime change in Russia, which he delivered off the cuff from Poland just weeks after the war began, US officials are increasingly seeing internal discontent and domestic pressure on Putin as key to ending the conflict.
“So how does it end?” Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said at an event in Washington last week to mark the upcoming anniversary. “It ends with a safe, viable Ukraine. It ends with Putin limping back from the battlefield. I hope it eventually ends with a Russian citizenry that also says, ‘That was a bad deal for us and we want a better future.’”
When Biden received Zelenskyy in Washington in December, the US president encouraged him to seek a “just peace” – a framing the Ukrainian leader resented.
“For me as President, ‘just peace’ means no compromises,” said Zelenskyy. He said the war will end once Ukraine’s sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity are restored and Russia repays Ukraine for all the damage done by its armed forces.
“There can be no ‘just peace’ in the war that has been forced upon us,” he added.
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.