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Biden’s Soft Underbelly on Ukraine

The Biden administration’s fear of provoking Putin and risking World War III has become an excuse to do less for Ukraine.

By , a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A Ukrainian flag flies amid black smoke in an otherwise bright blue sky above buildings in Lviv.
A Ukrainian flag flies amid black smoke in an otherwise bright blue sky above buildings in Lviv.
A Ukrainian flag flies as smoke rises above buildings in Lviv, Ukraine, on Oct. 10 after Russian missile attacks on critical infrastructure. Pavlo Palamarchuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Late in the summer of 2022, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan again proclaimed the Biden administration’s enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine against Russia. But, he demurred, “there are certain capabilities the president has said he is not prepared to provide. One of them is long-range missiles that have a range of 300 kilometers” because “while a key goal of the United States is to support and defend Ukraine, another key goal is to ensure that we do not end up in a circumstance where we are heading down the road toward a third world war.”

Weeks later, “senior officials” in the Biden administration made a point of leaking the results of an investigation into the murder of the daughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally Alexander Dugin. Daria Dugina was killed in a car bomb, and some Ukrainian officials suggested the attack could have been a false flag operation on the part of the Kremlin to stir hostility against the “Nazis” in Kyiv. Nope, insist “senior [U.S.] government officials,” it was the Ukrainians, hastening to add that the United States had no hand in the attack.

The two events belie a troubling undercurrent in the Biden administration: a hesitation about fully supporting Ukraine, a slow rolling of vital weaponry, and an almost pathological fear of what the U.S. president and his staff have repeatedly described as the threat of World War III. That hesitation has meant more deaths and a slower path to victory for Ukraine, congressional national security staff tell me. Worse, it portends serious risk that, should the conflict drag on and costs continue to rise, the White House will begin to pressure Ukraine for a negotiated peace with Moscow—ending the war, for example, before Kyiv can retake Crimea or even sooner.

Late in the summer of 2022, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan again proclaimed the Biden administration’s enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine against Russia. But, he demurred, “there are certain capabilities the president has said he is not prepared to provide. One of them is long-range missiles that have a range of 300 kilometers” because “while a key goal of the United States is to support and defend Ukraine, another key goal is to ensure that we do not end up in a circumstance where we are heading down the road toward a third world war.”

Weeks later, “senior officials” in the Biden administration made a point of leaking the results of an investigation into the murder of the daughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally Alexander Dugin. Daria Dugina was killed in a car bomb, and some Ukrainian officials suggested the attack could have been a false flag operation on the part of the Kremlin to stir hostility against the “Nazis” in Kyiv. Nope, insist “senior [U.S.] government officials,” it was the Ukrainians, hastening to add that the United States had no hand in the attack.

The two events belie a troubling undercurrent in the Biden administration: a hesitation about fully supporting Ukraine, a slow rolling of vital weaponry, and an almost pathological fear of what the U.S. president and his staff have repeatedly described as the threat of World War III. That hesitation has meant more deaths and a slower path to victory for Ukraine, congressional national security staff tell me. Worse, it portends serious risk that, should the conflict drag on and costs continue to rise, the White House will begin to pressure Ukraine for a negotiated peace with Moscow—ending the war, for example, before Kyiv can retake Crimea or even sooner.

Earlier this year was more hopeful: In the weeks before the Russian invasion in February, the Biden administration shrewdly declassified intelligence about Russian plans, moves, and plots to blame Ukraine for causing a war. The psychological operations were beautifully choreographed with a Cold War verve that promised that Biden’s national security team was on its game and prepared for what was to come. Weirdly, in the event, however, it wasn’t.

The problems were clear even before the invasion. In response to the 2021 Russian military buildup on its border with Ukraine (that prepositioned equipment ultimately used to invade in 2022), the Biden administration blocked $60 million in U.S. military drawdowns. (Drawdowns allow the U.S. government to export existing defense stocks.) After denying it was blocked, Sullivan allowed they would permit the drawdown “in the event there was a further Russian incursion into Ukraine.” It was finally approved in August 2021 (likely as a deliverable for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Washington that September).

By autumn, the Biden administration was back to its old game, blocking the delivery of Stinger missiles, suggesting it would provoke Russia. December saw a $200 million drawdown blocked. Later that same month, the administration withheld approval for Baltic nations to deliver Javelins and Stingers to Ukraine.

By January, the Biden administration had completely bought into the “don’t anger Russia” narrative coming from certain quarters inside the administration (I’m told it was the Pentagon), and was contemplating force posture reductions in Eastern Europe. The next month, war broke out—and intelligence sharing and military assistance to Ukraine were on the chopping block, with White House lawyers arguing it might make the United States a party to the war.

In March, Biden blocked the transfer of MiG-29 jets from Poland to Ukraine (the Ukrainians to this day still lack sufficient air power). In June, after months of delays, the Biden administration delivered game-changing High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), but only 16 of them, because the Pentagon reportedly balked at further depleting U.S. stockpiles. Last week, the Pentagon announced 18 more HIMARS—for delivery in two years.

Far from the strategic skill the White House displayed in its mind games with Russia, each chapter in the incredible success story of Ukraine’s military defense has been fraught. Somehow, the White House is afraid to plan ahead, drawing down military equipment more slowly than either U.S. stocks or the budget requires (much to the ire of both Senate and House Armed Services Committee Democrats and Republicans) and sitting on more than $2 billion in drawdown authority until it expired.

Indeed, in every instance in which Ukrainian forces have pushed beyond the low expectations of the Pentagon, the White House has required persuasion and nagging to move to the next level. Prudence has edged towards paralysis, with every step forward followed by hand wringing that this time is too far.

Defenders of the administration argue correctly that of all the NATO nations committing support to Ukraine, the United States is the least dilatory, and a comparison to the inconstant commitments of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz makes the Biden administration look positively militant. But racking and stacking the United States of America next to the perennially timid Europeans is hardly the issue. Rather, it is in comparing what the United States could do for Ukraine to what the Biden administration is actually doing that prompts questions.

The answer, per the Biden national security team, is the prospect of World War III, or, as President Biden recently labeled it at a Democratic Party fundraiser, “armageddon.” (Though White House and Pentagon officials underscore they do not see the nuclear scenario as “probable.”) Still, the press is swimming in quotes from Sullivan, Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl, and others fretting about escalation. But why? Is world war a genuine prospect? Are Putin’s nuclear threats real? Or are “armageddon” and “World War III” straw men the White House has embraced to avoid a full-throated defense of Ukraine?

Any U.S. president’s number one job is the defense of the American people’s safety and security. Biden is right to consider worst-case scenarios and to avoid backing into them. He’s right to listen to Putin’s threats and treat them seriously. But it’s also clear by now that the Russian military, far from pouring through the Fulda Gap, is incapable of defeating the substantially smaller Ukrainian military.

Might Putin actually decide to damn the proverbial torpedoes and launch a tactical nuclear attack on Ukraine? Maybe. But on the United States or another NATO ally? Why? That’s not just irrational, that’s insane—assured destruction. Even the most pacifist of leaders would be compelled to respond.

Increasingly, however, it appears that these worst-case fever dreams are less a clear-eyed anticipation of the potential apocalypse and more another reason for the Biden administration to do less for Ukraine, ever more fearful of “provoking” the Kremlin. And there is ample history to suspect the truth of the supposition.

Much of Biden’s current national security team cut its teeth in the Obama administration. Sullivan was then-Vice President Biden’s national security advisor. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines was deputy national security advisor and deputy CIA director under President Barack Obama. Current Secretary of State Antony Blinken was deputy secretary of the same department. Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy—today a key decision maker on Ukraine—succeeded Sullivan as national security advisor to then-Vice President Biden. No surprise, then, that the same thinking that governed Obama’s team on Ukraine and Russia now governs the Biden administration.

In the wake of the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine that resulted in the annexation of Crimea and presaged the 2022 war, the Obama administration simply refused to provide Ukraine with meaningful lethal military assistance, rebuffing pleas from both Kyiv and Congress. In March 2014, a first tranche of U.S. military aid was 300,000 meals ready to eat. The White House averred that “use of force is not a preferred option” for Ukraine, as “there’s not going to be any scenario where the Ukrainian military is brought up to parity with the Russian military.” September 2014 saw a shipment of night-vision goggles and blankets.

The Trump administration reversed Obama’s ban on lethal equipment for Ukraine, though the 210 Javelin missiles and 37 launchers were required to be kept boxed, used only as a “strategic deterrent” to Moscow. President Donald Trump also slow-rolled aid for nearly two months hoping to press Zelensky for dirt on the Biden family.

Even in the aftermath of the Trump administration reversal, the new Biden administration was cautious of stepping up lethal deliveries to Ukraine. In a February piece for The Atlantic, ret. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (who dramatically quit the Trump White House over the infamous Zelensky call) accused Biden of “grant[ing] Putin a free hand,” refusing “to provide advanced weapon systems to Ukraine, such as Patriot anti-aircraft missiles or Harpoon anti-ship missiles, because it determined that Ukraine’s armed forces were not sophisticated enough to handle them.” And that was before war broke out.

The potential Republican takeover of the House of Representatives (and perhaps the Senate) promises yet more complications. While plenty of senior Republicans have urged the White House to step up the speed and quality of weapons deliveries to Ukraine, a vocal minority— likely to be larger after the midterm elections—will be railing against each bullet and every penny that is spent for Ukraine. Will that minority find a counterpart among the administration’s advocates for yet more restraint?

The direction of Ukraine policy is unclear, apart from the week by week, month by month incrementalism. But the Biden pattern is clear: Try to ratchet up and down the pace and quality of arms deliveries to Ukraine, calibrating and recalibrating what might anger Putin. And as Biden’s fears (whether real or political drama) about a tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine take further hold of his imagination, he will worry all the more about poking the tiger.

At what point will the president’s concerns dictate increased pressure on Kyiv to freeze the conflict and come to the negotiating table, per Henry Kissinger’s hyper-realist counsel? It’s impossible to know. At what point will Biden start leveraging the prospect of post-war reconstruction assistance to Ukraine (estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars already) to compel Ukraine to end the war before complete victory? Maybe he won’t.

But the history of Biden’s national security team, the evidence of financial aid and arms sales, and the president’s own ever-more panicked rhetoric suggest that the specter of Obama-era Ukraine policy will loom ever larger, and promise ever more constrained support for the forces of freedom in Ukraine.

Danielle Pletka is a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-host of the podcast What the Hell is Going On? Twitter: @dpletka

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