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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Can Ukraine rely on US? Doubts grow.



A woman walks between graves of Ukrainian soldiers killed in combat since Russia’s February 2022 full scale invasion of the country, at a military cemetery in the western city of Lviv, Jan. 30, 2024. (Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times)

By David E. Sanger


A year ago, when Washington and much of Europe were still awash in optimism that Ukraine was on the verge of repelling Russia from its territory, it seemed inconceivable that the United States would turn its back on the victim of Vladimir Putin’s aggression.


Now, even as Senate Democrats try to salvage an aid package for Ukraine, that possibility remains real. And the political moment feels a long way from 14 months ago when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine stood before a joint session of Congress, wearing his signature drab green sweater, and basked in a minute-long standing ovation.


The turnaround has surprised the White House. Even if the Senate manages to advance military aid, there are still plenty of reasons to doubt that the money will come through, including deep opposition among Republicans in the House and former President Donald Trump’s push for a more isolationist stance.


President Joe Biden’s aides insist they are not yet scrambling for other options.


“We’re not focused on Plan B,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, said in Brussels earlier this week after a NATO meeting with his counterparts. “We’re focused on plan A,” which he said meant passing a bipartisan aid package that will enable Ukraine to “defend effectively and to take back territory that Russia currently occupies.”


But behind the scenes there is a lot of discussion, in Washington and Europe, about other options, including seizing more than $300 billion in Russian central bank assets that are stashed in Western nations — a process that is turning out to be a lot more complicated than it first seemed.


Still, U.S. officials concede there is nothing on the horizon that could match the power of a new, $60 billion congressional appropriation, which would buy bolstered air defenses, more tanks and missiles, and a huge influx of ammunition.


And, they add, the symbolism of America pulling back now could be profound.


European officials who have been dreading the possibility that Trump might be reelected and make good on his promise to withdraw from NATO are beginning to wonder, at least in private, about the reliability of the United States, no matter who is president.


If Republicans are willing to abide by Trump’s demand that they vote against continued aid to Ukraine, one senior European diplomat in Berlin asked Wednesday, why would Europe rely on Biden’s assurance that the United States would “defend every inch” of NATO territory? Even some of Trump’s former national security aides — the ones he long ago split with — are beginning to say that a failure to fund Ukraine would amount to a huge strategic win for Putin.


“The United States has a clear choice: arm the Ukrainians with the weapons they need to defend themselves or cut off aid and abandon democratic Ukraine in its struggle for national survival against Putin’s aggression,” H.R. McMaster, who served for a year as the second of Trump’s four national security advisers, said Monday. He noted that while Congress debated, “the abandonment of Kyiv would be a gift to the Moscow-Tehran-Beijing-Pyongyang axis of aggressors. Allies and partners would lose trust in America as those aggressors are emboldened.”


Oddly enough, Congress’ threat to derail the aid comes just at the moment that Europe committed $54 billion for rebuilding the country over the next four years, and countries from Norway to Germany are committing new arms aid. “It is remarkable how quickly Europe has moved toward a new and substantive multiyear support program for Ukraine,” Christoph Trebesch, who directs the production of the Ukraine Support Tracker at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in northern Germany. “For the first time, the U.S. is now lagging behind by a large margin” compared with European aid, he said.


“This is not charity; it is in our own security interest,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at the alliance’s headquarters Wednesday, appearing at a news conference with Sullivan. A Russian victory, he added, “matters for European security and it matters for American security.”


But this argument, that the West must push back on Russia in Ukraine or face the possibility of fighting it on NATO territory, seems to be losing its effectiveness in Congress. And some Republican members of Congress are still accusing Europe of not pulling its weight, even if the newest financial commitments change the equation.


But none of these arguments, officials in the U.S. and Europe say, can overcome the reality: If the United States pulls the plug on its financial support for the war, much of the day-to-day military necessities will go away — starting with air defense against the near-daily barrages of missiles, drones and other weaponry aimed at urban centers and critical infrastructure including the electric grid. And if the country’s economy collapses, it will terminate a two-year-long effort to save a fledgling if deeply flawed democracy.


Meanwhile, Biden’s aides are trying to figure out how to pay for weapons if Congress remains paralyzed. The plan to seize Russian assets has complications. It’s not clear that the reserves could be used to pay for air defense and artillery. Even that, administration officials say, could require congressional action — although presumably there are more votes in the House and Senate for spending Russia’s money than spending the United States’.


There is also discussion of conducting complex weapons swaps, similar to what Japan and South Korea have done, where they have provided their artillery shells to the United States, freeing up Washington to give more to Ukraine. (Both countries have said they could not export directly to a war zone.) Or, perhaps, have European nations pay for American weapons and ship those to Ukraine.


Sullivan, for his part, insists that if the administration sticks to its strategy, it will prevail. “Walking away from Ukraine at this moment, at this time, would be fundamentally wrong from the point of view of our basic national security in the United States and for our NATO allies, as well,’’ he said Wednesday. “And we think we will continue to win that argument.”

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