No time to go wobbly in America’s support for Ukraine

When I spoke to a French business owner in the energy industry this fall, I asked if he thought NATO’s full support for Ukraine in its war against Russia would wane or break this winter. He replied matter-of-factly, “It depends on how cold it gets.”

It’s unnerving. Russian President Vladimir Putin is clearly hoping that oil and gas shortages caused by his election war against Ukraine will erode support in Europe for Ukrainians, as high heating costs challenge people here trying to wean themselves off Russian energy supplies.

With Putin’s unprovoked, brutal, criminal war dragging into its ninth month, NATO’s resolve may be tested like never before by the impact of winter and skyrocketing fuel prices. Europeans are already worried by worrying signs that US resolve may be weakening as voters head into volatile midterm elections. That would be tragic.

“This is no time to go wrong,” as then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously told then-President George HW Bush in 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and Bush strategized with the “Iron Lady” about plans that in ultimately leading to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

President Joe Biden has demonstrated commendable resolve, effective diplomacy and strong leadership in unifying NATO and helping it stand firm in the face of Putin’s murderous attacks on Ukraine. Whatever results emerge from the midterms, shame on America if politicians on the right or the left undermine critical work in the coming months.

If Republicans retake the House after the Nov. 8 election, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., could become speaker, and he has already signaled that he would go wrong on Ukraine, declaring that the U.S. no longer can give Ukraine “a blank check.” A growing number of Republicans are questioning whether the United States should continue to commit tens of billions in humanitarian and security aid to Ukraine without stricter oversight as Americans suffer from rising inflation.

U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., greets members of Congress at a statue unveiling on Sept. 29, 2022, at the Capitol in Washington.

It is worrying enough for Ukraine. Even some Democrats have urged Biden to move toward more direct negotiations with Russia to find a compromise. A letter to Biden from 30 progressive Democrats — drafted over the summer and surprisingly sent to the president on Oct. 24 — was abruptly withdrawn a day later. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the letter’s release was a mistake, and she emphasized Democrats’ unequivocal support for U.S. economic and military aid to Ukraine.

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Even billionaire Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, said it was not fair for SpaceX to continue paying $100 million to donate 20,000 Starlink terminals to Kiev, which support communications for civilians and soldiers throughout Ukraine. The system has helped Ukraine manage critical battlefield communications during the war, but the company wants the Pentagon or others to reimburse costs SpaceX has borne so far.

While Republicans and Democrats have so far overwhelmingly supported Ukraine in defending freedom and democracy against tyranny, the war drags on and these recent controversies have not increased confidence among Ukrainians or Europeans that the United States remains a steadfast, reliable partner. It is dangerous for Ukraine.

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Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., emphasized, “We’ve had very strong bipartisan support for Ukraine and Ukraine fighting Russia.” He thought McCarthy might have meant to say that Congress should redouble efforts to ensure oversight and accountability over aid to Ukraine, but he also rightly pointed out that such waffle will be used by Putin’s propagandists to Russia’s advantage: “You giving aid and comfort. to the enemy, wittingly or unwittingly.”

Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul supports diplomacy along with military pressure to bring the Russians to the table, but he told me earlier this year that Putin will never enter into serious negotiations until there is a stalemate on the battlefield.

“Of course we have to try diplomacy. And try harder,” he tweeted last week. “We must increase communication with Putin and his inner circle.” He welcomed the latest outreach to Russian leaders by top US civilian and military officials at the Pentagon, but added: “We also have to be realistic about what diplomacy can accomplish right now.”

Putin continues to redouble his relentless bombing of civilian targets, even as Ukrainian forces increasingly retake territory from a demoralized Russian army. Still dreaming of rebuilding a Russian empire, Putin falsely accused the West of fomenting the conflict and playing “a dangerous, bloody and dirty” game that created chaos.

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It is rich. Putin is the one who attacked first, on February 24th. Since then, millions of Ukrainians have been driven from their homes, thousands of soldiers have died on both sides, and more than $100 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine has been committed by NATO and other nations, much of it from the United States

While Russian soldiers continued to commit murder, torture and other war crimes, Putin illegally claimed that parts of Ukraine are now Russian territory and forcibly transferred thousands of Ukrainian citizens to Russia. His missiles and bombs targeted Ukrainian civilians and their power grid to make them suffer this winter. Now Putin is making ludicrous accusations about Ukraine, a non-nuclear nation, potentially using a dirty bomb to spew radiation on its own lands — perhaps signaling a plan of his own to justify Russia retaliating, perhaps with a tactical nuke.

This will not stand. The transatlantic alliance remains united. A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that a solid bipartisan majority of the American public still strongly supports continued humanitarian and security assistance to Ukraine.

Regardless of the outcome of the midterms, America must stay the course, keep NATO steadfast, supply more weapons to Ukraine, and impose more sanctions on Russia. The strategy works. Putin is increasingly isolated. His army crumbles.

A brutal, bitter, dangerous winter is coming, but Putin must know that he cannot win.

Storer H. Rowley, a former national editor and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, teaches journalism and communications at Northwestern University.

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