Putin’s good friends in America

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There are few better examples of strategic mood swing than the US foreign policy establishment on Ukraine. A year ago, it was debating Russia’s dismemberment and bringing Vladimir Putin to trial for war crimes. Today, as Capitol Hill wobbles over support for Ukraine, Washington is girding for the collapse of western Europe. Hubris and panic are two sides of the same coin; empirical sobriety is in short supply. 

A clear-eyed appraisal nevertheless tells us that the ground war will move Putin’s way unless the west can sustain its support. Joe Biden’s goal in Ukraine remains twofold: to enable it to defend itself, and to avoid America getting sucked into a war with Russia. Biden has been overestimating Putin’s nuclear red lines from the start. As a result, Ukraine is still having to defend itself with one hand behind its back. 

Putin is now exploiting America’s so-called Ukraine fatigue to try to disable its other hand. Russia’s autocrat can draw on an ever bolder army of American sympathisers to help him. These include the wealthy Heritage Foundation, which used to be called conservative but is now better described as hard-right populist. Heritage has embraced Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, which is openly lobbying Republicans to block new funding for Ukraine. 

They might succeed in the short term. Republicans are split between staunch supporters of Ukraine and a blend of isolationists and overt Putinistas. JD Vance, a senator from Ohio, is a mix of the last two. “You have some people in this town saying we need to cut social security and throw our grandparents into poverty. Why? So that one of Zelenskyy’s ministers can buy a bigger yacht?” Vance said this week. 

Few of the arguments against backing Ukraine stand up to scrutiny. Most American aid is spent at home on US-made weapons, not in Ukraine. Ukraine funding amounts to less than 1 per cent of the US federal budget. The American dollars that do go to Kyiv in fiscal support are closely audited; nothing is going on superyachts. There is little basis for public fatigue with the Ukraine war since no Americans are actually fighting it. 

The loudest siren song is that every dollar America spends on Ukraine is a dollar less to defend Taiwan. The reality is closer to the opposite. China and Russia have a “no-limits” partnership that aims to weaken America. The most effective way of achieving this is with a Russian victory in Ukraine. That would demoralise Nato and deliver Europe’s breadbasket into Russia’s lap. As military strategists have pointed out for more than a century, whoever controls Ukraine controls Eurasia. By the same token, every artillery piece that America sends to Ukraine is another reason for China to think twice on Taiwan.   

So why are Putin’s sympathisers making such inroads into the Republican party? Because Putin is Biden’s enemy, and the enemy of your enemy is your friend. It is not much more complicated than that. There are genuine Putin backers on America’s hard right. But the bulk of his American fellow-travellers are dark opportunists, like Donald Trump. Anything that is harmful to Biden is good for them. Ukraine’s defeat would thus be good for Republicans. 

America’s exploitable divisions give Putin an edge over Biden, which threatens to outweigh America’s huge advantage over Russia. The US economy is more than 13 times the size of Russia’s. It controls the global reserve currency and has a decisive technological lead. Unlike Russia, America has dozens of allies. Yet these will come to naught if Putin can play on America’s political enmities within. Biden has no comparable lever inside Russia to harm Putin. Indeed, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s best-known opposition figure, recently vanished from Russia’s prison records.  

Biden has two obvious ways of blocking Putin. The first is to get that $60bn he needs from Congress. Republicans insist on tying the Ukraine aid to much more money for US border security and a drastic tightening of America’s asylum rules. Some Republicans genuinely want this; others are using it as a pretext to deny support to Ukraine. There ought still to be enough of the former kind of Republicans for Biden to strike a deal that includes both.   

Second, Biden could lift constraints on Ukraine’s use of US-supplied artillery and aircraft. Ukraine should have the means to strike military targets inside Russian territory. It is impossible to win a war — or make enough headway to reach a favourable settlement — if you are limited to fighting the invader on your own soil. Nothing succeeds like success or fails like failure. The difference between the two is still in Biden’s hands.  

edward.luce@ft.com

 

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