MUNICH — President Joe Biden heads to Europe this week in a trip meant to be a show of defiance.
He will mark a second year of war by denouncing Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and publicly declare that the United States will support Kyiv until the final moments of the conflict.
But the backdrop to Biden’s trip is also complicated, dangerous and uncertain.
As the fighting continues to rage, both sides of the Atlantic fear that Russia is finding its footing, Ukraine may be overmatched in certain parts of the east and south and the West’s pipeline of weapons will slow to a trickle.
Biden leaves Monday for Poland to meet with President Andrzej Duda and other key NATO leaders. U.S. officials believe that Ukraine’s defense is about to hit a critical phase with Russia launching its much-telegraphed offensive. The Biden administration has urgently pressed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration to consolidate its gains — and perhaps launch its own counterstrike.
The White House has also told Zelenskyy’s team, per multiple officials, to prepare for the offensive now, as weapons and aid from Washington and Europe flow freely, for fear that backing from Ukraine’s European neighbors could be finite.
In Washington, support for Ukraine has remained largely bipartisan, though some in the administration fear that it may be harder to send additional aid to Kyiv amid mounting resistance from the new Republican-controlled House. For now, though, even some of Biden’s fiercest critics salute the work he has done.
“He’s been good about connecting our national interests to the fight and that it’s good for the world for Russia not to be successful,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “It’s going to be one of the decisive moments of his presidency.”
Biden’s trip to Poland comes just days ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, a date which many military analysts believe Putin, fond of symbolism, may mark with a show of force. Aides have explored attempting to covertly get Biden across the border in Ukraine but a trip has been all but ruled out. The president is one of the last Western leaders who has not made the journey, which would require a 10-hour train ride or a daring flight. But most aides believe the security risk to Biden or Ukraine would not be worth it.
Biden will underscore the need for the West — and voters back home — to stay the course with Ukraine and he will tout the need for both alliances and American leadership on the world stage, aides previewed. But his speech will also reflect the duality of the moment.
On one hand, it will celebrate Ukraine’s remarkable resistance. But it will also acknowledge the continued vulnerabilities. Despite Kyiv’s successes, Russia still controls nearly 20 percent of Ukraine and the conflict has slowed to a brutal war of attrition. Moreover, Putin shows no signs of wavering in his vow to control all of Ukraine, according to American officials. In the best estimation of U.S. intelligence, Putin believes that despite the setbacks his military has faced, Russia still has two decisive advantages: manpower and time. European intelligence officials further assess Putin feels confident he can wait for an inevitable break in Western resistance.
Though the Russians have suffered heavy losses, they still have far more troops than Ukraine to send into combat, including ex-prisoners being pushed into battle by the mercenary Wagner Group. That group has shown surprising success at the front, per U.S. officials, while displaying little regard for the casualties suffered.
Facing little domestic pressure to end the war, Putin is operating as if he can outlast the Western alliance. Some in the Biden administration believe Putin will continue the onslaught — and could launch another massive mobilization of men — until at least the U.S. 2024 presidential election, hoping a candidate less convinced of the Ukrainian cause proves victorious.
Former President Donald Trump has openly called for the war to immediately end to prevent it from escalating, even though that would allow Russia to keep its gains. And recent polling suggests that American voters’ willingness to send arms and weapons to Kyiv has slipped.
“I think the jury is still out on whether [Biden] can keep NATO unified,” said retired Brig. Gen. David Hicks, who commanded all U.S. and NATO forces tasked with training and advising the Afghan Air Force. “It’s only going to get more difficult going forward. Ukraine will have to show results with the aid they have received.”
To this point, the capitals of Europe have largely remained in lockstep supporting Kyiv despite the economic and energy challenges stemming from the war. In Washington, the Biden administration believes the funding Congress passed at the end of last year should carry Ukraine for much of 2023 and has been encouraged so far that the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill has continued to publicly support Kyiv.
At the Munich Security Conference, arguably the world’s premier defense-focused forum, Zelenskyy on Friday rallied the West to help Ukraine’s “David” defeat Russia’s “Goliath.” “Speed is crucial,” he said, alluding to a quick tempo of weapons handovers, because Putin “wants the world to slow down.”
But there is a small, yet growing, faction within House Republicans questioning the need to fund Ukraine.
“There’s never been a blank check with respect to supporting Ukraine,” acknowledged National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who stressed in a briefing Wednesday that the administration would stand with Kyiv for “as long as it takes” to repel Russia. “We’re proving every single day that this isn’t just about some moral or philosophical effort.”
Still, lawmakers supportive of Ukraine’s cause expressed confidence that both chambers will continue to back the effort.
“The overwhelming majority of Congress –– both Democrats and Republicans –– continues to be in lockstep on the need to provide assistance to Ukraine because we know what happens if Ukraine falls,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Europe panel. “Bipartisanship in Congress and continued coordination with our allies is essential as we move forward to support Ukraine because this is about more than Putin –– this is about sending a message to any dictator who threatens democracies that they will pay a severe price.”
In recent weeks, Kyiv has relentlessly called for equipment it believes it needs to contend with a larger war. It has received a pledge of Western tanks, though most will not reach the battlefield for months or even years. But, to this point, Ukraine has been rebuffed in its ask for fighter jets. A more pressing need has arisen as Russia intensifies its onslaught: ammunition.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently warned that the Russian offensive has already begun and there are signs that the fighting has increased. There is real concern inside the White House about Europe’s ability to provide artillery ammunition and other aid to Ukraine. The continent’s defense-industrial base is stretched and some countries already say their stockpiles are tapped.
On stage in Munich, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed the issue, calling for “a permanent production of the most important weapons we are using.” French President Emmanuel Macron followed right after arguing Europe must “invest more in defense. If we want peace, we need the means to achieve it.”
The comments made clear alarm bells are going off in Europe’s power centers. “The war has exposed profound deficiencies in European countries’ capabilities and weapons stocks,” said Alina Polyakova, head of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C. “The concern is that they already don’t have enough to supply Ukraine and restock at the same time. And whether the U.S. defense industry can pivot fast enough — many think that it can’t.”
While European capitals are looking at Washington to fill the gap, the administration has pushed back at allies to do more, noting that the war could stretch well into 2024 and beyond. Administration officials insist that they will not pressure Ukraine to negotiate, even as some diplomats have speculated that a deal could be put forth to restore the borders at the start of the war: Ukraine would regain its territory in the east and south but Russia would keep Crimea.
In a private Zoom meeting Wednesday with outside experts, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Ukraine’s recapture of Crimea is a red line for Putin. That’s one reason why the U.S. is encouraging Kyiv to focus on where the majority of the fighting is, even if Washington still says any and all decisions on countering Russia are Ukraine’s decision alone.
But the reality Biden will confront in Poland is that Zelenskyy has made clear that he will not negotiate until all of Ukraine’s territory is restored — all but ensuring that the war will stretch into the distant horizon.
“We’re in this for the long-haul and it’s going to grind on for quite some time,” said Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. If Western support starts to fade away, “there’s no denying that it will have an effect on both the outcome and the length of the war.”