Foot-dragging, indecision and fearfulness have characterised Joe Biden’s off-screen approach to Ukraine since Russia invaded 15 months ago, compounding doubts about the durability of US support as the 2024 presidential election campaign kicks off. The contrast between Biden and the bold, energetic leadership of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is striking. One man frets about disaster and loss. The other thinks only of winning.
Biden’s latest, belated and incomplete volte-face, over providing US-made F-16 combat jets, illustrates the problem. Zelenskiy has been asking for fighter planes since the war began. Neighbours such as Poland were sympathetic. Yet afraid of provoking a fight with Russia, Biden, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and Pentagon officials publicly opposed supplying F-16s until as recently as March. Zelenskiy wanted the planes because he knew Ukraine was vulnerable from the air. As the invasion unfolded, Ukraine’s people, homes and vital infrastructure were mercilessly pounded by Russian missiles. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has explained how F-16s or similar planes might have supported air defence systems, reduced casualties and protected ground troops. But they were not forthcoming.
Biden and Sullivan also rejected proposals by experienced former US generals for Nato-patrolled “humanitarian no-fly zones”, initially in western Ukraine, to protect civilians from aerial assault. Although admittedly risky, safe havens akin to past operations in Iraq, Bosnia and Libya might have saved many lives and stemmed the refugee exodus. They still could. Biden’s argument, then as now, is that such interventions, coming on top of large-scale US arms shipments, intelligence-sharing and aid, might be viewed by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, as escalatory. This seems sensible at first glance. Yet it’s way too cautious. Putin and his lickspittle poltroons, Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Lavrov, are adept at playing on western fears. Whenever new forms of assistance for Kyiv are mooted, they spew dire threats, sometimes involving nuclear weapons.
Biden should listen to Antony Blinken. His secretary of state has spotted a pattern over the past year: Kremlin warnings of retaliation and direct confrontation rarely amount to much in practice. The Russians huff and puff – but mostly bluff. Putin is not entirely stupid. He knows he’d never win a fight with Nato, let alone survive nuclear warfare. Another pattern is apparent: Biden’s chronic indecision. Protracted humming and hawing last year delayed supplies of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, Patriot batteries, longer-range high-altitude missiles, and M1 Abrams battle tanks – all of which were eventually delivered. European allies such as Germany used White House waffling to excuse their own foot-dragging. These prevarications may have needlessly prolonged the war.
The F-16 U-turn, confirmed at last weekend’s G7 summit in Hiroshima, paves the way for training Ukrainian pilots and the provision of “fourth-generation” jets by Nato allies. Yet it’s a typical Biden fudge. The US itself has not committed to supply planes. If it does, it’s unclear whether they will be the latest F-16 models equipped with the latest weapons. Unconvincing explanations are offered for US dithering. Officials say they followed a deliberate plan to ensure Ukraine first received all the heavy weaponry and armoured vehicles required for its long-anticipated counter-offensive. “We could certainly have started earlier, but there were much higher priorities, and it’s seen by some as an escalatory act,” said US air force secretary Frank Kendall, referring to F-16 training.
In fact, it was pressure from US allies that proved irresistible when the 50-nation Ukraine Contact Group met at Ramstein air base in Germany last month. US defence secretary Lloyd Austin was urged to think again by old friends such as Britain and the Netherlands, as well as by the eastern Europeans. On his return to Washington, Austin advised Biden to drop his veto. The American shift on fighter planes is a personal triumph for Zelenskiy. His tireless lobbying bore fruit, once again overcoming Biden’s hesitancy and assuaging, if not dispelling, his misgivings. And it shone a light on yet another emerging pattern: how Ukraine’s president, not America’s risk-averse commander-in-chief or the Nato alliance, is driving the west’s wartime agenda.
Zelenskiy’s leading role was highlighted when he stole the show in Hiroshima, making a dramatic entrance after flying in late from an Arab League summit in Jeddah. Ukraine does not belong to the G7, or to the EU or Nato for that matter. But Zelenskiy has earned a place at the top table. His irrepressible diplomacy, aided by Putin’s blundering, has brought membership of both latter organisations within reach. As a leader capable of inspiring his people and influencing international opinion, Zelenskiy puts Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and Rishi Sunak to shame. He is also changing the strategic conversation in fundamental ways. US policy towards China, especially Taiwan, has hardened tangibly due to Russia’s aggression – but also thanks to Zelenskiy’s success in re-emphasising the inviolability of territorial borders and national sovereignty as globally recognised imperatives.
Ukraine is increasingly setting the pace on the ground, too, independently of its main backers. Incursions into southern Russia by anti-regime militia using US military vehicles, an audacious drone attack on the Kremlin, sabotage, assassinations and mystery explosions in occupied Crimea are a likely prelude to Kyiv’s pivotal counter-offensive. Success is vital if it is to head off Chinese and possible Franco-German pressure this winter to trade land for peace. All this activity, licit and illicit, is compounding White House jitters as American public support for Ukraine appears to soften. Since neither of his main 2024 Republican challengers, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, is committed to assisting Kyiv, Biden must be braver and do more, faster – for his time, and Ukraine’s, may be running out. Biden describes the war as a seminal struggle between liberty and tyranny. It is. So give Zelenskiy all he needs to win.