Biden realizes that time is not in his favor

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky makes a lightning visit to the United States. The timing of that visit is no coincidence, says Professor of American Politics Bart Kerremans (KU Leuven). “Biden realizes that time is not in his favor.”

Peter Gordts

What is the importance of this visit?

Kerremans: “It has great symbolic significance. It is Zelensky’s first trip abroad since the start of the war. The administration of US President Joe Biden hopes that this visit will highlight the importance of the United States in that war.

“The second symbolic meaning lies in the speech Zelensky will deliver to the United States House of Representatives. That is exactly what the budget for 2023 is for, with almost 45 billion dollars (42.3 billion euros) in new aid for Ukraine. Surely Zelensky’s speech will put a little more pressure on Congressmen to pass that budget. The Democrats want to get that done as soon as possible. Beginning January 3, Republicans will control Congress.

“Finally, there is a third, smaller element: this is the last sitting for Nancy Pelosi as chairman. She can her career as speaker close with a symbolic important visit.”

You mainly list internal, American reasons. Is this visit mainly aimed at the American voter?

“Not exclusively. This also has significance outside the US. For example, because of the role that President Biden plays in the international coalition around Ukraine. He is trying to get the European Union and NATO to do more in the war.

“But it is true that this visit is indeed important for the United States. There, as in Ukraine, there is some nervousness about what the winter will bring, especially given the intensive Russian attacks on the Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Should we expect a Russian offensive during the winter or not? That is also why the US is now giving its first agreement to give its Patriot anti-aircraft guns to Ukraine and to train soldiers to use them. That is the most sophisticated and high-tech American anti-aircraft gun.”

President Biden and First Lady Jill welcome Zelensky to the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.  © AFP Image AFP

President Biden and First Lady Jill welcome Zelensky to the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. ©AFPImage AFP

Zelensky previously addressed Congress digitally. What is the added value of a physical visit?

“Zelensky made a number of statements before the summer that showed he was less than happy with Biden’s cautious stance. The latter then indicated to him a few times that he had to show more gratitude in order to continue to convince the US Congress to send money to Ukraine.

“The timing is also important. There is some grumbling within the Republican party and on the left of the Democratic party about how much money the US is pumping into the war. They argue for more control over the spending of that money and more diplomacy instead of weapons. To be clear: this criticism does not stand in the way of support for Ukraine. President Biden does realize that time is not in his favour. Fatigue is beginning to set in for support for the war. The longer that war lasts, the greater that fatigue becomes.

Also, don’t underestimate the importance of the war to Biden. Last year around this time there were tensions between the US and some European allies such as France. In addition, Zelensky did not share US speculation about Russian troop build-ups along Ukraine’s borders. There were also many doubts about the Biden administration after the Afghan Ghani government imploded much faster than US intelligence estimates. Now Europe is looking much more positively at Biden. He owes this to the important role that the US plays in terms of military support and information provision. Zelensky’s visit is an acknowledgment of that.”

What signal does this send to Russian President Vladimir Putin?

“May the United States continue to clearly and firmly support Zelensky. You can also see this in the fact that the US Congress is releasing more money for the Ukrainian aid package than President Biden has requested.

“Although Biden also sends a signal to Zelensky at the same time, namely that the US is willing to support Ukraine as long as the risk of escalation remains limited. The last thing Biden wants is for the war to spread to other countries or for nuclear weapons to be deployed.”

Is that why Putin explicitly referred to nuclear weapons in his speech on Wednesday?

“That fits in with the exercise that both parties have been doing for some time now: they are constantly drawing red lines for each other. Biden wants to avoid using nuclear weapons. Putin, on the other hand, reluctantly tolerates NATO helping Ukraine defend itself, not offensively supporting Zelensky.

“That’s why Biden was so apprehensive about awarding the Patriot anti-aircraft guns to Ukraine. That is a defensive weapon but with greater effectiveness than the systems currently used. This deployment therefore implies a new qualitative step in the war. As a result, Putin considers it necessary to draw a new line.

“The US and Russia are constantly sending out such signals. Whoever crosses those lines knows that the escalation of the conflict can follow. In that sense, it was interesting to see how Washington reacted a few weeks ago when it appeared that a nuclear escalation was approaching. The US has been very clear to Russia at the time: even the use of smaller-range tactical nuclear weapons will lead to the escalation of the war.”

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