Biden’s New Ukrainian Calculus

President Biden
Photo by Chen Mengtong/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
April 27, 2022

On Saturday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky announced that the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin would be visiting Kyiv on Sunday, when the Eastern Orthodox world celebrated Easter. Not only did he blow the surprise, which the administration didn’t seem to love for security reasons, he also added a bit of a barb to his announcement. “You can’t come to us empty-handed today,” he said. “We are expecting not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons.” 

It was a hell of a thing to say just two days after President Joe Biden announced another $800 million of military aid to Ukraine, bringing the total American military aid package to $3.4 billion in just two months. It reminded me of what Zelensky advisor Serhiy Leshchenko told me in an interview recently. Despite all that aid, in Javelins and now anti-aircraft artillery, he said, “I think that, with time, pro-American sentiment in Ukraine will really ebb. Because of everything America hasn’t done for Ukraine.” Others have told me the same thing. “The general public sentiment in Ukraine is one of betrayal and abandonment by the West,” one D.C. foreign policy insider, who is a Republican, said. “Everyone in Washington is doing high fives, but in Ukraine, the attitude is: No, you’re nickel and diming us because you’re afraid of escalating with Russia.”

As readers will recall, this is the kind of thing that used to irritate the Biden administration and Democrats on the Hill. Throughout all of 2021, Zelensky, in part driven by his advisor Andrii Yermak, would demand things of the Biden administration while loudly praising people like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who had been holding up the administration’s diplomatic and Pentagon nominees in the Senate. The tone-deafness and entitlement drove Democrats in the White House and Congress up the wall. 

These are the kinds of demands that countries regularly make of the U.S., their strident tone often neglecting the reality that they rely on Washington for their security. It’s something people in the worlds of U.S. intelligence and defense regularly gripe about in private. The Israelis or the Emiratis, say, showing up to a meeting and demanding this and that, seemingly forgetting the gap in military and economic stature—as well as their very dependence on the people they’re making demands of. It was something Zelensky was guilty of, too, and the pressure he put on Biden both in public and in private prompted plenty of eye-rolling in the administration. 

But that was before Russia invaded, before the mass graves of Bucha, before the bombing of the maternity hospital of Mariupol. And now nobody in Washington will criticize Zelensky and his once relentless calls for a NATO-imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine. Now, in the face of an existential crisis, there is a willingness in Washington to tolerate, both publicly and privately, the fact that Zelensky will always be asking for more than the Biden administration is willing to give—and that Ukrainian resentment of that gap will generally overshadow any appreciation for American aid. “When you have Mexico and Canada and two oceans as your neighbors, it’s easy to step back and be a little bit more detached. It would be rude to expect him to express a certain amount of gratitude,” said a former senior U.S. defense official of Zelensky. “Diplomacy is not easy, it’s always a negotiation. I think you’re a sucker if you take it personally.”

People in the White House won’t even roll their eyes off the record anymore, saying instead that they understand and that any differences between Washington and Kyiv can be chalked up to a simple divergence of interests. Even the interests of close allies and partners, they argue, are a Venn diagram rather than a perfect circle. Zelensky is in the fight of his life, one for his country’s very existence, and he will ask for as much as possible, they say, and the U.S. is trying to help while also protecting its own interests, like not getting into a direct military confrontation with Russia. “It’s very plain that what Zelensky is trying to do is to get the West more committed to the war,” one senior Democratic source on the Hill told me. “The same things that are bugs for us are features for him. If Vladimir Putin sees something as escalatory and it gets the U.S. more involved, that’s great for Zelensky. They want us to get us more involved.” (This was something Leshchenko also tacitly admitted. “We’re saying that if there’s a master of the house, he can restore order very quickly,” he said of U.S. involvement.)

“There is an understanding that if you’re in Zelensky’s position, you’re going to ask for the moon,” said the former defense official, who is familiar with the administration’s thinking on this. “What’s the risk from your perspective? You’re in an existential fight. He’s already in WWIII. It’s always going to be difficult in that respect, you’re never going to meet the expectations.”

This tug-of-war was on full display when the Polish government offered Ukraine its old MiG jets, but then the transfer, which Poland wanted to go through Germany, stalled and then died. The Ukrainian government was vocally upset about this, but the Biden administration and its allies quietly swallowed their own frustrations with the public criticism from Kyiv. The feeling in Washington was that the MiGs, in addition to being difficult to get into Ukraine, weren’t really what the Ukrainian air force needed—even if they were able to quickly modify the jets, which was a big if. “This is not a case that you’re going to hear anyone making out loud because it looks bad, you don’t want to look paternalistic and say, this isn’t what you need,” said the Democratic source. “The Poles knew [all the limitations], which is why they transferred them to Germany. Everyone was playing the game.” 

Any U.S. military aid comes with various practical considerations, and it’s not just the price tags. Though, for those who are unaware of how American military aid works, much of it is the U.S. government moving money from one of its pockets to another. Assistance that isn’t in the form of cash is usually money American taxpayers are paying U.S. manufacturers to make weapons in America, which are then sent to recipients of this aid. Cash assistance is different. In the case of Ukraine, it is, in part, going to buy weapons and ammunition used by the Warsaw Pact—old Soviet-made hardware that the Ukrainian army still uses. 

The war in Ukraine is a new experience for Washington. For one, it is not a war that the U.S. started and it is not one where American troops are on the ground. The fact that it is all happening so quickly, and has taken such unexpected turns, has meant that many of the traditional considerations have gone out the window. 

For example, during more normal times, the U.S. government weighs the need for supplying weapons against the possibility that they might end up in the wrong hands. Then, after shipping them to its beneficiaries, the Pentagon tracks the weapons—or at least it tries to. There was a worry in the Obama administration, for example, that if the U.S. sent Javelins to Ukraine, they might end up in the hands of the Russian army, which might then try to reverse engineer the weapon. In another case, some armored personnel carriers the U.S. had provided to the U.A.E. ended up in the hands of Sunni extremists in Yemen that were affiliated with the local branch of al Qaeda, AQAP. “You can bet that led to some pretty uncomfortable conversations with the Emiratis,” recounted the former defense official.

Before the Russian invasion, the Biden administration was hesitant to provide too many weapons to Ukraine because the conventional wisdom was that Ukraine would be overrun in a matter of days. Why, the thinking went, send over weapons that wouldn’t prevent the inevitable and end up in Russian hands? “That was going to be the trajectory in Ukraine until the Ukrainians redeemed us,” said the Republican foreign policy insider, who is now pushing the administration to send more and better weapons to Ukraine—and to be less scared of Russian escalation. “We can get away with a lot more and it’s not going to start WWIII,” the insider continued. “We sent more weapons and Putin isn’t nuking Warsaw because, yeah, we’re the superpower.”

In general, he is frustrated with the administration for not doing more to help Ukraine actually win this war, rather than simply not lose it as badly. “These are guys who are not fighters,” he said of the Biden White House. “I don’t think this is an administration of fighters, they are not pugnacious in spirit. They are cautious to a fault.” He paused and added, “But after, uh, certain other administrations, there are worse things than being cautious.”