US commitment to Ukraine grows murkier

President Biden’s supporters and former U.S. officials are expressing frustration and confusion over the White House’s Ukraine strategies and see growing divisions within the administration over how to balance politics with long-term backing of Kyiv.

The White House recently pushed back against proposals that would give NATO and Western allies a greater leadership role moving forward, even as U.S. aid to fight against Russian troops has been stalled for months in Congress.

“There is a disagreement in the U.S. government about this, and I won’t predict how it comes out,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The coming weeks could be decisive, with House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) promising to bring a new Ukraine aid package to the floor. But it’s unclear how robust the package will be, or whether Johnson can navigate opposition from many within his own party.

If it fails or comes up short of Democratic demands, Biden could face growing pressure to embrace a less U.S.-centric coalition backing Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

Daalder, along with former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried, pitched in an article in Foreign Affairs a proposal that NATO take over the U.S.-led Ramstein group to coordinate weapons deliveries for Kyiv, among other ideas that NATO is now discussing ahead of the alliance’s July summit.

“The United States needs to get off the high horse that we know everything,” Daalder said, answering a question from The Hill at a summit hosted by Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies.

“There are elements in the U.S. government who strongly oppose this, mainly because they think they’re better at it when it comes to coordinating than NATO.”

Donfried, in an interview with The Hill, said that the point of her and Daalder’s proposals was to help take the administration’s current policy and follow it further down the road to craft concrete actions in the face of uncertainty about long-term U.S. commitments.

“It ensures continuity at a time where you have a political election looming,” said Donfried, who retired from the State Department in March 2023.

“Everything that was in this article gets shared with the administration, and not for them to say, ‘Oh great, yeah, we agree with this.’ My view was, it’s really hard when you’re in government, to have time to think longer term about issues because there’s just the drumbeat of the urgent, it takes up all your time.”

The situation is desperate for Ukraine. U.S. military officials have told Congress that Ukrainians are rationing artillery in the absence of more American support, putting them even more at a deficit against Russia’s war machine.

The Institute for the Study of War said Friday that Russian forces have “inflicted increasing and long-term damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure this spring,” and that the Russians have been so successful, in part, because Ukraine is running out of U.S.-supplied air defenses.

“This is alarming because it suggests that absent a rapid resumption of U.S. military aid, Russian forces can continue to deal severe damage to Ukrainian forces and infrastructure even with the limited number of missiles Russia is likely to have available in the coming months,” the group wrote in its assessment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is pleading with supporters to follow through on commitments.

“It is critically important that each partner deliver on its promises regarding the supply of weapons and ammunition, as well as our agreements on co-production,” he said Thursday.

“Every day Russian missiles strike, and every day the number of promises increases. Every day, Ukrainian soldiers on the front line endure the brutal pressure of Russian artillery and guided bombs. The reality must finally start to match the words.”

While Donfried and Daalder call for Congress to follow through on delivering Biden’s request for aid to Ukraine immediately, they are also putting pressure on the administration to “secure Ukraine’s future.”

Part of this includes getting the U.S. to clarify and make concrete language surrounding Ukraine joining NATO. They are critical of ambiguous promises made at NATO’s 2023 summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, where NATO leaders agreed Kyiv can join the alliance “when conditions are met.”

“I thought that was confusing, and so I just think we owe it to the Ukrainians to be clear about what those conditions are,” Donfried said.

They also call for the U.S. and NATO allies to “consider supplying Kyiv with weapons that are currently off the table, such as U.S. ATACMS and German Taurus long-range missiles.”

While the United Kingdom and France have sent Ukraine long-range missiles, the Biden administration has maintained its opposition to sending ATACMS, or Army Tactical Missile Systems, over what it says is concern of triggering an escalation from Moscow.

The administration’s guidance for Ukraine is to not use American-made weapons to hit inside Russia — with the understanding that Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory can be carried out with other weapons.

But Donfried said that over two and a half years of war, the time is right for the administration to lean further forward.

“That fear of escalation often needs to be tempered by faith and deterrence,” she said.

“We feel that we’ve learned some lessons over the past two and a half years. We were hesitant on sending other weapons systems. We have done so and we have not seen an escalation … now it is the moment for the U.S. and the Germans to join the British and the French in sending those long-range missiles to Ukraine.”

But, Donfried cautioned, “is that where the White House is gonna land? I don’t know.”

Confusion about the White House’s path forward on Ukraine is raising anxiety among Kyiv and its supporters, who are newly frustrated by the administration’s position criticizing Ukraine for hitting Russian oil refineries.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan reportedly told Kyiv last month to stop hitting Russian oil refineries over fears of driving up oil prices, an argument raised by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin earlier this week in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

And comments earlier this week from Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, saying the Kremlin-connected refineries are not legitimate military targets has further sowed confusion.

“We have concerns about striking at civilian targets,” Wallander said about the Russian oil refineries. But, she added, “they are owned by private Russian citizens who are part of the Putin regime. That is correct.”

One person who lobbies the administration for more support for Ukraine said some U.S. officials have been “clearly embarrassed” over questions about the pushback on hitting Russia’s oil infrastructure — one of its main funding streams for its war.

“That speaks to differences within the administration, but it has not affected policy,” the person said.

Ukraine’s supporters say comments like these are pulling the U.S. further away from positions of other allies. The U.K., while not addressing specific Russian targets, has routinely responded that Ukraine has the right to self-defense.

And French President Emmanuel Macron has appeared to ratchet up his rhetoric by calling for Ukraine’s supporters to not be “cowards” and suggesting Western troops may have to fight on the ground.

One European official, requesting anonymity to speak candidly, called the Biden administration’s comments about the oil refineries “perverse.”

“It is perverse to tell a party at war not to attack the war machine of the aggressor party while also not delivering military aid to help the victim protect its own infrastructure, residential buildings, maternity wards, and kindergartens,” the official said.

“The administration’s pathological fear of escalation and of Ukrainian success is one major reason for the death of so many Ukrainians.”

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