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Zelenskyy Was Used By Joe Biden as a Pawn

Volodymyr Zelensky
Volodymyr Zelensky and Biden. White House Handout.

Americans need President Biden to explain what his strategy is for Ukraine, and why they should pay for it – Broad, bi-partisan support for the bravery exhibited by Ukrainians in general—and President Voldomyr Zelenskyy in particular—remains strong in America, but it is in danger of being eroded. Unfortunately, President Joe Biden invited the Ukrainian leader to come to Washington in the final days of the 117th Congress.  The purpose of the visit was not to shore up support for Ukraine but rather to ensure passage of the bloated omnibus spending bill, thereby making Ukraine a partisan rather than national security issue.

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The Biden administration cynically decided to cast votes on this $1.7 trillion package of domestic pork as a referendum on the $46 billion for Ukraine it contains.  This piece of political theater will only exacerbate the partisan divide Biden has created on this issue.  Of course, none of this was Zelenskyy’s fault, as he was in no position to refuse when the American president issued an invitation that was for all intents and purposes a command.

President Biden has framed support for Ukraine as a binary choice between appeasing Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and providing unlimited support for Ukraine—hence Zelenskyy’s appearance on the eve of the omnibus vote.  Americans should reject this false choice, regardless of their support for Ukraine or its president.  The U.S. Congress cannot issue a blank, undated check to anyone for any purpose, and lawmakers have every right to ask questions about these large expenditures on a conflict to which we are not party, especially given Biden’s failure to articulate a clear strategy outlining America’s vital national security interests in the war, and how he is prepared to support Ukrainian victory.

The incremental, tepid support the Biden administration has offered over the last 10 months appears to be perpetuating an uneasy stalemate in which Ukraine can survive, but cannot decisively win the war.  Given the ongoing hardships Ukrainians are enduring, not to mention the drain on America and our NATO allies, lawmakers should prioritize ending the war favorably to Kiev and Washington.  From an American perspective this would mean Putin agreeing to terms that render him militarily and/or politically deterred from venturing into Europe for the foreseeable future.  A worst-case scenario would be a wounded—but not defeated—Putin who could peddle the outcome as a quasi-victory to the Russian people and live to fight another day.  We need to end Putin’s pattern of territorial aggression in Europe, not repeat it yet again in five years’ time, when it might involve a NATO country requiring direct American engagement.

Conservatives should, however, resist the impulse to reflexively reject support for Ukraine, just as they are resisting the demand for “as much as it takes for as long as it takes.”  There is actually an argument to be made for escalating our military support to force Putin to spend money he doesn’t have to bolster his war effort—an echo of how Ronald Reagan won the Cold War.

We don’t need to mortgage our children’s future to achieve this end. Any additional aid requests should focus on providing the lethal military aid the U.S. can best supply. European countries, such as Germany and France, can and should take the lead on economic and civil society assistance where the U.S. is currently bearing a disproportionate burden.  But to be effective, such a strategy would have to be robustly supported by both parties and accompanied by the truly crushing American and EU economic sanctions the Biden administration has thus far been unwilling to impose due to concerns about domestic energy prices—once again demonstrating that U.S. national security is subject to the whims of the President’s political agenda.

Resistance to Russian aggression and the atrocities that have typified Putin’s invasion is something that both parties could continue to support.  But that unifying cause would have been much better served had Zelenskyy visited Washington two weeks from now to address the new 118th Congress that better reflects the current views of the American people.  How much more effective it would have been to have the Ukrainian president standing in front of a Democratic Vice President and a Republican Speaker of the House, sitting side by side.  He could also have engaged with the new majority in the House and enlisted their help in demonstrating the Ukrainian commitment to protecting U.S. support with unprecedented transparency and anti-corruption measures.

The timing of Zelenskyy’s trip made him little more than a pawn in the Democrats’ strategy to ensure lame-duck passage of yet another massively wasteful spending bill. To restore national unity on Ukraine, Zelenskyy would be well-advised to make another visit to Washington next year, and Biden should do the American people the courtesy of directly laying out to them his strategy to win the war.

Victoria Coates is a senior research fellow specializing in international affairs and national security issues at The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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Victoria Coates joined the American Foreign Policy Council as a Distinguished Fellow in Strategic Studies in January 2022. Coates works on regional issues such as energy policy, countering predatory Chinese activity, expanding the historic Abraham Accords between Israel and Muslim-majority nations, and establishing a U.S.-led Middle East strategic alliance. Coates routinely appears on TV and radio outlets such as Fox News, CNN, OANN, Newsmax, The Hugh Hewitt Show, The Erick Erickson Show, and The John Batchelor show. Her writing has appeared in Bloomberg,, The Jerusalem Post, The New York Post, Newsweek, The National Interest, National Review, The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, and The Washington Times.