US Midterms Spell Little Change for Policy Toward Russia, Ukraine
As the U.S. midterm elections were proceeding on Nov. 9, there were media reports that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was anxiously monitoring the results, for fear that electoral shifts in the United States might spell the end of military support for Ukraine. While such reports might make good copy, Ukraine was in no real danger. Despite the appearance of intractable partisan divisions in Washington, opposition to Russia and support for Ukraine is one of the few issues to enjoy deep and robust bipartisan support. What now appears not to be a “red wave” but a modest correction to the political balance of power between Democrats and Republicans portends no major changes, at least in the short term, in the U.S. policy of support for Ukraine in fending off the Russian invasion.
There is general bipartisan agreement that Russia under its current management (starting with Vladimir Putin in the presidency) cannot be trusted nor can it serve as a partner with the West. If efforts under previous administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump) sought to find ways to turn Russia from a near-peer competitor into a near-peer partner, the consensus now is that such efforts have failed. In the aftermath of the Russian incursion into Ukraine, the United States is now mobilizing an effort to create a coalition that will both supply Ukraine with the military and economic aid its needs to withstand the Russian invasion, as well as to impose major sanctions on Russia itself, with the long-term goal of degrading Russian capabilities so that Russia will become a non-peer rival and competitor. There are also important secondary considerations that help sustain this Congressional consensus even with a rebalancing of power within the House and Senate. Increased military aid to Ukraine provides new boosts for the U.S. defense industry, while convincing Europeans to wean themselves from Russian energy benefits domestic producers and also incentivizes European firms to move some production to North America.
It is important not to confuse political sniping (for instance, Republicans focusing on what they might see as mistakes or missteps on the part of the Biden administration) or posturing on Ukraine (for instance, to score points for suggesting that aid to Ukraine takes away benefits from U.S. citizens) with substantive policy shifts. Indeed, the statement by Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy that the question of U.S. aid to Ukraine would be revisited by a new Republican-controlled Congress seems to have been issued for domestic political consumption, not as a statement of policy intent. Republicans have wanted to signal to their base that they are acting as careful stewards of American resources and not giving the Biden administration a blank check. Moreover, recent polling also indicates that voters were not particularly interested or responsive to proposals to stop supporting Ukraine. Americans of both parties support continued assistance to Ukraine and draw the line only at the direct involvement of U.S. forces in the conflict.
What is striking is the extent to which the Kremlin also miscalculated. The prevailing assumption seems to have been that increased Western economic hardship sustained as a result of siding with Ukraine and sanctioning Russia would create domestic political pressure for a change in course. Yet, despite changes of government in Sweden, the United Kingdom and Italy, and exit polling data indicating economic issues were a top concern of U.S. voters, Western resolve has not buckled. In particular, the midterm results challenge an established orthodoxy that maintained that major increases in gasoline prices would always result in voters punishing the party in power—as occurred in the 2006 midterms, for instance. This time, however, higher prices at the pump did not translate into increased pressure on the Biden administration, and certainly not to reduce aid to Ukraine or improve ties with Russia to keep energy flowing at lower prices. Russian pundits have expressed both surprise and disappointment that the midterm elections are not going to produce a major shift in U.S. policy toward Russia. In particular, the defeat of Republican candidates most closely connected to former president Donald Trump suggests that his influence over the party may wane, and with it, the voices of those calling for accommodation with Moscow.
Indeed, in conversations with colleagues in the Washington ecosystem, one thing that has come through loud and clear is that, with a few very public exceptions, most members of Congress are committed to continuing aid for Ukraine and not making any concessions to Moscow. At the same time, the authorities and authorizations passed in recent bills mandating support to Ukraine, added to longer-term provisions locking in sanctions on Russia, ensure that there will be no substantial change in U.S. policy for the next six to nine months.
Moreover, the lackluster Republican performance in the midterm elections—and the defeat of several high-profile candidates who were closely identified with former President Donald Trump—also calls into question whether Trump is the guaranteed nominee of his party in 2024. The Trump administration, of course, had maintained and accelerated U.S. military support and training for Ukraine, despite Trump’s personal stated preference for seeking some sort of “deal” with Russia, while a Republican-controlled Congress locked in U.S. sanctions on Russia to prevent the use of an executive waiver, so Trump, even during his presidency, had very little maneuvering room. Yet other senior Republican figures—such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tom Cotton, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—are much more Russia- and Putin-skeptical and remain committed to aiding Ukraine and seeing its integration into the larger Western community of nations. Russia-skepticism is now the norm in both political parties.
But what the midterm elections have not resolved is the question of next steps. The prevailing U.S. assessment is that Russia cannot sustain this operation, and with the announcement of Russian troops withdrawing from Kherson, the assessment that Ukraine could substantially change the balance of forces to its advantage over the coming weeks will strengthen arguments for the United States to stay the course. But if the conflict stalemates on the battlefield, and if Russia displays sufficient staying power to largely hold its position, even in the wake of sanctions, the divide may begin to grow between those who will want to cajole Ukraine into accepting a compromise settlement versus those who wish to continue aiding Ukraine to achieve a complete Russian defeat. Here, the polling data from the midterms is quite instructive. Voters are concerned about the economy, but a majority were willing to prioritize questions of rights and democratic process. Now that the danger of significant changes to the electoral system or major changes to social policy has receded, economic issues will return to the forefront. Assuming Biden seeks a second term, he (or any other Democratic nominee) will want the United States to be out of its economic downturn or recession by the start of 2024. At the same time, growing bipartisan concerns about China will push for a greater defense pivot toward Asia, especially in guaranteeing Taiwan’s ability to fend off any Chinese incursion. This may lead to a rebalancing of priorities regarding Ukraine and other challenges (both domestic and international).
Some aspects of the Biden domestic agenda will be impacted by the midterm elections, and the Biden team will lose some freedom of maneuver on the international stage, especially in matters of climate change. But when it comes to policy toward Russia and Ukraine, the coming year is likely to look very similar to the last eight months.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and editor of Orbis.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo shared under a Creative Commons license.