WASHINGTON — When he made his surprise wartime trip to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv last week, President Biden reassured that country with great confidence that “the Americans stand with you.” But the question that remains unanswered is: For how long?
For all of the president’s bravado while he was abroad, the politics of Ukraine back home in the United States are shifting noticeably and, for the White House, worryingly. Polls show public support for arming the Ukrainians softening while the two leading Republican presidential candidates are increasingly speaking out against involvement in the war.
While the bipartisan coalition in Congress favoring Ukraine has been strong in the year since Russia’s invasion, supporters of more aid fear the centrifugal forces of the emerging presidential contest and growing taxpayer fatigue with shipping tens of billions of dollars overseas may undercut the war effort before Moscow can be defeated. And some of them are frustrated that Mr. Biden has not done more to shore up support.
The evolving dynamics were on full display this week when House Republicans, exercising the power of their new majority, pressed Pentagon officials at two hearings about spending on Ukraine, grilling them about where the money is going and vowing to hold them accountable. Despite Mr. Biden’s pledge, the Ukrainian government has grown concerned enough that President Volodymyr Zelensky is trying to set up a telephone call with Speaker Kevin McCarthy to make his country’s case.
Overall, public support for Ukraine aid has fallen from 60 percent last May to 48 percent now, according to surveys by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The share of Americans who think the United States has given too much to Ukraine has grown from 7 percent a year ago to 26 percent last month, according to the Pew Research Center.
And even supporters make clear their commitment is not without bounds. While 50 percent of those surveyed by Fox News said American support should continue for “as long as it takes to win,” 46 percent said the time frame should be limited.
“It’s this way with every foreign intervention,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist who has advised two outspoken Republican voices against Ukraine aid, Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio and Donald Trump Jr. “In the first few months, it’s always popular. People don’t like what Russia did; it’s awful. But as time goes on, war weariness is a real thing, especially in this country, especially when voters aren’t connecting what’s happening in Ukraine with their own security.”
Although skepticism of Ukraine aid has grown on both sides of the aisle, the party breakdown has been striking. According to Pew, 40 percent of Republicans think too much has been given compared with 15 percent of Democrats. The good news for Mr. Biden is that Americans have grown more supportive of his handling of the war, with 48 percent approving of his response to the invasion in the Fox poll compared with 40 percent in August.
While Mr. Biden used his visit to Kyiv and a follow-up stop in Warsaw to express solidarity with the Ukrainians, he has talked less about the war to fellow Americans while at home. He made a relatively passing reference to the war during his State of the Union address and has focused mainly on domestic priorities in recent campaign-style stops around the country. In part, that may be intended to deflect criticism that he cares more about foreigners than Americans.
Aides said Mr. Biden’s speeches in Kyiv and Warsaw were intended for an American audience as well as international ones. But the president has shrugged off concerns about ebbing public support for the Ukraine supply effort, suggesting it is relegated mainly to what he calls MAGA Republicans, after former President Donald J. Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.
When David Muir of ABC News noted in an interview last week that many Americans were asking how long they could keep spending on Ukraine, the president quarreled with the premise. “I’m not sure how many are asking that,” Mr. Biden said. “I know the MAGA crowd is. The right-wing Republicans are talking about, we can’t do this. We find ourselves in a situation where the cost of walking away could be considerably higher than the cost of helping Ukraine maintain its independence.”
John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said support remains powerful in Congress itself. “Yes, there are a small number of members on Capitol Hill, in the House Republicans specifically, that have expressed publicly their concerns about support for Ukraine,” he said at a recent briefing. “But if you talk to the House leadership, you won’t hear that. And you certainly aren’t going to hear it on the Democratic side. And you don’t hear it in the Senate.”
Indeed, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and key House Republicans like Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, have pushed Mr. Biden from the other side, arguing that the president is not doing enough for Ukraine. Mr. McCaul took a congressional delegation to Kyiv shortly after Mr. Biden, emphasizing bipartisan support.
But Mr. McCarthy, who during last fall’s campaign said there would be no “blank check” for Ukraine in a Republican House, is under pressure from a small but vocal part of his caucus critical of American involvement in the war and encouraged by Fox’s Tucker Carlson. With a razor-thin working majority, it is not clear whether he would allow another robust aid package to come to the floor for a vote and if so under what conditions, which is why Mr. Zelensky wants to talk, as was reported by Punchbowl News.
Among those pushing Mr. McCarthy to block future aid is Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, the former QAnon adherent who has become a key ally since helping him win the speakership. Speaking to Just the News, a conservative website, this week, Ms. Greene said she opposed the war in Ukraine. “But you know who’s driving it?” she asked. “It’s America. America needs to stop pushing the war in Ukraine.”
While she and her allies have been on the margins of the Republican Party on Ukraine, the center of gravity may be shifting. Mr. Trump lashed out at Mr. Biden last week for visiting Kyiv instead of East Palestine, Ohio, the site of a recent toxic train derailment. In a fund-raising video, Mr. Trump said, “we’re teetering on the brink of World War III” thanks to Mr. Biden and promised to “end the Ukraine conflict in 24 hours.”
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Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, his most formidable potential challenger for the 2024 nomination, sought to match Mr. Trump, criticizing what he called the “open-ended blank check” for Ukraine and saying “I don’t think it’s in our interest” to be involved in the fight for territory seized by Russia.
By contrast, the announced and unannounced Republican presidential candidates who do support aid to Ukraine, like former Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, trail far behind those two front-runners.
Mr. Surabian said a rematch between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump would sharpen the nation’s debate over Ukraine. “If Donald Trump is the nominee, I 100 percent expect him to prosecute the case against Biden directly on the Ukraine issue,” he said. “I think this will become a centerpiece issue between him and Biden.”
So far, Congress has approved $113 billion in military, economic, humanitarian and other aid for Ukraine, not all of which has been spent yet. Anticipating trouble from the new Republican House, the White House and lame-duck Democratic majority last winter pushed through an aid package large enough to last until summer. At the current rate of spending, it would run out by mid-July, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A House Democrat who asked not to be identified speaking critically of the White House expressed concern that the president’s team did not fully grasp how Americans viewed the aid. While they support Ukraine in principle, this Democrat said, the way the aid has been doled out through a steady drumbeat of announcements of another $500 million or $1 billion every week or two exacerbates the sense that endless funds are heading out of the country.
Philip D. Zelikow, a University of Virginia scholar and former State Department counselor, said military aid was more popular than economic aid because much of it is actually spent on arms produced by American defense firms. But he said that economic aid was critical to rebuilding Ukraine, and he argued that seizing $300 billion in Russian assets in the West for reconstruction would ease the burden on the American taxpayer.
“I’m critical of the administration because it did not start moving at least six months ago to design a more sustainable and hopeful strategy on what will likely be the decisive battlefield of the war,” he said.
Still, some government veterans said there is only so much Mr. Biden can do to preserve public support since the most pronounced erosion has been on the Republican side.
“President Biden probably has limited ability to reach the Republican audiences that are most in play,” said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor who has studied the relationship between public opinion and military operations and advised President George W. Bush during the Iraq War. “He has a daunting but perhaps doable task to keep his left flank on board.”
The uncertainty about whether Mr. McCarthy’s House will approve further aid may influence how Mr. Biden spends the money already allocated as Ukraine and its supporters press for more expensive, high-powered weaponry that would drain the existing funds and force a new vote earlier.
“If you add Patriots, F-16s, long-range missiles and all these other things to the mix, then by definition the moment of truth comes sooner,” said former Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and a strong supporter of Ukraine. “And I’m not sure if the proponents of those things on the Hill have a plan yet to overcome the inevitable MAGA resistance in the House. And if they don’t, it’s logical for Biden to husband the resources that he has and focus on the things that Ukraine needs the most, like ammunition.”
Others like Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the uncertainty is all the more reason for the president to be aggressive and help the Ukrainians win the war sooner before public support fades further.
“The problem is that the longer the war continues, the greater the risk that U.S. resolve will wane, no matter how much effort the president puts into convincing Americans to stay the course,” she said. “That’s why it’s so critical that the United States lean in now and help Ukraine end things militarily.”
She added, “If U.S. support wanes over time, it is quite possible that we end up in the worst possible world in which Russia snatches a victory from the jaws of defeat.”