Biden’s policy on Ukraine will remain—but watch the growing partisan divide

Cracks in the Consensus

March 03, 2023
4 min read
Photo credit: Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com

This article was first published by The Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) on February 21, 2023 as “Biden’s policy on Ukraine will remain—but watch the growing partisan divide”.

The anniversary of Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine coincides more or less with the start the US Congress elected in last November’s midterm elections. The fears of Ukraine and its supporters in the West that a Republican-controlled Congress could significantly change US policy on the war abated when the Democrats held on to the Senate. However, this does not guarantee that the United States’ support for Ukraine will go unchanged indefinitely. This is increasingly a partisan issue and Republican critics, even if they are in a minority in the party, can have an impact.

One sign that this should be taken seriously is that the Biden administration has warned Ukraine that “we can’t do anything and everything forever” and that it is expecting more Congressional resistance for continuing support on the same scale as now. Most Republican lawmakers remain hawkish toward Russia and sympathetic to Ukraine but the party is now also generally against major spending on foreign issues. Partisanship also run very high and for Republicans the war is one more spot where to hit a Democratic administration.

American public opinion remains clearly pro-Ukraine. One January poll found 65% support for Ukraine reclaiming its territory from Russia even if this prolongs the conflict, a position virtually unchanged from last summer. But the ground is shifting. Another poll last month noted a rise, to 24% from 19% in May 2022, in the share of those saying the United States should have no role in the conflict. Another pollster recorded the share of respondents saying Washington provides too much support to Ukraine rising from 7% in March 2022 to 26% in January.

This trend can be attributed to concerns about the economic cost of the US support, but it is also likely that the public is getting used to the war, with its sense of urgency fading over time. One January poll found that the share of those saying the conflict is a major threat to the United States had fallen to 35% from 50% in March 2022.

Overall, it is unlikely that the American public will abandon its supportive position toward Ukraine soon. But an equally important factor that can affect the continuity of US policy is the growing party divide in opinions.

In January, one poll had 10% of Democrats but 47% of Republicans saying the United States is doing too much for Ukraine. Another poll had the share of Republican respondents saying this at 40%, up from 9% in March 2022, while the share of Democrats went up from 5% to 15%. And one pollster found the Democrat-Republican split of those saying the United States should play no role in the conflict at 15%-28%, of those against providing weapons to Ukraine at 17%-37%, and of those opposed to sending government funds directly to the country at 18%-58%

When it comes to Congress’s ability to shift US policy on Ukraine, it may not have made as much of a difference as some hope that the Democrats retained the Senate. For one thing, Republican senators are generally in line with the administration on this. The House of Representatives, where the more Ukraine-critical Republicans sit, is particularly influential as far the “power of the purse” is concerned. Some of them now have seats on the crucial Appropriations, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs House committees. The Freedom Caucus to which they belong tends to be for a hard line against Russia, but it also opposes spend US money on Ukraine and giving it weapons. Earlier this month, some of its members introduced a Ukraine Fatigue Resolution in the House, which calls for ending “military and financial aid to Ukraine.”

The Republicans who are genuinely opposed to support for Ukraine (or who are latching on this issue as a means to attack an administration that has comprehensively put itself behind Kyiv’s cause may) are a minority even in their party. But new Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has already said there should be “no blank check” for Ukraine, cannot afford to alienate any of his members, given that the Republicans’ very narrow majority, as the horse-trading saga surrounding the election to his position.

The growing party divide on Ukraine in public opinion is surely in part due to some Republican politicians using it a partisan weapon for electoral gain. This is not likely to end. And the next presidential election may be in November 2024 but positioning for the Republican primaries is already in full swing and will get more intense.

Therefore, while Ukraine and its supporters in the West can expect US policy on the war and support for Kyiv’s defeating Russia’s invasion not to change radically in the coming months, the scale of assistance will come under more pressure. It may also become slower and harder to get Congressional approval for it. And if the war continues without getting closer to a resolution throughout this year, while the next presidential election approaches, Ukraine may turn into more of a partisan issue, which will not make the current US policy easier to maintain.