President Joe Biden’s historic trip to Kyiv on Monday served as a symbolic victory for Ukraine, but he returned Wednesday evening to Washington without having changed the contours of a conflict that has reached the one-year mark with no end in sight.
Biden announced a $500 billion military aid package for Ukraine during his unprecedented stop in Kyiv, which marked the first time a modern U.S. president visited an active war zone that did not have an American military presence.
The aid included ammunition for long-range rocket systems known as HIMARS, antitank Javelin missiles, additional artillery ammunition, and four air surveillance radars. But the assistance did not include any new weapons systems, and Biden did not address Ukraine’s plea for fighter jets.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been asking for Western air support since the start of the war, but the requests have grown more urgent as Russia launches a major offensive in eastern Ukraine.
The current level of Western military aid “may not be enough to shift the conflict decisively in Ukraine’s favor” in the coming months, said Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“If that doesn’t happen, the Biden administration has to be able to sustain Ukraine for a much longer time period,” said Weiss, a former senior Russia adviser in the Clinton White House and the author of a book on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Biden reiterated the United States’ long-term commitment to Ukraine in a speech Tuesday in Warsaw, framing the war as part of a broader 21st century power struggle between an autocratic regime and Western democracies.
“There should be no doubt: Our support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire,” Biden said in a speech at the Royal Castle Gardens. “Democracies of the world will stand guard over freedom today, tomorrow, and forever,” he added. “That’s what’s at stake here: freedom.”
President Joe Biden delivers a speech at the Royal Castle Arcades on February 21, 2023 in Warsaw, Poland.
Getty Images/Omar Marques
The president had the same message for Zelensky when he visited Kyiv. America will support Ukraine’s war effort “for as long as it takes,” Biden said.
The appearance by both leaders in the heart of Kyiv served as a powerful reminder of Ukraine’s success in thwarting Putin’s ambitions to bring the entire country under Russian control.
When Russia launched the invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, most military analysts predicted a brief war ending with Ukraine’s collapse at the hands of a much larger, more powerful enemy force.
But Russia failed to seize Kyiv and topple Zelensky’s government in the first weeks of fighting. Since then, Moscow has suffered several embarrassing setbacks on the battlefield, exposing weaknesses in Russia’s military capability.
There was also widespread concern in the West when the conflict began that Putin might use nuclear weapons or expand the war beyond Ukraine into other parts of Europe, triggering a dangerous confrontation with NATO. So far, those crises have also been averted.
Still, as the war enters its second year, Ukraine is in a precarious position, putting Biden in a difficult place as he seeks to keep the West united against Moscow in a conflict that could drag on for years.
Roughly 20 percent of Ukraine remains under Russian control. Putin has mobilized hundreds of thousands of new recruits and accelerated Russia’s defense production.
The Russian leader has also shown no signs of wanting to end the war. If anything, his rhetoric against Ukraine and the West has become more bellicose, and a negotiated settlement to the war is now widely seen as highly unlikely anytime soon.
In a speech Monday, Putin pulled Russia out of its lasting remaining nuclear arms treaty with the U.S. in a move that drew heavy criticism from Western leaders.
With Russia digging in in Ukraine, military and diplomatic experts said the Biden administration has no choice but to increase military aid to Kyiv.
President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Ukrainian presidential palace on February 20, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Photo by Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via Getty Images
“We have to step out of our cautious comfort zone,” John Herbst, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under former President George W. Bush, said on a call with reporters ahead of Biden’s trip to Europe.
Ukraine can hold off the coming Russian offensive, but it needs longer-range rockets and F16 fighter jets to turn the tide in its favor, Herbst said.
The U.S. and some European allies have pledged to send tanks to Ukraine. But the West has balked at supplying air power out of concern that the move would drastically escalate tensions with Moscow.
“Ukraine’s victory is not assured, but it is possible,” said Daniel Fried, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and former U.S. ambassador to Poland under Bush. “We have the chance to increase Ukraine’s odds of success, therefore we must,” Fried added. “Biden needs to make the case why this war matters.”
Biden highlighted the stakes with his dramatic visit to Kyiv. But with less than two years left in his first term, Biden may find it harder to win support for his Ukraine policy in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.
“Countries [in Europe] to some extent are hedging their bets” while they wait to see if Biden is succeeded by a Republican president less interested in providing robust military support to Kyiv, said Michal Baranowski, Warsaw director of the German Marshall Fund. “They’re sort of not fully engaging as much as they could, thinking that perhaps this window might be closing.”
Which World Leaders Have Met Zelensky in Ukraine?
This chart, provided by Statista, shows visits of heads of state/ governments as well as UN and EU leaders to Ukraine since February 24, 2022.
In the U.S., some House Republicans have expressed concern about continuing to send billions in military aid to Ukraine indefinitely. And public support for Ukraine aid has weakened since the conflict began.
A Pew Research Center survey from late January found that 26 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is providing “too much” support to Ukraine, up from 7 percent in March of 2022.
“The U.S. political calendar is not going to be favorable” to Biden, Weiss said, putting more pressure on the president going forward to achieve a breakthrough in Ukraine that goes beyond symbolic speeches.