How long will US support for Ukraine be maintained?

President Joe Biden meets Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on an unannounced visit to Kyiv. Credit: AP

President Joe Biden’s visit to Ukraine and his stirring speech in Poland this week were designed to send a clear message to Moscow: whatever it takes, America will stand with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

There is a clear strategic imperative to giving the impression that America will stand solidly behind Ukraine. Any chink of prevarication would be immediately seized on by President Vladimir Putin as proof his great gamble will pay off.

The Kremlin is hoping that eventually the United States will lose interest in Ukraine, end its military backing, causing others to follow suit and allowing Moscow to conquer the rest of the country.

In a sense, President Biden had no choice. He had to reaffirm unambiguous, unwavering support.

It was also a signal to the doubters at home who may be worried about how long this war and American support will continue. The domestic message was clear: this president will stand by Ukraine as long as he is in the White House.

But is that really what will happen?

History is littered with far too many examples of the United States making bold promises, only to row back from them, as administrations change or political expediency dictates. I witnessed too many of these reversals myself.

From Libya to Syria, the soaring rhetoric is often not matched by the reality on the ground. America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan is just one recent example.

Often the U-turn is forced on a president by events at home: a change in public support for a war or an election that upends all the careful political calculations that make such bold promises possible.

Now the Republicans control the House of Representatives, getting through more military aid for Ukraine may not be so straightforward.

As one senior administration official recently told the Washington Post, “as long as it takes” pertains to the length of the conflict, not necessarily the amount of assistance. Getting more military aid packages through Congress now is not going to be a given.

Sometimes, the president’s focus switches to more pressing matters like the economy or a crisis elsewhere, and those lofty goals get shelved. What happened to President Biden’s call to end the war in Yemen for example?

Biden said Putin was wrong to think Ukraine would 'roll-over' after the Russian president blamed the West for starting the conflict in Ukraine

What is unarguable right now though, is that standing with Ukraine is in America’s interests. Holding back an expansionist Russia is seen as a critical policy by the state department, especially as Russia and China became closer, after the signing of their ‘no limits partnership’ last February.

On Tuesday it was reported President Xi Jinping is preparing to travel to Moscow for a summit. Keeping Russia in check, as part of America’s wider concerns over China’s more muscular foreign policy, is perfectly logical.

Make no mistake though, America won’t be committing troops to Ukraine.

The bloody lessons of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan mean occupants of 1600 Pensylvania Avenue now are far more reluctant to put boots on the ground, because of the risk of mission creep and unintended consequences.

For now, the support will consist of weaponry, mainly in the form of tanks and better artillery. It may help to tilt the conflict towards Kyiv.

But will it be enough to force through a decisive victory, allowing Ukraine to retake all of the Donbass? We’ll see in the coming months.

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But even if it doesn’t drive Russian forces back over their own border, it might peg them back, ensuring its military is mired in a lengthy and costly war.

And it leaves America free to contemplate what it could and should do if China went for Taiwan.

It’s also a signal to Beijing that any offer of weaponry to Moscow will be matched by America. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has already claimed China might be about to increase its help to Russian forces from non-lethal technology like satellite imagery to lethal forms of support like advanced missiles.

President Xi is reportedly preparing to deliver a ‘peace speech’ to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the of invasion of Ukraine on Friday.

Every word will be analysed for clues about how far China will go to support Russia, and what overtures to America will be made after the damaged spy balloon saga.

But President Biden’s speech in Warsaw on Tuesday will be viewed with a degree of scepticism by officials in Moscow and Beijing, who might conclude: America stands with Ukraine… for now.