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Ukraine Back In U.S. Political Spotlight

When Joe Biden defeated incumbent Donald Trump in the November 2020 presidential contest, it ended a tense election struggle in which a country that had never played more than a bit part in U.S. politics -- Ukraine -- suddenly had a substantial role.

Kyiv had been thrust into the U.S. political spotlight after Trump was accused of pressuring newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a 2019 phone call to dig up dirt on the Biden family's activities in Ukraine, leading to an explosive, monthslong impeachment trial in Washington.

With the U.S. election over, the relief in Ukraine was palpable. Zelenskiy expressed the hope that the two countries could put the turbulence behind them and that the focus of ties could shift from U.S. political battles to common geopolitical interests, such as combatting Russian aggression.

"They roped us in," Zelenskiy told The New York Times in December 2020, adding that with a new U.S. administration coming in, "I don't want Ukraine to become the subject" of a fight between Democrats and Republicans.

Three years later, as the United States heads toward what may be a rematch between Biden and Trump in November 2024, Ukraine is once again in focus.
And there are echoes of 2019-20, including an impeachment bid: this time targeting Biden.

But if anything, the circumstances are more dramatic and the stakes for both countries higher. Ukraine is fighting against a full-scale invasion launched by Russia in February 2022, and U.S. support is a crucial factor in a war whose outcome will have major consequences for the United States and the West, in addition to Ukraine.

"I think Ukraine is going to be even more of a domestic election issue than it was in 2020," Daniel Vajdich, president of the Washington-based Yorktown Solutions, which lobbies on behalf of Ukraine, told RFE/RL.

Zelenskiy's visit to the United States this week underscores his country's prominence in U.S. politics less than 14 months ahead of the election.

It comes as Congress deliberates on a new spending bill proposed by the Biden administration that would allocate billions of dollars more in military and financial aid to Ukraine.

Amid the biggest war in Europe since World War II, the provision of massive amounts of money and increasingly powerful weapons to Ukraine has been a defining aspect of Biden's presidency and promises to be a major topic on the campaign trail.

Republicans seeking to challenge Biden in the election -- including Trump, who polls indicate is the front-runner by far for the party's nomination as its candidate, despite facing criminal charges in four separate cases -- are traveling the country and attacking the incumbent's record, including his Ukraine policy.

Shifting Public Priorities?

With more than $76 billion in U.S. military, financial, and humanitarian aid already delivered and little or no expectation that Russia's war against its neighbor will end before the U.S. election, the American public's support for Ukraine appears to be waning amid economic difficulties at home.

More Americans are questioning whether the money could be better spent at home, where high inflation is taking its toll on millions of voters. Republican lawmakers and presidential hopefuls are seizing on that shift in sentiment to win over voters. Dozens of Republicans in the House of Representatives have balked at approving more aid to Ukraine, saying Kyiv's fate is not a vital U.S. interest.

Biden sought to counter such assertions in his address to the UN General Assembly on September 19, saying that no nation can be secure if "we allow Ukraine to be carved up" by Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will be closely following U.S. domestic political developments, experts say, because following Russia's failure to swiftly subjugate Ukraine and subsequent setbacks on the battlefield, his best hope is that Western support for Kyiv will dry up. Analysts expect Putin to push ahead with the invasion -- despite the enormous human and economic costs to Russia -- in the hope the 2024 U.S. presidential and congressional elections will deliver him a favorable change in Washington's policy on Ukraine.

Current polling points strongly to a rematch between Biden, a vocal supporter of Ukrainian sovereignty, and Trump, who has criticized Zelenskiy and accused Kyiv of interfering in the 2016 election against him.

Zelenskiy and his government, along with Ukraine's backers in the West, have sought to convince U.S. lawmakers and the American public that aid is not "charity" but an investment in U.S. security and the security of NATO allies.

Kyiv has also been making the case that Ukraine is making progress on the battlefield -- amid a major counteroffensive that has brought only moderate gains to date -- and with Western-backed domestic reforms.

And as the U.S. votes draw closer, Zelenskiy may have to walk a tightrope lest he be seen as favoring one party or presidential candidate over the other, which could further widen rifts over aid to Ukraine.

U.S. Aid Package

In August, the Biden administration submitted an emergency spending bill to Congress that included another $24 billion in aid for Ukraine, an amount that should cover Kyiv's needs at least through the end of the year, when more U.S. aid can be tacked on to the annual appropriations legislation.

The Biden administration is currently supplying aid to Ukraine from the $45 billion package approved in December by Congress as part of the annual spending bill. That package is expected to run out by the end of this month.

The White House does not want to ask for a large amount of money to last for the entire fiscal year "because that would generate a lot of attention," Mark Cancian, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote recently.

"It is less controversial to put Ukrainian aid funding into the context of the full federal budget when the final budget deal is being made," Cancian said.

While both parties in the Senate are on board with the new emergency aid package, a minority group of vocal Republicans in the House of Representatives are holding up the bill as they tussle with the Biden administration over spending priorities -- one of the manifestations of a rift within the Republican Party on the issue of support for Ukraine.

"I don't feel comfortable sending another dollar to Ukraine," said Representative Mike Garcia, a Republican from California. "The problem is, do you know if Ukraine is winning the war in Ukraine right now? Because I don't."

Earlier this year, 70 House Republicans -- nearly one-third of their members -- voted in favor of an amendment proposed by Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida that would have blocked any new funding for Ukraine. The bill failed, with all Democrats and a majority of Republicans in the House voting against it.

But while U.S. public support for Ukraine was overwhelming at the start of Russia's full-scale invasion, more and more Americans seem to be losing interest in the war as it drags on.

In a CNN poll in July, a majority of respondents -- 55 percent -- said that Congress should not approve more funding for Ukraine. The poll showed a clear divide along party lines, with 71 percent of Republican respondents saying they are against new funding, while 62 percent of Democrats said they support more aid.

Will Pomeranz, director of the Kennan Institute, a Washington think tank that focuses on Russia and Eurasia, said such sentiment is unlikely to diminish the administration's support for Ukraine in the run-up to the election.

"Biden has been very resolute in his support for Ukraine, and he reiterated that at the United Nations," he said.

The Trump Factor

How substantially Trump would seek to change White House policy on Ukraine if Americans put him back in office is uncertain, but he has shown little interest in aiding Kyiv in his public comments to date on the war.

During his term as president from 2017 to 2021, Trump lashed out at times with harsh criticism and outright disdain for Ukraine, former U.S. officials who worked in his administration have said.

In an interview with CNBC television that aired on September 17, Trump said that if he won the 2024 election, he would get Zelenskiy and Putin to agree to a peace deal. But as with similar comments in the past, he gave no details.

In response to a follow-up question about whether he would force Ukraine to cede territory, Trump said he would not, adding to the lack of clarity on how he might seek to end the war.

During the 2016 election campaign, he said he might consider recognizing Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow had occupied two years earlier.

Pomeranz said he has "every expectation" that Trump would seek to cut U.S. aid to Ukraine should he win the presidency, but that he would need at least a Republican sweep of Congress to make that a reality. Republicans currently hold a slim majority of seats in the House and have a tiny minority -- 49 -- in the 100-seat Senate.

Both Biden's and Trump's relationships with Ukraine are colored by the past and by events that have played into the respective impeachment efforts.

Trump was accused of withholding $400 million in critical military aid to Ukraine in 2019 to pressure Zelenskiy to investigate Biden's son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father, as the U.S. vice president, was serving as President Barack Obama's point man for ties with Kyiv.

In December 2019, less than a year before his 2020 reelection bid, Trump was charged with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress by the House of Representatives, in which Democrats then held a majority.

The impeachment process was prompted by the July 2019 phone call in which Trump appeared to condition military aid to Ukraine on Zelenskiy's government pursuing criminal investigations into Joe Biden and Hunter Biden.

Trump was acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate in February 2020.

Earlier this month, the now Republican-controlled House opened an impeachment inquiry into alleged wrongdoing by Biden, including whether he lied about his knowledge of his son's business dealings in Ukraine.

The inquiry could play into the campaigns of Trump and other Republicans seeking to challenge Biden, widening the spotlight on Ukraine in the U.S. presidential contest.

It could also increase public perceptions of corruption in Ukraine, sowing or increasing doubts in the minds of some U.S. voters about the logic of sending financial aid to Kyiv.

The issue of corruption has been central to arguments by those Republican lawmakers who oppose more funding for Ukraine. Ahead of his U.S. visit this week, Zelenskiy took prominent steps to demonstrate his administration's commitment to battling graft.

He vetoed a bill that would have allowed officials to hide their wealth from public scrutiny and dismissed the defense minister amid scandals over evidence and allegations of corruption in the military. All six deputy defense ministers were subsequently dismissed as well.

On September 2, the Security Service of Ukraine detained Ihor Kolomoyskiy, a U.S.-sanctioned tycoon who for years has been widely seen as a practitioner of robber-baron capitalism.

Those moves are a "broader recognition by Zelenskiy that the domestic reform agenda is intrinsically intertwined with external support, including military support, for Ukraine," Vajdich said.

Putin's Other Levers?

Trump has strong pull in the Republican Party, and levels of support for Ukraine among Republicans inside and outside of Congress ahead of the election may depend in part on whether he maintains his lead in the race for the party nomination in primaries that begin early in 2024.

Other Republican presidential hopefuls, including Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence, have said that the United States needs to step up aid to Ukraine, not decrease it.

Pence has said that if Russia wins its war against Ukraine, Putin will be emboldened and advance on NATO allies, forcing U.S. soldiers to fight in their defense.

He has criticized Biden as well, asserting that the president has sought to justify aid to Ukraine on the basis of democracy promotion and not core U.S. national interests.

While support for Ukraine amid the Russian invasion is likely to be a factor in the U.S. election campaign, voters often focus more on issues that seem closer to home and more likely to affect their livelihoods. Putin may try to use economic levers -- some related to his war on Ukraine -- to attempt to push the United States toward election results he believes would be to his benefit.

For example, Moscow could try to make it harder for the United States to tamp down inflation by taking steps to drive up the prices of oil, grain, and other commodities Russia produces in abundance, Keith Naughton, a Republican political consultant, wrote in an opinion article in August.

Putin is already cooperating with Saudi Arabia to cut oil output and push up prices, which have jumped more than a quarter over the past three months since the cuts were announced. And Russia pulled out of a deal for the safe export of Ukrainian grain that had helped lower food prices.

"Imagine Biden vs. Trump with rocketing inflation and rising unemployment. No number of indictments [against Trump] would be enough to save Biden," Naughton wrote.

By RFE/RL

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