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OPINION: War in Ukraine tests U.S. patience, Western unity

By Lee Hamilton


It’s been a year since Russia launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine, and a lot has happened in that time. Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war has caused unspeakable destruction and suffering. At the same time, Ukrainians have inspired the world with their brave resistance.

When the invasion began, some Western officials said privately that they expected a quick conflict, with Kyiv falling within weeks if not days. They were wrong.

But the war has created challenges: for Ukraine, most obviously, but also for the United States and our allies. As the fighting rages on, it will test Americans’ patience and resolve. And it will test the ability of America and our allies to stay united in opposing Russian aggression.

The war has produced well over 100,000 military casualties, and thousands of civilians have been killed, including children and elderly people. Russia has targeted industry and civilian infrastructure with missiles and bombs. We’ve all seen the photographs: destroyed buildings, scenes of desolation, overwhelmed hospitals. Millions of refugees have fled the country.

But Ukraine’s response has been remarkable. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the 44-year-old president, has rallied his people and won global support. A former actor and political outsider, he was thrown into the role of being a wartime leader and has performed impressively.

And the world has come to Ukraine’s defense, providing monetary aid and an escalating array of weapons while imposing sanctions on Russia. Some leaders initially worried that backing Ukraine could risk a catastrophic conflict with nuclear-armed Russia, but support has held steady. Putin’s recklessness has left Russia isolated.

President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Ukraine on Feb. 20 to meet with Zelenskyy and show solidarity. NATO has stood by Ukraine, and so has the European Union, even though the war has disrupted food and energy supplies and fueled inflation. At the Munich Security Conference last month in Germany, leaders of dozens of countries pledged unity. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris accused Russia of crimes against humanity: “gruesome acts of murder, torture, rape and deportation.”

Global public opinion has remained consistent, according to an Ipsos poll in January. Two-thirds of respondents follow news of the war, believe in supporting Ukraine and favor taking in refugees. The U.S. has provided generous support to Ukraine, including $45 billion in a year-end budget measure approved by Congress. After much pleading by Zelenskyy, the U.S. provided a Patriot missile battery and promised 31 M1 Abrams tanks.

Biden has promised to back Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” but U.S. officials have reportedly told Zelenskyy that they can’t promise indefinite support. American public opinion is supportive of Ukraine but divided on how much help to provide. It’s worrisome that the divisions reflect partisan lines.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, only about a quarter of Americans say we are giving too much aid to Ukraine, but the figure has begun to grow. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 40 percent say U.S. support is too generous. Some 43 percent of Americans, but only 27 percent of Republicans, approve of Biden’s handling of the conflict.

With Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, congressional support for Ukraine may weaken. Some conservative members argue we should pay less attention to Ukraine and more to problems at home, like border security and inflation. The 2024 election could widen divisions.

It’s a reminder that, in a representative democracy like ours, foreign policy and domestic policy can never be entirely separate. If the American people lose interest in the war — or if they blame it for inflation and conclude it distracts from problems at home — it may become harder to support Ukraine. This will be a real test for Biden’s leadership and American resolve.            

Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.