DANIEL VAUGHAN: Biden allows Ukraine to drive US policy

A foreign leader addressing the United States Congress is not unprecedented, but it is rare. When one does appear and speak before Congress, it’s worth noting the purpose and value of that talk. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has addressed Congress in the past via video teleconference. His latest visit was notable because it was in-person and the first by a head of state since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in 2015.

There were some attempts on the right to hit Zelenskyy for things like his dress or asking for more money. In truth, there’s little to take from these criticisms. Zelenskyy is a wartime leader whose people face a nuclear-armed state bent on a total takeover. Ukraine only survives if Zelenskyy successfully keeps Ukraine aligned with the West. He’s doing that, and no one can blame him for taking all steps necessary to save his people.

The problem is not Zelenskyy. The issue is that Russia is gearing up for round two in Ukraine, with a new surge in the war starting in 2023. Ukrainian intelligence points to occurring next year, with Russia again timing an advance up with the weather. We also know that Russia is surging more of its resources into continuing the war in Ukraine. That means for everyone else, the economic impacts of the war will continue.

Zelenskyy is Ukraine first, America second.

That leads us to the main problem for the United States: Zelenskyy is in the United States because he needs continuing support. He has the single-minded goal of survival and victory before his mind every day. But just because Zelenskyy’s goal is survival and triumph over the Russians does not mean the United States shares the same interests in all those decisions.

The United States is defending a much smaller nation from Russian aggression and asserting NATO’s power in Europe. Our response isn’t the problem; defining the end goal is, however. What do we want a post-Ukrainian war Europe to look like?

Even if Vladimir Putin is defeated, humiliated, and thrown from power, it’s unclear what this would deliver for the United States or European security. We must define what a post-war world looks like and establish that plan as reality.

Andrew A. Michta, dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security, wrote in Politico:

NATO is ultimately about hard power and collective defense, and it will be post-war hard-power distribution that will drive institutional framing and define the new architecture of a future Europe. Just as it did at the inception of the Cold War, a new center of gravity will emerge in Europe.

Furthermore, on Ukraine, he notes, “When a nation has won its freedom through a horrific and bloody sacrifice, defending others on the Continent in the process, it can’t be stood aside and told it’s a peripheral state.” Ukraine will most likely become both a member of NATO and the European Union.

Europe is at an inflection point.

He persuasively argues that the old, status-quo version of Europe is dead. The war permanently shifted what Europe is and how its politics will go moving forward. In the past, the United States and western Europe used the eastern portion of the continent as a buffer zone against Russian aggression.

If Ukraine wins this war, that calculation is gone. Europe will fully extend to Istanbul. The West will fully border the East on the Atlantic and Pacific. As Michta notes, “Thus far, the Western response to the war has been notable for both its generosity and its haphazard nature.”

We cannot afford to be haphazard. Sending support to Ukraine is fine, but many more consequential questions must have an answer and, more importantly, a plan.

That brings us to Zelenskyy’s visit. He’s doing everything in his power to advance the cause of Ukraine on every front possible. He can’t be faulted for doing what is in his best interests. The question is, what are the United States’ interests long term? Europe is unwilling to step up and build a post-war world.

US will have to rebuilt Europe if EU does not.

One of the biggest points Donald Trump made during his presidency was the need for Europe to build a collective defense beyond that of the United States. Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought that back to the forefront. Europe has lazily relied on the United States to define these issues for so long that it doesn’t know what to do in a moment of change.

Zelenskyy is not the issue. Mapping out the post-war future is the primary point driving European policy. It’s unclear whether the White House has any plan beyond responding to whatever next happens in the crisis. We have to drive policy here, not Zelenskyy. It’s not because Zelenskyy is bad but because his primary objective is Ukraine, not America.

Biden’s primary objective is the United States. And with Europe failing to step up, that leaves America in control of Europe’s destiny again. We rebuilt Europe after 1945, and we’ll have to do so again. That’s the big issue, and it’s unclear whether anyone knows what to do.

That’s worrisome because both the United States and Russia are nuclear-armed. Haphardzly navigating the conflict without a clear end goal is a recipe for disaster. The United States could be lucky, and everything works out, but that’s not a comforting thought.