To the comfort of Russian President Vladimir Putin, cracks are appearing in the American resolve to stay the course in the war in Ukraine.
The Republican Party undoubtedly brought a grin to the autocrat’s stone visage with the recent pronouncement from Kevin McCarthy, the GOP’s leader in the House of Representatives. He said the party will cut back aid to Ukraine should it win a majority in that chamber in the Nov. 8 midterm elections: “I think people are going to be sitting in a recession, and they’re not going to write a blank cheque to Ukraine. They just won’t do it.”
A Republican majority is expected now, given recent polling showing momentum has clearly returned its way after support waned for a time with the easing of inflation and the Supreme Court decision to reverse women’s rights on abortion.
But inflation is back as the ballot-box issue. And since Mr. Putin’s naked aggression is one of the prime causes of rising prices, he can credit himself with playing a big hand, should it happen, in the Democrats’ fall.
Their defeat and the ascendancy of the more isolationist Republicans is a top priority for the Kremlin – as evidenced by the last two presidential elections, in which Mr. Putin’s apparatchiks engaged in covert activities to try to tilt the vote toward Donald Trump.
As for the Democrats, they presented a unified front on war policy until this week. On Monday, 30 of their more liberal members released a letter to the White House urging Mr. Biden to pursue direct diplomatic negotiations with the Kremlin for a ceasefire.
The letter, signed by such party notables as Jamie Raskin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said that “The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war with both its attendant uncertainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks.”
That was Monday. By Tuesday, it had prompted such opposition from Ukrainian officials and the Biden administration that it was withdrawn. Some Democrats said they had signed the letter months ago, felt differently now, and were surprised it was made public. That helped paper over the cracks, though some embarrassment, to the content of the Kremlin, was inflicted.
Mr. Biden’s view has been to leave any decision to negotiate to the Ukrainians. Democrat Senator Chris Murphy reflected the White House position on Twitter, saying, “There is moral and strategic peril in sitting down with Putin early. It risks legitimizing his crimes.”
Mr. Biden did say in June, however, that “it appears to me that, at some point along the line, there’s going to have to be a negotiated settlement here.”
The President faces a hellish dilemma. If he opens negotiations, he risks giving some validation to Mr. Putin’s aggression and having the look of an appeaser. If he doesn’t, he risks an endless war with mounting devastation and the continual threat of nuclear weapons.
The war has not yet been front and centre in the election campaign, in part because the two parties haven’t been far apart on the question of aid. They’ve provided a mammoth US$60-billion of it to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government this year.
Republicans are focusing on inflation, crime and immigration, while Democrats are campaigning on abortion rights and threats to democracy by the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party. The Republican issues appear to be getting the most traction.
A critical Senate race where the war could play a deciding role is in Ohio, where Republican J.D. Vance has hurt his chances with statements like the one he made shortly before the Russian invasion: “I gotta be honest with you,” he said. “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” He later did a partial walk-back but remains opposed to increasing the amount of aid, as do influential party blowhards like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson.
While the Republicans are favoured to win the House, the race for the Senate is neck-and-neck. There, Mr. Biden has an ally of sorts on his war policy in minority leader Mitch McConnell, who pledges to be steadfast in his support of Ukraine.
There have been some informal talks recently between U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu.
U.S. officials don’t see either side as having a big upper hand in the conflict and don’t have much hope, even if things do proceed to the bargaining table, of significant compromise.
Mr. Putin will be even less inclined should the Republicans do well in the midterms and, led by Mr. McCarthy, boneheadedly bestow him the benefit of drawing down American support.