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Long Read: Zelensky’s Visit to Washington Marked a Strategic Inflection Point

Olena Lennon
Zelensky and Biden in meeting
Washington, D.C. — December 21, 2022. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office.

President Zelensky’s risky trip to Washington, D.C., on December 21, 2022, was made possible by warming relations with the United States during the year. It also reflected Zelensky's keen awareness of American political fissures at a time when Ukraine's survivability relied in large part on the West’s sustained supply of weapons, munitions, and other types of aid, all spearheaded by the United States.

The timing of the visit—in the midst of a grinding fight in Bakhmut and mere days before the U.S. Congress was scheduled to vote on a spending bill that included tens of billions in emergency aid for Ukraine—underscored the urgency of continuing U.S. support, “not as charity,” President Zelensky said, “but an investment in global security.” This language undoubtedly was intended to assuage skeptical voices in Congress by emphasizing the benefits of investing in Ukraine as a strategic partner over Ukraine’s mere survival as a sovereign state.

Indeed, over the past eleven months, the U.S.-Ukraine relationship has evolved into a new type of a partnership defined by a deeper strategic cooperation and a long-term commitment to a shared vision of European security.

Against the backdrop of the new phase in the war, marked by heavy losses and ammunition constraints on both sides, Zelensky's plea for increased U.S. and allies’ support reflects higher strategic stakes in countering Russia’s relentless assaults and intensified airstrikes against civilian targets as it digs in for a “stubborn defense.

The Evolution of American Support for Ukraine

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the United States has significantly stepped up its assistance to Ukraine and remains the largest individual donor country. While more could always be done, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has proven to be agile and responsive to the new security environment triggered by Russian aggression and Ukraine’s evolving military and humanitarian needs.

The United States and its Western partners have been incrementally scaling up support for Ukraine—and sanctions against Russia—in response to realities on the ground, most recently overcoming another self-imposed threshold by agreeing to provide Ukraine with Patriot air defense batteries and armored combat vehicles (joined in this effort by Germany and France) after months of rejecting Kyiv’s pleas. Moreover, this U.S. aid has been delivered at an unprecedented speed.

The United States has also scaled up training for the Ukrainian military, including through combined arms training at company and battalion levels; it has shared intelligence and secure communications; and it has assisted with humanitarian and economic needs, de-mining, and fixing the power infrastructure in Ukraine.

The main driving force behind the West’s increased support has been the Ukrainian people’s will to fight and proven effectiveness in doing so, in the context of Russia’s many miscalculations and mistakes that exposed structural weaknesses of the Russian military establishment. Besides, Russia’s wide-spread war crimes – against the backdrop of genocidal rhetoric of the Russian political leadership – have further exposed the criminal nature and intentions of the Putin regime and given the West a new sense of urgency in stopping the Russian military machine. 

That said, while both American and other Western leaders have repeatedly said that they would support Ukraine “as long as it takes,” the West appears to be trying to walk a fine line between helping Ukraine win and not tipping the scales so much as to provoke a nuclear response from Russia. Despite the Kremlin’s nuclear saber-rattling in response to the West’s shipments of advanced weaponry to Ukraine, however, Western officials estimate that the probability of Russia deploying a nuclear weapon remains low.

As the war approaches the one-year mark, military and other support for Ukraine has proven neither futile, nor prohibitively costly, nor unpopular, nor escalatory. Not only has Western support helped Ukraine push Russia back, diminish Russia’s combat power, and discredit the Kremlin regime, it has also elevated the U.S.-Ukraine strategic relationship to new levels of commitment to seeing this war effort through to a mutually beneficial outcome.

Ukraine: A New Kind of Partner

Among the many factors that have shaped the contours of the new strategic relationship between the United States and Ukraine, four stand out.

First, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally transformed a regional security environment and international relations. This transformation calls for new forms of partnerships and security arrangements. There is no going back to a prewar order and status quo, as some European leaders have suggested. The world has already paid a high price for giving Putin the benefit of the doubt and counting on his pragmatic calculations to cooperate with the West in the interest of Russia’s economy and national security. On the contrary: Putin has shown no signs of abandoning his war effort in Ukraine and has only intensified his demonization of the West.

As strategic partners in this new security environment, not only do Kyiv and Washington share the same values but, as President Biden said, he and Zelensky "share the exact same vision" for peace, which includes the United States’ commitment to helping Ukraine defend itself. Indeed, currently there are no other two countries whose collective contributions have been more instrumental in fighting Russia, and ultimately shaping the environment for long-term regional stability.

Second, over the course of the past year, Ukraine’s strategic value has increased as a function of its impressive military performance. The modern weapons and training provided to Ukraine by Western partners, the discipline and morale of Ukraine’s military, the quality of its commanders, and a proven ability to execute large-scale combined arms operations have propelled Ukraine into the ranks of the best fighting forces in the world.

But while the West’s support has been essential in fending off the Russian aggression, so far Ukraine has borne a disproportionate amount of the burden of fighting a country that all NATO members consider the main threat to European security. Ukraine is fighting for its sovereignty and independence, but in doing so, it has also degraded the Kremlin’s ability to use its military power against the collective West. Russia’s aggression has prompted NATO to bolster its defenses, but the Alliance’s direct involvement in the war with Russia is a scenario NATO members will try to avoid (as will Russia). This means that the West will continue relying on the strength and performance of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to undermine Russia’s power for collective security.

Third, and relatedly, Ukraine’s strategic value also lies in being the glue that has kept Europe together. Support for Ukraine, while not universal, has been the single most unifying issue for the West. Ukraine’s successful resistance has also bought European governments valuable time to reconfigure their defense strategies and budgets, as well as decrease their reliance on Russian energy. The EU has also been closing the gap in burden sharing with the United States by stepping up military, financial, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. As a consensus-driven institution, the EU has exceeded even member states’ own expectations of their ability to put their differences aside and move forward with key policy changes, from sanctions to military aid.

Fourth, Ukraine’s courageous fight and its ability to galvanize Western support have had positive strategic effects on discrediting and undermining the power of Russia-friendly authoritarian regimes, such as China, America’s main strategic rival. While China has not openly condemned the Russian aggression, it has refrained from providing material support to sanctions-hit Russia and has called for a negotiated end to hostilities. It is unclear whether the war in Ukraine will affect China’s aggressive posturing toward Taiwan. What is clear is that China no longer sees Russia as either a reliable or a capable strategic partner to hedge against the United States.

In light of Ukraine’s increased strategic significance, U.S. assistance to Ukraine has already been a smart investment when viewed from a purely bang-per-buck perspective. No matter how this relationship is configured, the two countries share agency both in the war effort and in shaping the strategic environment for future negotiations.

The Future of U.S. Support

Despite some voices of opposition in the U.S. Congress and calls for tighter oversight of budgetary spending on Ukraine, there are no concrete grounds to think that support for Ukraine will dwindle. In particular, the Republican leadership in the Senate, along with top Republicans on key committees such as the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, remain strong advocates of Ukraine.

If history is any indication, it is not unusual for war funding to be a source of partisan divide. However, American aid to Ukraine, while significant, is still abysmal relative to the costs incurred in other military conflicts in which the United States was directly or indirectly involved. Nor does support for Ukraine subtract directly from domestic programs. One could also assume that the costs the United States would incur in the long term with a defeated Ukraine and emboldened Russia could be exponentially higher.

Besides, recent public opinion polls show a substantial reservoir of support among the American public. The more Ukraine shows that it can win, the more likely it is that U.S. policymakers and the general public will stick with the war effort to help Ukraine cement its recent gains and keep up the pressure on Russia.

Ukraine’s Resolve

Some voices within the U.S. foreign policy establishment have allegedly been pushing Ukraine toward negotiations. In his address to Congress, Zelensky reinforced the message relayed to their American counterparts earlier, namely, that Ukraine had sufficient forward units and reserves to sustain defensive and offensive operations so long as the West continued its weapons and ammunition supplies, and that Ukraine would not accept any negotiations at this time. Negotiations are nowhere in sight in the foreseeable future as neither side believes it has achieved its minimum objectives and both sides believe they can win.

While military experts assess that Russia will struggle to restore offensive potential, Ukrainian officials have warned of Russia’s escalation in the coming weeks. Putin recently called a ceasefire, coinciding with Orthodox Christmas, evidently to give Russian troops time to resupply and regroup. The Ukrainians did not take the bait. Meanwhile, Russian forces have continued striking Ukraine’s energy grid and residential areas in a bid to drain Ukraine's resources, as well as instill fear and shatter morale.

But, so far, Putin’s brazen attacks have failed to terrorize Ukrainians into submission and instead have galvanized them to greater resilience and solidarity. Regardless of how the war plays out, Ukraine has already dealt Russia a strategic defeat. And as the war grinds on, the United States and its Western partners must give proper recognition to—and investment in—the new strategic relationship with Ukraine, and view Ukraine’s victory and further integration with the West as attainable and desirable goals.  

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Olena Lennon

Olena Lennon

Former Title VIII-Supported Short-Term Scholar;
Adjunct Professor of Political Science and National Security, University of New Haven
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more