MADRID – President Joe Biden had hoped to use this week’s NATO summit as a platform to plead his case for maintaining support for the war in Ukraine.
But domestic upheaval over abortion rights, gun violence and economic turbulence threaten to overshadow Biden’s message at home about the urgent need to send Ukraine more weapons to protect itself from Russian attacks.
Those developments could distract U.S. voters as the Russian offensive into Ukraine enters its fifth month and is quickly fading from American attention spans.
The question: Can Biden succeed?
“The war here in Europe seems farther away and further down the list of things that Americans expect their leaders to be focused on,” said Brett Bruen, director of global engagement at the White House in the Obama administration. “Unfortunately, Ukrainians are not going to see the same kind of attention, not going to see the same kind of resources that we’ve been looking at over the last several months.”
It’s a political reality the White House is aware of, said Bruen, a former diplomat who’s attending the NATO summit in Madrid. Yet, it has not shifted Biden’s approach.
Biden arrives in Madrid in a weaker position than he did to NATO a year ago.
With oil and gas costs climbing and a low job approval rating that hasn't budged, it may not be as easy for the U.S. president to persuade members of the military alliance to keep supplying Ukraine with heavy weapons as it once was.
“He needs to make sure that we maintain also a sufficient level of public support for our current policies toward Ukraine to avoid war fatigue,” said Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for global affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
U.S. officials have indicated Biden will stick to a bipartisan argument that it is in America’s national security interests to keep Vladimir Putin’s aggression from spreading across the rest of the continent.
Since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, Americans have largely supported the war effort, giving it broad backing in public polling. But that’s not necessarily because they approve of the way Biden is handling the conflict.
A survey by Quinnipiac University earlier this month found that more Americans, 51%, disapproved of Biden’s response to the Russian invasion than those who approved of it, 40%.
While the American public supports "sanctions against a thug like Putin," they certainly are not happy this war is happening, said Michael O’Hanlon, director of the Center on Security, Strategy and Technology at the Brookings Institution, a leading Washington think tank.
Some experts said pessimism over high fuel and food costs could lead to falling support for Ukrainian aid. They said they worry that “Ukraine fatigue” – as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it – lurks just beneath the surface.
“Everyone's just exhausted,” says Samantha Turner, a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a foreign policy organization headquartered in Washington. “There's a lot of things happening at once that can basically trump how much people care about whether we're giving military aid to Ukraine.”
National security experts from both political parties argued, like Biden, that if Ukraine cannot beat back Russia, then NATO, and the United States, could end up in a confrontation with Putin's military.
They said it’s imperative that Biden make a strong case at the NATO summit for more military equipment and aid to be shipped to Ukraine.
Biden sought to get G-7 leaders on board this week with a proposal to cap the price of Russian oil to tamp down inflation and keep Putin from selling to buyers who are willing to pay more.
Leaders were getting closer to an agreement near the end of three days of closed-door talks, but many of the details of the plan were yet to be worked out.
Biden will seek to stave off any fractures in the military alliance, particularly as Russia gains on the battlefield and leaders worry about an even more protracted war.
“NATO as an organization was formed to push back against what everyone thought Russia might do,” said Sen. James Risch, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “They can't be trusted. And so it's time to reinvent and reconfigure NATO, and it's time for us to pull together again.”
One of the problems Biden faces is that the U.S. has yet to articulate a strategy on how Ukraine can win the war, O’Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, said.
“We haven't resolved this as a government. We were still sort of hopeful that if we just send Ukraine enough, big artillery, maybe they can get back the 20% of their country that Russia now holds," O’ Hanlon said. "Meanwhile, the battlefield trends are primarily in Russia's favor.
“So that sort of thing is not very plausible.”
On the other hand, NATO allies face tough choices with the Russian military on the march in the Donbas and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, former U.S. officials and national security experts have said.
The coalition must decide how much heavy artillery support, including howitzers, multi-launch rocket systems and anti-ship missiles, it wants to provide Ukraine.
Before the president left for Europe, the United States announced another $450 million worth of military equipment. During a virtual meeting with G-7 leaders on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told world leaders that his military needs more equipment.
Dobriansky said that if Ukraine does not win the war, “it sends a signal to tyrants worldwide that anything goes.”
“This war was unprovoked. It's unjustified,” she said. “If you can have outright blatant aggression, there is no kind of counterattack and measures taken, then you can only imagine that you can have such attacks take place by dictators across the globe.”
Will a protracted war in Ukraine hurt Biden?
John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said in an interview with USA TODAY ahead of Biden’s visit to Europe that the war in Ukraine represents the fight for democracy across the globe.
“Thus far, the American people have been very supportive. Not just the American people but populations around the world have been very, very supportive of Ukraine,” Kirby said.
“From a geopolitical perspective, it very much is a fight for democracy on the continent of Europe, and we believe that the American people understand that,” the Biden adviser added.
Experts said any agreement to discuss early negotiations for an exit to the war would be a political and strategic mistake for Biden.
“If you’re Biden, you want to show that you’re leading the West – the free world – and the free world is united and you’re not wimping out," said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland who was the State Department’s sanctions policy coordinator when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. "There’s still a lot of support for Ukraine, especially if there’s a chance they can succeed reasonably well.”
If world leaders think that by withdrawing from the region it will stop Putin’s aggression, it won’t, Fried said.
“They might be forced into bad negotiations, because the military situation demands it,” Fried said. “But don't have a champagne party for some deal."
Contributing: USA TODAY Pentagon reporter Tom Vanden Brook
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Facing upheaval at home, Biden seeks to keep NATO behind Ukraine