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Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine risks losing the war — and the peace

Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine risks losing the war — and the peace

It’s now unclear if the US Congress will ever manage to send more aid to Kyiv

Analysis | QiOSK

This week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered his starkest warning yet about the need for new military aid from the United States.

“It’s important to specifically address the Congress,” Zelensky said. “If the Congress doesn’t help Ukraine, Ukraine will lose the war.”

Unfortunately for Zelensky, Congress does not appear to be listening. In fact, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is now on the verge of losing control of the House due to deep Republican disagreements over Ukraine aid and a host of other issues. If Johnson fails to rein in his colleagues, the House may be unable to pass much of anything for the rest of the year.

As Kyiv’s ammunition shortage worsens, a Wednesday dispute revealed just how weak of a hold the speaker has on his caucus. Johnson is trying to renew a spying authority before it expires on April 19, but a last-minute intervention from former President Donald Trump led Republicans to kill his bill before it even reached the floor.

Ukraine and its allies seem to have internalized the lesson that Johnson is now learning: As the presidential election season gets into gear, the center of gravity in Republican politics has shifted southward. Hence why British Foreign Minister David Cameron’s pro-Ukraine charm tour made its first stop in Palm Beach, Florida.

Cameron met with Trump Monday at Mar-a-Lago, where he pushed the Republican candidate on aid. “[I]t’s in everybody’s interest that Ukraine is in a strong position and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is in a weak position at the end of this year,” Cameron said following the meeting. “Whoever is president wants to be able to push forward in a way that is backing success and not trying to overturn failure.”

The former British prime minister then went to Washington, where he met with congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Cameron did not, however, sit down with Johnson. A British source told Politico that there were scheduling issues, though the symbolism is hard to ignore.

The Biden administration, for its part, has made some efforts to bridge the gap in hopes that the House will eventually pass a new aid package. The White House authorized a $138 million weapons sale on Tuesday, and it followed up by sending Ukraine thousands of Iranian guns and ammunition that the U.S. had seized en route to Yemen last year. But this pales in comparison to the billions of dollars worth of weapons that Kyiv received each month in the early stages of the war.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that corruption in Ukraine has led to price gouging on some items purchased by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. “Corruption has been deeply ingrained in Ukraine’s defense sector since Soviet times, with manufacturers routinely bribing officials to purchase equipment at inflated prices,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Changing those practices would be hard enough in peacetime, let alone in the midst of war.”

This leaves Ukraine in its weakest position since the early weeks of the war. Without new aid, Kyiv risks losing both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, with Moscow holding an apparent advantage in each domain.

This wasn’t always the case. In late 2022, when Ukrainian forces pushed Russia from the outskirts of Kyiv all the way back to the Donbas, Ukraine had the momentum in every domain. As George Beebe of the Quincy Institute wrote at the time, “Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield have provided it with substantial leverage to shape the terms of any settlement.”

“This success story does not mean that either Russia or Ukraine is yet ready for serious negotiations,” Beebe, who previously led Russia analysis at the CIA, argued. “But it offers a window of opportunity for the United States to prepare the diplomatic ground for an eventual settlement of the conflict — a window that may get smaller over time if we do not act now.”

Beebe’s prediction has proved prescient. Russia, now in a much stronger position, has far fewer reasons to grant concessions to Ukraine than it did a year ago.

This does not necessarily mean that all is lost. If Congress can pass a new Ukraine aid package, then Kyiv may be able to at least hold onto the stalemate that has prevailed for much of the past year. This would create an opportunity to sue for peace, though likely on less favorable terms than were previously possible.

But it does mean that maximalist goals — including the reconquest of Crimea, which Russia has held since 2014 — are that much less realistic now than they were in 2022. Even some mainstream Democrats are coming around to this position, as exemplified by recent comments from Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

“Realistically, Crimea is not coming back to Ukraine, and we can absolutely win this war and absolutely make a difference even in that reality,” Smith said in a hearing Wednesday.

“We do not have to have Crimea to make it 1000% worth it to give Ukraine the money,” he argued. “We need a sovereign democratic Ukraine that can survive.”

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— Three drones slammed into a Russian-occupied nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on Sunday, reigniting fears that the war could spark a nuclear accident, according to the BBC. Russia blamed Ukraine for the strikes, while Ukrainian officials argued that the Kremlin may have staged it as a “false flag” attack. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the attack was the first direct hit on the plant since late 2022 but noted that there are “no indications of damage to critical nuclear safety or security systems.”

— European states penned a new deal to enhance cooperation on protecting undersea infrastructure in the North Sea, according to Reuters, which noted that attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines in 2022 has focused attention on security issues along Europe’s northern coast. Not noted in the Reuters report is the increasingly popular view that Ukraine or pro-Ukrainian forces were behind the attack. The pact — signed by Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom — mostly focuses on sharing information about threats to underwater cables and pipelines, with a focus on potential Russian malfeasance.

— The European Union tightened restrictions on imports of Ukrainian produce in an effort to stem concerns that European farmers are being undercut by cheap goods from Ukraine, according to Politico. The issue has taken on particular salience in the run-up to the EU elections, with politicians anxious to avoid political costs from drawn-out fights with farmers, who have staged major protests in Poland and France. As Politico notes, the short-term tug of war over Ukrainian imports signals a larger problem: If Ukraine joins the EU, then farmers across the continent risk being put out of business by Kyiv’s massive agricultural sector.

— In The Hill, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) argued that “peace talks remain the only viable option” to end the war in Ukraine. “No hard power endgame is viable for the U.S. in Ukraine, and the terms for Ukrainians get worse every minute the U.S. enables the continuation of this war,” Lee wrote. “Our best hope to stop the bleeding is at the negotiating table. The blank checks must end, and American statecraft must start.”

U.S. State Department news:

In a Monday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller renewed the U.S. call for Russia to withdraw from the Zaporizhzhia power plant following this week’s attacks. “Russia is playing a very dangerous game with its military seizure of Ukraine’s nuclear power plant, which is the largest in Europe,” Miller said. “We continue to call on Russia to withdraw its military and civilian personnel from the plant, to return full control of the plant to the competent Ukrainian authorities, and refrain from taking any actions that could result in a nuclear incident at the plant.”

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