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Interview: Biden Seeks To 'Depoliticize' Ukraine and Israel Aid, Show Russia That Western Support Will Not Flag

U.S.-made Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) being launched, one of the latest weapons systems provided to Ukraine by Washington.
U.S.-made Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) being launched, one of the latest weapons systems provided to Ukraine by Washington.

In a rare national address on October 19, U.S. President Joe Biden explained why he would submit a bill to Congress requesting tens of billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine and Israel, telling Americans that the Palestinian extremist group Hamas and Russian President Vladimir Putin "represent different threats, but they share this in common: They both want to annihilate a neighboring democracy."

Pitching the aid package as a "smart investment" amid disputes over the issue ahead of U.S. presidential and congressional elections in November 2024, Biden said that if Russia and Hamas -- designated a terrorist organization by the EU and the United States -- "don't pay a price" for their actions, they won't stop and the cost and threats to the United States and the world will only increase.

RFE/RL spoke to Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and chief executive officer of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, after Biden's speech.

Daalder served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013. He also served as director for European affairs on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff from 1995 to 1997.

An author of several books focusing on U.S. foreign policy and national security, he is currently the chief executive officer of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think tank.

RFE/RL: President Biden has just addressed the American people on the need for aid to Israel and Ukraine. It's only the second time during his three years in office that he has addressed the American people in this way. Why did he need to do it now?

Ivo Daalder: We're at an inflection point. We either double down on supporting our friends and allies who have been brutally attacked -- in the case of Israel, by Hamas terrorists, in the case of Ukraine, by Russia -- or we let these guys win. Because without our aid, without our leadership, without our support, Israel [is] not going to be able to do what it needs to do. The war may likely even spread beyond Israel. And without our aid, Ukraine won't be able to achieve what it needs to achieve, which is to expel Russian forces from its territory.

Ivo Daalder (file photo)
Ivo Daalder (file photo)

So, it is an important moment for the nation to stand by those who are like us, who share our values, who are governed as democracies, who have come under attack -- just as other nations came to our side, when we were attacked, back on 9/11....

The problem is Congress hasn't been able to pass the funding that is necessary. And I think the package that the president talked about, that will be sent to [the U.S. Congress] tomorrow (October 20), by combining aid not just for Ukraine, but also for Israel -- and as we gather, also Taiwan, and border security -- it is a kind of package that is very difficult for anybody on the Hill to vote against.

RFE/RL: Though Biden did not state an amount, media reports say he will ask Congress for $100 billion in new spending, including $60 billion for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel. How far will this get Ukraine in its war with Russia?

Daalder: It would fund the Ukrainian aid efforts through the end of 2024, past the [U.S.] presidential election. It will kind of depoliticize aid to Ukraine and to Israel…. And that's why I think it's important that it continues.

"This idea that somehow victory lies in the defeat of Western support for Ukraine -- which is what has been central to Putin's calculation -- will once again have been proven wrong."

The overall level will be sufficient to continue to provide Ukraine with the kinds of weapons that it has been receiving over the past 600 days since this war has been going on: air-defense systems, artillery shells, presumably additional tanks and armored vehicles, and over time, longer-range missiles that have just been provided for the first time. And aircraft, which by early 2024 Ukrainian pilots will have been trained on.

RFE/RL: How might that change Russia's military calculus?

Daalder: Well, one, it sort of undermines, once again, Vladimir Putin's calculation that the West is about to collapse when it comes to supporting Ukraine. Because with the $60 billion or so that the [U.S.] president is expected to ask for, you give a fundamental basis for continued military assistance to Ukraine. You understand -- if you're living in Russia -- that Ukraine is not going to go away, that they will have continued military capabilities to fight. And this idea that somehow victory lies in the defeat of Western support for Ukraine -- which is what has been central to Putin's calculation -- will once again have been proven wrong.

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It doesn't mean that he's going to sue for peace. Nor, frankly, that he will escalate to other weapons, because he is effectively deterred by the prospect that the U.S. and others would respond. It means that this war will likely grind on -- and although movement along the front hasn't been large and significant like last year, it is moving, and it's moving against the Russians and in favor of the Ukrainians.

And so at some point, one would hope that the people in Russia would say, "Why are we paying a price for land that is, one, not ours and, two, isn't particularly valuable," and you start to have a process of internal pressure for Russia to change. That's what this war is about, who can stand the fight longer.

RFE/RL: There are reports that both sides have manpower problems.

Daalder: Clearly, both sides are able to still deploy sufficient manpower to continue the war. The real question is not man for man -- and, in the Ukrainian case, women as well -- it's the morale. And the morale of the Ukrainian troops, although the fighting is tough, they know what they're fighting for. They are fighting for something they care deeply about: it's their land.

The morale of Russians -- many who are forced to come to the front against their better wishes and their desires, and are facing a horrendous bombardment and fighting -- that morale is weakening, and it will weaken over time.

How much that will actually affect the fighting on the ground is yet to be seen. Presumably with winter, the intensity of the fighting on the ground will slow and allow people to recover quite a bit. But the longer this war goes on, the more the balance of power will shift against Russia and in favor of Ukraine. And I think that's what the president was trying to say. Because the only way that Ukraine loses is if we stop supporting it. And that is in no one's interest.

RFE/RL: The U.S. aid package would allow the United States to replenish stockpiles of weapons, some of which have been running very low. What about Europe?

Daalder: Europe is more behind in terms of reconstituting its defense industry. It's also -- although the European Union is a strong economic actor, particularly in the defense sector -- there remains very strong national interest to maintain national capabilities. So it's a little less efficient than the much larger U.S. market.

But nevertheless, there now is a commitment throughout Europe to not only spend more on defense, but to start producing more. And so those decisions that have been made over the past year or so will start to bear fruit in larger production runs of artillery, of missiles and platforms like tanks and aircraft that are necessary to be sent over [to Ukraine].

There's also still a lot of equipment sitting around that's quite old. Most European countries, for example, that have F-16 combat aircraft...are replacing them with newer F-35s. And those F-16s may well be used both to train and then ultimately to be provided to Ukraine for the fight.

So yes, there is a problem in the sense that we started with a very low ammunition and stockpile base in Europe, and actually not that great a stockpile base in the United States. But we've had 600 days of investment. And now that Congress -- assuming Congress approves the request, now that there is more money in the bank -- more companies are going to invest in the capability to increase production. The same is going to be true in Europe.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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