05.09.23 USA Review

War in the Shadow of Elections: If Trump's rhetoric manages to persuade non-partisan voters, the Biden administration will likely be forced to scale back its assistance to Ukraine

The approaching US presidential election will have a critical impact on the US administration's strategy towards Ukraine. As it stands, the shares of Americans ready to cast their votes for Biden and Trump are nearly evenly matched, prompting the incumbent administration to carefully heed the opinions of non-partisan voters. However, recent polls indicate a drift towards the views of Republicans who argue that the US is overspending on support for Ukraine, and despite this Ukraine has not gained the upper hand on the battlefield. While earlier in the summer a strong majority of Americans (62%) were still voicing their support for supplying aid to Ukraine in its efforts to reclaim captured territories, that support is showing signs of decreasing. Meanwhile, Trump, who is advocating for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the signing of a peace agreement, is garnering robust support for the opposing party – those in favour of ending the war promptly. If his rhetoric proves convincing to non-partisan voters and Ukraine fails to demonstrate success on the battlefield, the Biden administration will almost certainly be compelled to adjust its stance when it comes to support for Ukraine.

The current political season is unfolding in the powerful shadow of the upcoming US presidential elections. Despite the fact that the elections are more than a year away, there is no doubt that their approach will increasingly shape the strategy of the current American administration. The dramatic nature of the situation lies in the fact that the current approval ratings for President Biden, who is seeking re-election, and his predecessor Donald Trump are almost identical. According to the RacetotheWH project, in current public opinion polls, Biden leads Trump by a mere 0.5%, and according to RealClearPolitics this lead is 0.7%. Each candidate commands roughly 44% of support.

Thus, despite the January 6 storming of the Capitol, numerous scandals, investigations, and allegations, Trump remains a highly probable contender for the presidency. This fact fundamentally shifts the previous view of Trump's victory in 2016 as a mere fluke and instead exposes the systemic nature of the emerging rivalry. The almost nonexistent gap between the candidates means that the Biden administration will be compelled to closely analyse all the problem areas of American policy and the attitudes towards these among Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters alike. This includes, not least, its policy towards Russia and the war in Ukraine.

A poll conducted by CNN and the research company SSRS in July 2023 reveals that just over half of Americans do not support the Congress-approved allocation of new financial aid to Ukraine. This was the sentiment of 55% of those polled, while 45% were in favour of this support. Public opinion is polarised along party lines: among Republicans, only 28% approve of additional aid, while among Democrats, this figure is 62%. Independent voters are evenly split, with 44% in favour.

The survey reflects the expected decline in US public support for Ukraine over the past year and a half of war: at the end of February 2022, 62% of Americans believed that the US should do more to help Ukraine, but by August 2023, that number had dropped to 48%. Among Republicans and Democrats, the distribution between the views that the US 'should do more — has done enough' stands at 60% to 40%, but in opposite directions. Among non-partisan voters, the distribution leans closer to the Republican view, with 56% of those surveyed believing that the US has done enough and 43% advocating for more assistance.

In a review by experts from the Russia Matters project, Ingrid Burke Friedman and Olga Kiyan point out that, according to a survey conducted in the summer of 2023 by the University of Maryland, 45% of Republicans deemed US military expenditures in support of Ukraine too high, while only 12% of Democrats held this view. However, in the spring, Republican voters were even more critical of spending on Ukraine, with 50% of respondents considering it excessive.

As a result, only 43% of those surveyed by CNN and SSRS approve of Joe Biden's policy towards Russia, while 45% approve of his policy towards Ukraine. Conversely, 56% and 53% respectively do not approve. Even though the opinions of Republican and Democratic supporters are highly polarised, independent voters contribute to the generally negative evaluations. Among them, the ratio of those approving and disapproving of Biden's policy towards Russia is 38% to 61%, and towards Ukraine, it stands at 40% to 58%.

Burke Friedman and Kiyan note that while Republican voters are more sceptical of continued aid to Ukraine, this does not mean that Republican leaders are sympathetic to Russia. Nearly all of them express a cautious and critical stance towards the Russian leadership. However, the rhetoric of the leading Republican candidate, Trump, who is favoured by 51% of Republicans, as opposed to the next contender, DeSantis, with only 15% support, is dominated by the topic of the swift rather than fair end to the war. Trump claims that the main priority is to stop the bloodshed and promises to compel Putin and Zelensky to reach an agreement within 24 hours, effectively recognising the existing status quo.

Such a position by Trump is not yet widely popular. A June Gallup poll shows that the majority of Americans (62%) support Ukraine's efforts to reclaim Russian-occupied territories, while only 36% favour ending the war as soon as possible even at the expense of losing territories. However, last August and in January 2023, this ratio was more favourable for Kyiv, with 65% in favour and 31% against. In January 2023, the ratio on this issue was 53% in favour and 41% against among Republicans. During the summer, the number of those who supported a swift end to the war slightly exceeded the number of supporters of consistent support for Ukraine among Republicans (49% to 47%). Among independent voters, the shift in favour of a swift end to the war is somewhat smaller, with the number of supporters of this viewpoint increasing from 38% to 43% over the course of six months.

Therefore, the main tension in the near future will revolve around how persuasive Trump's 'pacifist' rhetoric, emphasising the need to save civilian lives, will prove to be for Republican and non-partisan voters. It is worth noting that he will face opposition not only from the Democratic camp but also from some prominent Republicans (Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie) who criticise the Biden administration for delays and the insufficient assistance provided to Ukraine, albeit from opposing positions.

This conflict became evident during the first Republican primary debate. While only two candidates hold an isolationist position on the Ukrainian issue, they happen to be the most popular among Republican voters: Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, enjoying the support of around 25% of Republican voters (Trump did not participate in the debate). They advocate for cutting financial and military aid to Ukraine and view the Russia-Ukraine war as a 'territorial conflict.' The other six candidates who participated in the debate are in favour of consistent support for Ukraine in the war, presenting it as a showdown between democracy and dictatorship. However, their influence on the Republican audience, let alone independent voters, is considerably smaller.

At the same time, American society is currently dominated by the prevailing belief that neither side in the conflict has the upper hand. This is the view of 57% of those surveyed by Gallup (48% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans, and 61% of independents). While 45% of Democrats believe that Ukraine currently holds the advantage, only about 15% of Republicans and independents share this view. This data, first, confirms a general trend: the views of independent voters on the war are increasingly converging with those of Republicans. Second, they highlight how critical the developments on the frontlines have become today. Successes in Ukraine's counteroffensive will undermine Trump's anti-Ukraine pacifism, while failures will create a favourable informational backdrop for him. In the latter case, the Biden administration will almost inevitably have to cater to the opinions of independent voters. Even staunch supporters of Ukraine will face a question: what is better – for the Biden administration to reduce support for Ukraine and demonstrate a willingness to seek negotiations or for Biden to lose the election?