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Biden probably didn’t expect Putin's invasion of Ukraine to last this long — that's a problem

The likelihood the war will continue for at least several more months raises challenges for Biden’s ability to lead internationally and at home.

Recent news of Russian troops’ withdrawing from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and the northern city of Chernihiv shows how the extraordinary and courageous Ukrainian military and people have thwarted any hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin may have had of winning the war quickly. Now in the second month of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia, while unfortunately causing terrible harm to the Ukrainian people, has not yet achieved its military goals, and is refocusing its military campaign on eastern Ukraine. 

A long war will test Biden in two extremely important ways — one foreign and one domestic.

But it is also possible that another president, Joe Biden, did not anticipate the war lasting this long. While the situation is not as dire for Biden, the likelihood of its continuing for at least several more months raises challenges both for his efforts to support Ukraine and his domestic political fortunes.

Since the war began, it has more or less taken over the Biden presidency — understandable given the urgency of the crisis. He has played a critical role in assembling the international coalition that has imposed strong sanctions on Russia while also building domestic American support for Ukraine, sending enormous amounts of assistance to the country and reinforcing U.S. commitment to NATO. All of that is extremely important, and it has been essential for Ukraine, but maintaining those positions will be increasingly difficult over time.

A long war will test Biden in two extremely important ways — one foreign and one domestic. Europe and the U.S. have been more united than at any other time in recent memory. As hard as it was for Biden to help build that unity, because he needed to impress upon European countries with much closer ties to Russia that these actions were extremely important, keeping it going may be even more difficult.

The sanctions that are damaging Russia’s economy are also hurting the economies of the European countries imposing them. Countries like Germany and Italy have considerably more trade with Russia than the U.S., and, like the U.S., they face inflation and supply chain problems.

The sanctions that are damaging Russia’s economy are also hurting the economies of the European countries imposing them.

Fortunately for the coalition, Europe is heading into warmer months. The weather will reduce demand for fossil fuels — a proposed target of the next set of European sanctions — at the center of Russia’s economy. However, if the war continues into the winter months, that demand for cheap energy will increase, and the pressure from European populations to reduce the sanctions and begin buying oil and other products from Russia is likely to grow. The pushback European leaders could face from their constituents over the increased cost of necessities could make it more complicated for Biden to hold the coalition together.

Before and now during the war, Biden has been relatively successful at striking a balance between supporting Ukraine and avoiding escalation of the conflict that, as he frequently asserts, could lead to World War III. Maintaining that balance will not be easy.

We are seeing this with what the U.S. has formally declared to be war crimes committed by Russian armed forces. In response, Biden announced that he would seek additional sanctions and called Putin a “war criminal.” The latest round of U.S. sanctions targets Putin’s adult children and bans new investment in the country. Similarly, if Russia uses nuclear or thermobaric weapons in Ukraine, possibilities that Moscow has raised, Biden may have to do more than increase sanctions or send more weapons to Ukraine.

The domestic politics Biden will have to navigate will become more complex, as well. Even though most Americans generally support his approach of not sending U.S troops to fight in the war, his overall approval rating remains stuck in the low 40s. That is partly because people in the U.S. see inflation and related issues as more important than what is going on abroad. If both the war and inflation continue into the summer, voters, with the encouragement of the GOP and other conservative forces, may begin asking why the president is spending so much of his time and energy on what will increasingly seem like an endless war in Ukraine when Americans are facing economic problems at home.

Although inflation cannot primarily be blamed on either the war or Biden, voters could easily make that connection and turn against him, the war or both. Republican criticism of Biden’s being too cautious in arming Ukraine with certain weapons could also ramp up, and many may point to it as a key reason the war is dragging out longer than necessary. Either of these scenarios would be bad for Biden.

The longer-than-expected war has been a disaster for Putin, as Russia has failed to meet its military goals while the economy has stumbled badly under sanctions, but because of the dynamics of the sanctions regime and U.S. domestic politics, time may be on his side. In a few months, it is possible that some European countries will break with the sanctions, and Biden, who has been steadfast in his support for Ukraine, could begin to face even greater political obstacles at home and need to turn his attention to that rather than the war. A politically weakened Biden is a win for Putin, and a long war could deliver it to him.