By Arab News
By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
With the words “we are coming near to the end of the rope,” US National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby last week described the American position on funding for Ukraine. That left me startled. What happened to “as long as it takes?”
I very much remember a press briefing in January, in which Kirby was asked what a victory for Ukraine would look like and until when would the US support Ukraine. Kirby answered, “as long as it takes.” He added: “(US support) is necessary now, it will be necessary in the coming weeks and months, for certain. We want to make sure we are meeting the need as best we can for Ukraine. What does winning look like? President (Volodymyr) Zelensky gets to determine what victory looks like. We’re not dictating that to him either.”
Members of Congress have been fighting tooth and nail over a new $24 billion package for Ukraine, which has been linked to the risk of a government shutdown. As a result, Kirby has come out with this strong statement, stating that the US support is not “indefinite.”
He alluded to the fact that the US cannot support both Israel and Ukraine. Earlier last week, Washington announced $200 million of aid for Ukraine. This number is insignificant next to the $24 billion originally assigned in the budget, to which the Trumpian Republicans strongly objected. It is inconceivable to see Ukraine winning if it is deprived of aid. This leaves us with a very troubling question: Is Ukraine finished? Has Russia won?
We still cannot tell but what we can say is that the war in Gaza has had a direct impact on Ukraine. However, the loss of US stamina when it comes to the war in Ukraine was something political scientist John Mearsheimer predicted at the beginning of the conflict, for which many people called him a Vladimir Putin apologist and even a tool of Russian propaganda. Rather, he is a realist. His conclusion was based on a very basic assumption: the asymmetry in resolve. While Ukraine’s potential membership of NATO is a national security issue for Russia, this is not the case for the US. This is why we are seeing this sudden loss of enthusiasm once the issue of Gaza came up. Tough luck for Zelensky, who is totally banking on US support.
An all-out war in the Middle East would be devastating for everybody. Everyone is in a wait and see mode. Will Hezbollah enter the war? If Israel is frustrated and does not manage to incapacitate Hamas, will it go after Iran? All these are possible scenarios and the US needs to ensure they do not come to pass, which is why the Ukraine issue is taking a back seat.
Can Ukraine still fight the Russians? As Zelensky confided to Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer last month: “If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war.” The US seems as if it is now willing to accept this possibility. After adopting the fight as if it were its own, the US is now distancing itself, saying the aid cannot go forever.
The war in Gaza is definitely a win for Putin on several levels. It is a distraction from the war in Ukraine. It is also helping to promote Russia’s image on the Arab and international scene. He is the only world leader who pointed to the root cause of the problem between Israel and the Palestinians. This was recognized by the Arab League, whose spokesman Jamal Rushdi pointed out that Russia had “expressed a rational and balanced position on the events, unlike other international positions.
This will push Putin’s image in the Arab world and maybe potentially promote him as a mediator for a solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So far, the Americans have proven to be terrible in all aspects of brokering an acceptable deal for the two parties. In fact, the representative of the Palestinian mission in the UK said in an interview that the US had failed in brokering a deal and other actors should be taking on this role. He mentioned China as a potential broker. If this signals anything, it is the Palestinians’ lack of trust in the US.
Washington’s possible abandonment of Ukraine will again show that the US is an unreliable partner and that its policies are transactional. If Ukraine loses — and it will probably do if aid is cut off — then America will find it much harder to make friends. Already, in the Middle East, we have seen America’s long-term friends adopting a more transactional attitude toward the US. This will probably be intensified. From now on, it will be difficult for the US to make true friends or strategic allies. Everyone will be trying to balance the US against someone else, whether that is Iran, Russia or China.
It is important to see how Zelensky deals with this blow. Will he cut ties with the West and try to salvage whatever he can with the Russians, knowing that the more he loses on the battlefield, the less he can get in any deal with Moscow? It is hard to say. However, one thing is for sure: America’s friends and partners will witness a surge in their skepticism in Uncle Sam’s reliability.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.