Dec 4, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Ukraine's triple stalemate

Illustration of Chess pieces falling off of a yellow and blue colored Chess board.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In three critical arenas — the halls of Congress, European capitals and on the battlefield — Ukraine's war effort has encountered a storm of stalemates that pose an existential crisis to the country's future.

Why it matters: With much of the world's attention focused on Israel and Gaza, President Biden and NATO's pledge to support Ukraine for "as long as it takes" is at serious risk. The implications could be devastating for Kyiv's democracy.

Driving the news: The White House warned Monday that without congressional action, the U.S. government will run out of resources to support Ukraine by the end of the year.

  • "There is no magical pot of funding available to meet this moment. We are out of money — and nearly out of time," Office of Management and Budget director Shalanda Young wrote to congressional leaders.
  • Bipartisan Senate talks on a border package paired with Ukraine funding reached a breaking point over the weekend, with no further meetings currently scheduled, congressional sources tell Axios.
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will remotely join a classified briefing with senators Tuesday. An initial vote on a Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and border funding package will be held Wednesday, but it's expected to fail without GOP support.

Leaders of the European Union — which some Republicans say should bear more of the burden for supporting Ukraine — are embroiled in a budget dispute that could threaten €50 billion ($54.2 billion) in funding for Kyiv.

  • Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, emboldened by the far-right's shocking victory in the Dutch elections last month, has demanded that opening talks about Ukraine's accession to the EU be removed from the agenda for the Dec. 14-15 European Council summit.
  • Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna recently described the upcoming summit as an "existential moment" for her country's future.

On the battlefield, Russian President Vladimir Putin's bet that his invading forces could outlast Western political will appears to be paying off.

  • "There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough" without technological advancements, Ukraine's top commander told The Economist in a frank assessment of his counteroffensive last month.
  • A Washington Post deep dive found that cheap drones, an "ocean" of Russian mines, Putin's willingness to endure massive casualties, and Ukraine's lack of air power have contributed to the stalemate.

Between the lines: Democrats involved in the Senate negotiations say talks have stalled because Republicans are unwilling to compromise on their desire to codify Trump-era border policies in exchange for Ukraine aid.

  • GOP sources deny the talks are "dead" and say Democrats have long known significant border reforms would be a prerequisite to any Ukraine deal.
  • That's especially true in the House, where Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has signaled that nothing short of H.R. 2 — the GOP's sweeping, hardline border security package — would be acceptable.

What they're saying: "Instead of meeting us in the middle, Republicans have doubled down on extremist policies," Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the chamber's floor Monday.

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a staunch Ukraine supporter, responded by accusing the White House and Democrats of "wasting time with bizarre public scoldings" and failing to sufficiently aid Ukraine in the past.
  • "We've made it crystal clear that in order to pass the Senate, any measure we take up in the coming days must include serious policy changes designed to get the Biden administration's border crisis under control," McConnell said, adding that GOP negotiators are "still at the table."

The bottom line: Posturing from both sides is inevitable in any negotiation. But when it comes to war, politics as usual can carry life-or-death consequences.

Go deeper