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Biden Efforts to Avert Cracks in Pro-Ukraine Coalition

In recent months, President Biden has spent hours in talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and other foreign leaders who have not always supported the Western coalition against Ukraine, urging them to stand firm against Russia. President Vladimir Putin.

So — whether through Biden’s efforts or not — the White House was pleasantly surprised when Modi confronted Putin at a summit last month, lecturing him that “the present era is not of war” and that Putin “is on a path of peace,” notes. unusual for a leader who has gone to great lengths to remain neutral in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, according to a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

As these discussions show, Biden is now doing everything he can to hold together what has become a central mission of his presidency: to maintain the global and domestic coalition that supports Ukraine. As the war enters its first winter, likely a bitter and brutal one, some US allies will face economic headwinds fueled by the war, while some Republicans at home are skeptical of the billions in aid going to Ukraine.

These efforts will be put to the test on Wednesday when the United Nations votes on a draft resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of four parts of Ukraine. Biden and US officials have been working to persuade nonaligned countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa to refrain from taking a neutral stance and outright condemnation of the Kremlin, an effort analysts say could be bolstered by the Russian barrage of rocket attacks on Monday on Kiev and other major Ukrainian cities.

US leaders hope that at least 100 of the 193 UN member states — the number that supported a 2014 United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea — will support the draft resolution, several senior government officials said. In March, when the United States first presented a UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion, it received support from 141 member states; arguably fewer votes will mean that diplomatic ground has been lost.

Biden and the leaders of the Group of Seven will hold a virtual meeting Tuesday morning “to discuss their continued commitment to support Ukraine and hold Putin responsible for Russia’s aggression and atrocities,” including Monday’s rocket attacks, according to a schedule. of the White House. . Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will join the leaders at the start of the meeting.

Even as Biden struggles to keep his global coalition together, there are cracks in domestic political support for the billions of aid the United States is sending to Ukraine. Those gaps are likely to widen significantly when Republicans retake the House on Nov. 8.

A Pew Research poll shows that the proportion of Americans extremely or very concerned about a Ukrainian defeat fell from 55 percent in May to 38 percent in September. Among Republicans and Republican independents, 32 percent say the United States is over-supporting the war, up from 9 percent in March.

Some US officials personally admit that, despite Modi’s surprising confrontation with Putin, they are skeptical that they will see a breakthrough with India, which has extensive political and military ties to Russia. But they are hopeful that Putin’s missile strike on Monday will help convince South Africa and other countries.

“This will remind many UN members that Ukraine is a victim of this war,” said Richard Gowan, a UN expert with the International Crisis Group. “That has been lost to some extent in recent UN debates, with many UN members asking for peace in rather vague terms.” While Ukraine’s recent military successes may have given the impression that it needed less aid, he said, “these attacks could rebalance diplomats’ reading of the situation.”

But diplomacy has not been easy. Developing countries in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia have been disproportionately affected by rising fuel prices and a war-induced global food shortage. Biden has gone to great lengths in talks with his colleagues to argue that Russian aggression and blockades, not US sanctions, are responsible for their struggle, officials said.

Recent events have only contributed to making the war a long struggle. After a major strategic Russian bridge was spectacularly blown up on Saturday, which Putin blamed on Ukraine, Moscow launched a furious counterattack targeting Kiev and other Ukrainian cities on Monday.

Russian strikes increase pressure on allies to send advanced air defenses

Even before that, fighting on both sides had escalated in recent weeks. US officials expect the fighting to ease during the Ukrainian winter, when cold weather and muddy conditions will hamper military operations. But with Ukraine and Russia both convinced they can and should win, negotiations still seem a long way off, especially with Putin’s annexation and the recent mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists.

So far, the White House has managed to maintain bipartisan support for several multi-billion dollar aid and weapons packages to Ukraine, but some Republicans who align with former President Donald Trump have begun to question why the United States is spending so much money. to a distant war overseas. And a decision last week by a Saudi-Russia-led coalition to cut oil production is likely to push gas prices up again, which could sour the public even further.

“Maintaining support here and in Congress, and with the wider American public, is something we’re thinking about, and we recognize that it’s going to become an increasing challenge over time, unavoidably,” said a senior administration official. “But there are probably people who would have thought even at this point, seven months after the conflict, that we would have a hard time with what remains quite bipartisan unity.”

Europe is also chasing a winter of high fuel prices and threatening support from that side, although European leaders also remain sharply opposed to Putin and his agenda on the continent.

Biden and Zelensky have spoken regularly since the start of the war, often every two to three weeks, White House officials said. The two spoke again on Monday, as Biden condemned Russia’s missile strikes and pledged to give Ukraine “the support it needs to defend itself,” according to a readout of the White House call.

But the relationship has not always been smooth.

Early in the war, Zelensky repeatedly and publicly called on the United States and other Western countries to do more — send additional weapons and impose tougher sanctions on Russia — as Biden and Congress already sent unprecedented amounts of aid and advanced weapons to Russia. Kyiv sent. .

Biden, as a fellow politician, understood that Zelensky must plead vigorously for his people, but he also privately told the Ukrainian leader that it would be difficult for him to keep asking Congress for money if Zelensky seemed ungrateful and kept saying he didn’t think it would be worth it. enough. to a former White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

But when asked how long the United States is expected to spend billions in the war effort, Biden and his top aides often say, “As long as it takes.”

Privately, US officials say neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright, but they have ruled out the idea of ​​pushing or even pushing Ukraine to the negotiating table. They say they don’t know what the end of the war looks like, or how it might end or when, and claim it’s up to Kiev.

“That is a decision that the Ukrainians have to make,” said a senior foreign ministry official. “Our job now is to help them be militarily in the absolute best position on the battlefield…for that day when they choose to go to the diplomatic table.”

And Ukrainian officials now say they are less eager to negotiate than ever before, given their recent battlefield successes and Russia’s illegal annexation attempt.

Ukrainian forces have successfully recaptured key areas and cities, including the eastern city of Lyman, and are pushing further into the occupied areas of Luhansk Oblast. In the south, Ukraine’s hard-fought battle has led to some gains along the Dnieper River toward the strategic city of Kherson.

The territorial gains came as Putin crossed a red line for Zelensky with the illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine. For weeks, Zelensky had warned that such a move would be the death knell for future peace talks, and he signed a decree last week formally excluding negotiations.

The Ukrainian president now says Ukraine would only consider returning to the table if Putin is removed from power. “We will negotiate with the new president,” Zelensky said in a video address.

Moscow responded by saying it would not end its military operations if Kiev refuses to negotiate.

All this leads to a war that seems increasingly open-ended, as even those in Zelensky’s inner circle most open to exploring negotiations with Russia said Putin’s annexations were a fatal blow.

“Putin injected the virus of perpetual war with his annexation move,” David Arakhamia, a top negotiator for Zelensky and the majority leader of the Ukrainian parliament, said in an interview. “Ukraine will never accept this.”

Russia’s move was not a complete surprise to the United States, as many officials had seen signs since last spring that Russia could take the bold step of annexing territories. Biden asked his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and a “tiger team” to put together an approach and set of policy options for when Russia made progress, a senior White House official said.

The United States has also privately raised a potential annexation as something for other Western countries to focus on, including the United Kingdom, Germany and France. The UK also had information indicating that Putin could go down that road, a senior government official said.

On September 21, the same day Putin ordered a partial military mobilization and expressed support for the staged referenda heralding the annexation of Ukrainian territories, Biden was due to deliver a speech to the UN General Assembly. US officials waited to see what Putin would say and then rewrote parts of Biden’s speech that morning to strongly condemn Putin’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons and stage mock referendums.

On his way to UN headquarters, Biden was still reworking parts of his speech with Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“Again, just today President Putin has openly expressed nuclear threats against Europe and a reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the non-proliferation regime,” Biden said, adding: “This world should see these outrageous acts for what they are.”

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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