Not only has the Russian invasion of Ukraine consolidated Europe and reinvigorated Transatlantic relations, but it has also been a major consolidating force for the American nation. While the U.S. has seen an unprecedented schism between the Democrats and the Republicans over the last few years, the two parties are now on the same page at least in foreign policy. The Ukrainian agenda is trending in American news; Volodymyr Zelensky has become America’s biggest star, and Congress is willing to go to tremendous lengths to pressure Putin with more serious sanctions.
A common enemy
Critics of sanctions
A common enemy
“You’d have to go back to 9/11 to see such a unified commitment,” Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat and a confidant of President Biden, said in an interview to the New York Times. The war in Ukraine seems to have forced Democrats and Republicans to bury the hatchet (at least for now). Senator Chris Murphy has referred to the Russian invasion as a “terrible” unifying force.
It even came to the point that early in March, when Congress was to decide on financial aid to Ukraine, Mitch McConnell, leader of Republicans in the Senate, phoned his Democratic counterpart Chuck Schumer and suggested doubling the amount. Schumer immediately backed him on this. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, no one minces words: McConnell thinks the U.S. must do “anything and everything we could think of to help them kill as many Russians as they possibly can”. Schumer, in turn, compares Russia’s acts to the Holocaust.
Notably, it was Republicans who suggested doubling the aid. One of the previous administration's most notorious scandals had to do with Ukraine: President Donald Trump’s single phone call to Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 triggered a lengthy and torturous (for both sides) impeachment process. Trump attempted to discred Biden before the election through a corruption investigation in Ukraine, where Biden's son, Hunter, was conducting business. Even though the scandal did not result in Trump's resignation and did nothing to prevent Biden from securing the presidency in 2020, both incurred reputational losses. Republicans still insist that investigating Hunter's dealings in Ukraine is necessary, but they are willing to postpone it at least until the hostilities are over.
It was Republicans who suggested doubling the aid
Democrats and Republicans are just as unanimous on the matter of anti-Kremlin sanctions. The only subject of their disputes is how to make Putin suffer more. Both sides of America’s political spectrum also support Biden's strong card - a ban on oil imports - even though everyone realizes full well that the step will take a toll on the U.S. too.
“Defending freedom is going to cost”
Joe Biden signed an executive order to ban the import of Russian oil, liquefied natural gas, and coal on March 8. By then, inflation had been growing for some time, and fuel prices had spiked. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Russia’s share of total petroleum imports in 2020 was 7%, like that of Saudi Arabia. On the day when Biden signed the order, fuel prices hit an all-time high. “Putin’s war is already hurting American families at the gas pump,” said Biden, announcing the ban on imports. “Defending freedom is going to cost — it’s going to cost us as well, in the United States.” Meanwhile, public polls show that most Americans support the ban on Russian oil even if it means higher gas prices.
Most Americans support the ban on Russian oil even if it means higher gas prices
Biden's administration is currently facing the challenge of replacing Russian oil. America's domestic drilling and refining capacity isn't sufficient, which means the U.S. needs new suppliers. Two countries could hypothetically provide the required volume: Iran and Venezuela. However, both have been under American sanctions for a while now, and Congress immediately protested. Republican senator Marco Rubio demanded that imports from these two countries be banned. Even his long-standing opponents supported him: Democrat Bob Menendez called the president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, a “cancer” and insisted that a blow on one dictator shouldn’t reinforce another one.
The American political elite is well aware of the risks but seems willing to sacrifice economic stability to hurt Putin. No one doubts that a spike in fuel prices will result in growing logistics costs, which means that the U.S. is in for a serious crisis. Its troubles began even before Russia invaded Ukraine: in January, inflation rates reached their peak in the last four decades. The recent ban on oil imports has served as a trigger for further economic difficulties.
A few days into the war, American analysts warned that the invasion may cause grain shortages, as the Russian government is limiting exports – not as counter-sanctions but as a protectionist measure. At a press conference following his meeting with NATO leaders in Brussels, Joe Biden stated for the first time that the world may soon be faced with food shortages and reminded that Russia and Ukraine are “the breadbasket of Europe”, producing more than a quarter of the world's wheat. Biden's critics were quick to pick up on his concerns.
Critics of sanctions
Tucker Carlson, the figurehead of conservative propaganda, is known for his controversial views and a tendency to challenge America's political and justice system. In Carlson's eyes, there is nothing Biden could do right. His anti-Russian sanctions are no exception, but the Fox News anchor handles the subject with an uncharacteristic delicacy. His main idea is that, since the deterrent sanctions imposed before the invasion didn’t work, the effectiveness of the new package is also doubtful. “Can Putin be sanctioned into retreat? We certainly hope it is true. Sincerely. But there is no evidence that it is true,” concludes Tucker. The threat of food shortages is the president’s opponents’ trump card but Tucker’s eventual point isn’t that sanctions should be lifted; he only says that the conflict will ultimately benefit America's archenemy – China.
Sean Hannity, Carlson's Fox News colleague, echoes him on the unthinkable threat of food supply interruptions in modern-day America. He goes on to accuse the president of duplicity: early in his term, Biden indeed reassured Americans that shortages would not be an issue. However, Hannity emphasizes that the U.S. has two primary obligations: to supply Ukraine with weapons and to block Russian oil imports. “Ukraine is shocking the world. Very few people, including myself, thought that they would be able to hold out for more than a few days, and now there is a distinct possibility – if they get proper support – they could actually win this war against Russia and Putin.”
Tucker Carlson also pays special attention to Russian media reports and public officials’ statements about American labs in Ukraine developing biological weapons. The snippet makes a perfect addition to his typical narrative of the American government doing unspeakable things unbeknownst to the nation. It was complemented by Senate hearings attended by Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, where Senator Marco Rubio, who had been the first to demand bans on Iranian and Venezuelan oil, challenged her about those labs. Tucker, along with many of his peers, quoted Nuland’s reply: the U.S. had indeed been sponsoring research, and Joe Biden's administration is concerned with the labs currently located within the territory of hostilities. There has been ample evidence that the labs have nothing to do with biological warfare, but the conspiracy theory has gotten out of hand. Americans love their conspiracies: 22% are convinced there is at least some truth to them, and two years of the pandemic have only fueled a wide variety of myths. In this case, fake news by Russian propaganda suddenly gained traction with the American audience – or at least part of it.
“God created war so that Americans would learn geography”
“Finally, we have a president that everybody loves, and his approval ratings are sky-high. It's the president of Ukraine,” comedian Bill Maher says in his show on HBO. He admires the comedian-turned-president and his emotional address to the Congress, throwing in a punchline about his “big schtick energy”. “Women are going nuts for Zelensky,” adds Maher, to loud cheers from the female part of the audience.
A Morning Consult survey published a few weeks prior to the Russian invasion showed that only 34% of U.S. residents could find Ukraine on the map. Its authors illustrate the publication with Mark Twain's quote: “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” Nevertheless, a poll by Quinnipiac University demonstrates that over 50% of the nation sympathize with Zelensky. The assessment of Biden's response to the Russian invasion split society nearly in half.
The main danger the U.S. government is bent on avoiding is boots on the ground, which may result in further escalation of the conflict and potentially a Third World War. This is why, despite all the support the White House has been offering Ukraine, Biden is not prepared to grant Zelensky’s request for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as it would create the conditions for a Russian provocation and inevitable confrontation.