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Ukraine and the 2024 Election

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The 2024 US Presidential election is not likely to become a referendum about US support for Ukraine, but the outcome of the election could very well prove decisive for the Russia-Ukraine War. I find that people tend to get a little uncomfortable talking about this because it seems to render the experience of fighting an actual war in Ukraine into just another “horse race issue” in American politics. I also think that there’s a residual “politics stops at the water’s edge” that pundits still cling to but that has never described the politics of foreign policy in the United States at all. But it’s not just “horse race” to start thinking about how the war is going to affect the election and vice versa. The war probably won’t decide the election but the election may very well decide the war, and neither Kyiv nor Moscow are under any illusions about the importance of November 2024.

First, some thoughts on the political implications of the war thus far:

If the war ends before 2024, it probably won’t have much impact on the election. If Ukraine wins, Biden will derive some benefit, but the American public has demonstrated a resolute capacity for forgetting anything and everything about foreign policy that happened more than a few months ago. Trump will lose a talking point if Ukraine wins and may suffer from making pro-Russia statements over the course of the conflict, but given the velocity of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on just about any issue we’re unlikely to feel the absence.

Second, how will the course of the war affect the course of the election and vice versa?

The stakes are enormous, to the extent that both Ukraine and Russia might be forced to undertake dangerous steps in order to affect the US political situation. If Joe Biden remains President, he will have at his disposal an immense array of tools to aid the Ukrainian war effort and prevent Kyiv’s collapse, even if Republicans make gains in the House and Senate. Russia will at best face another two years of bloody, brutal conflict in Ukraine with little hope of respite. If Donald Trump or another like-minded Republican wins the White House, Ukraine could face a rapid curtailment of aid that would force it to find an accommodation with Russia, almost certainly including territorial cessions and probably also political and diplomatic concessions that might well endanger Kyiv’s democracy. For both the Putin and Zelenskyy governments, the question of the US election is very nearly existential.

Best to frame it thus: If the war is still going on in the summer and fall of 2024, Russia and Ukraine will make decisions about the extent and pace of military operations in order to shape the contours of the 2024 election. Moreover, it’s quite likely that both Moscow and Kyiv will take non-military steps ranging from aggressive lobbying to espionage in order to shift the election in a beneficial direction. It’s by no means obvious that those steps will work, but the election will be of enormous consequence to the future of the war.

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