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For Ukraine and The West, The 'Test For The Ages' Is Far From Over

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the annual State of the Union speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 7.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the annual State of the Union speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 7.

In his State of the Union speech, U.S. President Joe Biden said that Russia's invasion of Ukraine "has been a test for the ages" and suggested that the West had passed, at least for the time being.

The test will continue -- and it could get tougher.

Speaking almost a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24, 2022, Biden said the "murderous assault" had raised a stark question: "Would we stand for the most basic of principles?" he asked, including "sovereignty," the "right of people to live free from tyranny," and "the defense of democracy."

"One year later, we know the answer," he said. "Yes, we would. And yes, we did."

Past tense. When it comes to the future, Biden provided fewer details, assuring Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova that "America is united in our support for your country. We will stand with you as long as it takes."

It may take a long time.

Since the invasion, the United States and the West have shown substantial unity and, with increasing weapons supplies and other support, have helped Kyiv defend itself against an invasion that many officials and analysts initially believed would bring what Putin expected it to bring: the swift subjugation of Ukraine.

Instead, Russia has suffered numerous setbacks. Its forces retreated from areas in the north after their push toward Kyiv was stymied in early spring, and Ukraine regained swaths of land in counteroffensives in the east and south later in the year -- even recapturing Kherson, the only regional capital Russia had seized since the large-scale invasion began in February.

But amid extremely deadly fighting, particularly in the eastern region known as the Donbas, neither side has made major gains in several months. Ukraine's prospects for regaining large amounts of its territory on the mainland -- let alone the Crimean Peninsula, occupied by Russia since 2014 -- seem uncertain at the moment.

Meanwhile, talk of a major new Russian offensive has intensified, and there are signs it has already begun. And while Moscow's chances of taking more territory are also uncertain, any substantial setbacks for Ukraine could potentially shift the moods of some in the West, weakening support for Kyiv and amplifying calls for compromise with Russia despite the death and destruction it has wrought.

This is the main thing Putin is now counting on, analysts say, because while he may still harbor hopes of bringing Ukraine under Kremlin control through military force, that is now all but impossible. Instead, he seems likely to keep the grinding war going in hopes of wearing down the West.

Off the battlefield, political seasons in Russia and the West may play a role. Even if Russia suffers further setbacks, losing more of the land it has occupied and baselessly claimed as its own, Putin seems unlikely to scale down his ambitions -- and particularly unlikely to do so before the presidential election, due in March 2024, in which he is widely expected to secure a new six-year term.

As he demonstrably has done in the past, Putin is almost certainly looking to the U.S. presidential election eight months later and hoping the result will advance his designs on Ukraine and beyond by sowing divisions in the West and decreasing its support for Kyiv.

For now, opinion poll results in the United States present a mixed picture, demonstrating strong and steady support for Ukraine's aim of pushing Russian forces out of the country but suggesting that when it comes to more concrete matters such as supplies of weapons and aid, the ground may be shakier.

A Gallup poll conducted in January and released on February 6 found that 65 percent of Americans would prefer the United States support Ukraine's regaining its territory, even if that means a prolonged conflict.

That was down just one percentage point from the number in August 2022 and included a small majority of Republicans -- 53 percent -- as well as 81 percent of Democrats.

The portion of Americans who would prefer the United States seek to end the conflict quickly, even if it means Russia keeps Ukrainian territory it has occupied, was unchanged from August to January at 31 percent.

At the same time, the poll found that while 39 percent of Americans believe the United States is offering Ukraine the right amount of support, nearly half of Republican respondents -- 47 percent -- said it is doing too much.

A poll conducted in January by the Pew Research Center, meanwhile, suggested that a growing number of Americans from both major parties feel that the United States should scale down its support for Ukraine.

Among Republicans and people leaning Republican, the share of respondents who said the United States is providing too much support rose from 9 percent in March 2022 to 40 percent in the January poll.

Among Democrats and people leaning Democratic, it tripled from 5 percent to 15 percent, and overall it increased from 7 percent to 26 percent, while 31 percent said the amount of support was about right and 20 percent said it was not enough.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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