Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met Wednesday with President Joe Biden at the White House before delivering an impassioned address to a joint session of Congress. This was the first time Zelenskyy had left Ukraine since Russia launched its military invasion of Ukraine just over 300 days ago.
The timing of the Ukrainian leader’s meeting with Biden was no accident, says Victoria Coates, a senior research fellow in international affairs and national security at The Heritage Foundation. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)
“I think the whole point was to force through the $1.7 trillion omnibus; that’s the president’s kind of last hurrah of gigantic spending, before [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi gives up the gavel,” Coates says.
Coates says Zelenskyy’s visit was “a Biden show,” but the Ukrainian president should “embrace American conservatives” as potentially his most important allies in Washington.
Zelenskyy headed home to Ukraine with a commitment from the Pentagon for a missile defense system known as the Patriot. But, Coates says, Biden should have given Ukraine the defensive support long ago, but instead used the promise of the Patriot system as a tool to bring Zelenskyy to America to push Democrats’ massive spending package through Congress.
Coates joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about the role America should play in Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: Today we are joined by author, scholar, and senior research fellow in international affairs and national security at The Heritage Foundation Victoria Coates. Victoria, thank you so much for being here today.
Victoria Coates: It’s a pleasure, Virginia.
Allen: On Wednesday, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with President [Joe] Biden here in D.C. and he delivered an address to Congress. This was actually the first time that Zelenskyy had left Ukraine since the fighting began about 300 days ago. So the timing of this was really interesting. It was definitely not an accident. Why did Zelenskyy come to America this week?
Coates: Well, it is my opinion, and obviously they’re not consulting with me, but from what I’ve seen, he came because he had to. President Biden insisted that he come, he dangled the Patriot as an incentive. And if Zelenskyy is trying to protect his own people, he has no choice but to come. But I think it was very, very clear throughout the day yesterday that the Biden administration was framing this as a partisan issue.
Zelenskyy, to my knowledge, met primarily with the president and with Democrats and obviously had his interactions with both [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Vice President Kamala] Harris when he was at the Congress. … And I think the whole point was to force through the $1.7 trillion omnibus, that’s the president’s kind of last hurrah of gigantic spending before Pelosi gives up the gavel. And it includes $46 billion for Ukraine. So, they’re basically forcing that issue to try to get the rest of the omni through.
Allen: Well, and like you mentioned, I mean, it was interesting to see some of those asks that were made, conversations happening. During his address to Congress, Zelenskyy thanked America for its financial support.
Allen: Now, like you mentioned, Congress is considering giving Ukraine some $40-plus billion for the war effort. How much has America given Ukraine during the war so far?
Coates: Well, we’re already north of $60 billion. And an important point is that only $18 billion, I believe, of that has been spent. So there’s really no reason to force this through now and burden the American taxpayer sort of preemptively with this expenditure. You could wait until the next Congress, but President Biden is busy framing this as a binary choice. You either support his Ukraine policy with a blank check, an undated blank check, or you’re a [Russian President Vladimir] Putin sympathist.
And I think we at The Heritage Foundation believe that is a false choice and that it is perfectly possible to not want to appease Vladimir Putin, to see the value of a Ukraine allied with the West, but also to be fiscally conservative and concerned that the Biden administration has no policy to win this war.
And one thing I wanted to get into a little bit is, they’ve done two things that are directly counter to their declared policy of unconditional support for Ukraine. One is the Green New Deal policies that they jammed through in the ill-named Inflation Reduction Act. And there’s lots more of it in the omnibus. One thing, for example, is environmental justice got a billion dollars in the IRA. It’s somewhere around, I think, another a $100 million in the omni.
All the environmental justice warriors do is tamp down U.S. energy production, which is one of our key tools against Putin. So, they’re undermining their policy right there.
The other thing they did is release Viktor Bout, the so-called Merchant of Death, who I refer to as Putin’s Chief Military Procurement Officer, who was in Ukraine over the weekend giving interviews about how he wants to volunteer for the fight. So, we’re going to send a whole bunch of more stuff to Ukraine where Viktor Bout will blow it up.
I need the administration to be consistent, I need them to be serious about this. And then I think conservatives will be very willing to have this conversation.
Allen: Are those things that Zelenskyy has brought up that we’re aware of to Congress, to President Biden?
Coates: I don’t think he would have the option at this point. Ukraine is pretty dependent on the United States. There are others who are helping, God bless them. There’s some who could do more, Germany and France. But I think he couldn’t take the risk of alienating the administration at this point. I don’t know what his personal views are, but what’s he supposed to say? But, I mean, … I feel equally strongly about both cases. But with the Viktor Bout thing, it’s just shameful. They wanted the photo-op.
I mean, and I’m glad Brittney [Griner’s] home. I’m sure we disagree on a number of political matters. She’s American, she deserved to come home. That’s fine. I would’ve liked to get all the Americans out, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that you traded a very, very dangerous individual who is returning to the battlefield and is going to just cost us so much heartache and misery. And this just makes no sense.
Allen: And when it comes to what Zelenskyy is for sure returning to Ukraine with, we know that the Pentagon, they announced this week that America will send a missile defense system known as the Patriot to Ukraine. How is this defense system going to help the people of Ukraine in a practical way?
Coates: It’s a wonderful thing. One of the things I joked about is, the first thing I would do if I were back in government is order 100 Patriots. They’re very expensive. So, that’s not exactly realistic. But what’s frustrating as a policymaker is, you say, “Gee, I’d like a couple Patriots in the Arabian Peninsula because the Houthi are firing off all sorts of nonsense,” and you’re informed that the Patriots are resting or they’re already deployed against China. I mean, it’s just this constant dance of, where are you going to deploy the Patriots, because they’re so effective. Everybody wants them. And they’re much better than, say, the Russian systems.
So because Ukraine is outclassed in terms of air force assets and so the Russians are concentrating on bombings that they have trouble defending against, the Patriot battery will be enormously helpful.
But this bit begs the question, Virginia, where was this thing in August? Even, where was it in June? The administration had such a serious intelligence failure at the beginning of the invasion when they briefed everybody and their brother that this would be a three-day war and what they had positioned in country and what they were preparing to send would all arm the insurgency.
Now, that didn’t happen. And intelligence failures happen. What then counts is how you respond. When did they pivot to the realization that this was going to be a much more traditional ground war that Ukraine had a chance to win? And why didn’t they give them these tools then?
If the president is concerned about escalation, and he talked yesterday about the potential for World War III, then this is escalatory. Why are you doing this? There’s no explanation. And it just seems to me that the president had the Patriot in his back pocket. And when he wanted to insist that Zelenskyy come to Washington, give him another photo-op, help him get the omni through, that’s when he decided to spend it. It has nothing to do with actually winning the war in Ukraine.
Allen: And what’s Russia’s perspective of this, of America sending a missile defense system to Ukraine? And moving forward, how should America be threading that needle between helping Ukraine without getting America fully involved in a way that threatens our national security?
Coates: Well, that’s an excellent question. And I think the issue is that Putin put nuclear weapons on the table in the first weeks of this campaign. The minute it was clear it was not going to be a three-day war, he started talking about using a nuke to try to dampen NATO support for Ukraine. Now, at that point, we should have made a decision. Nobody wants a nuclear war in Europe. Who is to blame for that? We are not. The Russians are.
The Chinese need to be very clear that they’ve been bankrolling this escapade. And so if he does use a nuclear weapon, that stinks sticks to Beijing every bit as much as it stinks to Moscow. So they need to make very clear to Putin, this is something they won’t tolerate and he can’t cross that red line. So, I think that’s actually the play.
But at that point, this is a defensive weapon. We should have rolled that thing right on in there, as I said, in June. Putin had to assume we were going to do it. And he’s not an idiot. He can see this just as well as we can, that this is the president using geopolitics for domestic political reasons.
It’s very similar to his game with Saudi Arabia about, “Oh, please don’t announce the price cuts until after the election because of my domestic political situation.” He didn’t care that Americans are eventually going to suffer at the pump because of his bad energy policies. He just wanted to get through the midterms.
Allen: Well, and what we saw this week, and it’s been happening for a while, but Zelenskyy is asking America for more physical support, from things like tanks to fighter jets. Is that something that America would ever consider, even if we’re not considering it right now?
Coates: Well, I mean, I would like to keep my options open. I think one of the great sadnesses of the timing of this trip and the way Zelenskyy was kept on a very short leash is, it is my opinion that he should embrace American conservatives as potentially his best friends.
If I had been designing the trip, and obviously this wasn’t going to happen because it was a Biden show, but I would’ve insisted on a meeting with the Freedom Caucus and answered each and every one of their questions, and said, “I want you, [Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene, I want you to pass that audit. I want to open our books. I want you-all to see our efforts on transparency.” Because they’re making them and it’s real.
I would love to have him at The Heritage Foundation, have a conversation with Kevin [Roberts, president of The Heritage Foundation,] about the future of Ukraine imposing, not imposing, but introducing a conservative economic climate. That would be great. And that could have been done in February, or in January rather, after the 118th Congress is sworn in. But it couldn’t have been done now, and that opportunity was lost.
And so I think going forward, I would really encourage the Ukrainians—and we welcome many Ukrainian delegations to Heritage, our door is always open to our friends—to not let the Democrats make this a black and white situation, where only Democrats are your friends and conservatives are somehow isolationist and opposed to that, to them. That’s simply not the case.
Allen: It sounds like what you’re saying is, “Stop playing political football with this war. And actually, let’s get down to business and talk about real solutions.”
Coates: I think if we’re in it, we should win it. One of my main concerns is that we’ve been around this bush before in 2008, in 2014, ’15. This has been by far and away the bloodiest and the most expensive.
I don’t want to be doing a podcast with you in five years’ time because Putin was not deterred in Ukraine and has gone into Moldova—God forbid—a NATO country like Lithuania, or one of the other Baltics. Then we are in it. That’s what we have to look at. That’s World War III. That’s what we have to prevent. And the only way we will definitively prevent it is if Putin is handed a defeat in Ukraine.
And no course of action is without its dangers. I know people are concerned that the wounded bear will lash out. Well, he’s lashing out right now, and he will only do so again. We have to learn from the lessons of history.
Allen: Well, in looking to the immediate future, obviously, Russia invaded Ukraine nearly about 11 months ago. Neither side is backing down. Winter’s here. How are both sides going to handle the cold?
Coates: I mean, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, they’re used to the cold on both sides. And one of the really shameful things about the omni is that a bunch of glamour things have been stuffed into it tangentially related to Ukraine, like a Ukraine Freedom Park in Washington.
And I don’t have the line item number on that, but I don’t care if it’s $5 or $100 million. The fact that we would spend money on a park in Washington instead of spending that money on generators and ammunition right now is shameful. This isn’t about beautifying an American city. If we’re going to spend money on Ukraine, we should spend it on Ukraine, not Washington, D.C., pork.
And so I think being as supportive as we can within reason and getting from the Ukrainians—if the Biden administration decides they’re going to stop their hand-wringing and kind of half measures and they do want to win the war, they make a case to the American people how they think this can be done and why we should pay for it, I think there’s a lot we could do over these coming months.
And the ultimate goal would be to change Putin’s calculus. … Because right now he’s thinking he can’t lose the war and survive. I think what we need to change his mindset to, he has to end the war to survive. And at that point, I think we could have negotiations with Kyiv from a position of strength. Right now it’s kind of a stalemate.
Allen: And what role does Europe play in that and how involved are Ukraine’s European allies in this fight?
Coates: They’ve been very involved. And I mean, countries like the Baltics, like Poland, like Romania have really stepped up to the plate and demonstrated their value as key NATO allies to the United States. And not only have they been providing military support, but they’re hosting millions of refugees in an incredibly generous, open-hearted way. And that has been really great to see. They deserve tremendous credit for that. And I think we should have a clearer-eyed understanding of where our friends are.
As I said before, I do think there’s more that the bigger economies can do. I think particularly France and Germany need to be more forthcoming in terms of the civil society support that Ukraine needs. I think the United States should be less on the hook for direct economic assistance, which we’re heavily on the hook for now. It in many ways dwarfs the military aid we’re sending.
We should focus on the military, which we do better than anyone else. They should focus on the civil society. They’re there, they’re on the ground, they’re neighbors. And I think clarifying that in 2023 is something the Congress can play a strong role in.
Allen: And do we have any indication? I know you mentioned, of course, five years from now, we don’t want to be sitting down and essentially having the same conversation. Do we have any indication on how much longer this war could go on, is likely to go on?
Coates: You know, Zelenskyy had some interesting things to say yesterday, which suggested he thought it would be wrapped up in the next, sounded like, six to eight months. And he would have better intel on that than I would. Certainly, we should all pray for that.
And again, going back to sort of our opening discussion, it’s why the energy and Viktor Bout policies are so befuddling. This war is expensive for the American people, both in terms of contributing to inflation and energy prices and also in terms of an added line item on the budget.
If the president’s serious about bringing relief to the American people, ending the war on favorable terms—given what we’ve poured into it—should be his top priority. And it’s just bizarre that they’re running around doing things that, to my eye, are just going to perpetuate it.
Allen: Victoria Coates, senior research fellow in international affairs and national security at The Heritage Foundation. Victoria, thank you so much for taking time to join us today and break this down.
Coates: Thank you, Virginia.
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