Johannesburg – Two vital takeaway points have emerged out of this week’s US mid-term elections, painting a veiled but optimistic picture about probable negotiations with Russia to end the Ukraine war.
The first was about a revelation that US President Joe Biden’s administration has confirmed reports that it surreptitiously made direct contact with the Kremlin in recent weeks. Biden has lately reduced his fierce rhetoric against his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, whom he had previously described in unpalatable terms such as “murderer”. But now he holds that Putin is “rational”.
This indicates a sharp turn in the geopolitical strategy of the US-led Nato and the EU – the chief allies in the war against Russia. The allied forces led by Washington have unleashed a barrage of unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia since the outbreak of the Ukraine war in February. However, the pain of sanctions has not been one-dimensional.
Russia, which is a major supplier of gas and oil to Europe, has strategically reduced in particular its gas supply, causing unprecedented panic and fear ahead of the looming winter season. Not only has Russia’s retaliation inflicted its own damage in its “eye-for-an-eye” response to the West, it has also triggered a sharp escalation in gas prices and inflation has sky-rocketed across Europe, causing protests that observers believe could lead to mass social upheavals if the Ukraine conflict becomes protracted.
The second takeaway from the US mid-term elections has been further revelations by the esteemed Washington Post that the Biden administration has admitted to growing anxious about emerging signs of “Ukraine fatigue”.
The Post’s recent report quoted “well-placed US government officials” privately expressing a concern over the possible “Ukraine fatigue” in Europe especially. “Ukraine fatigue is a real thing for some of our partners,” one US official is quoted on condition of anonymity.
“Ukraine needs to signal openness to negotiating with Russia,” the Post reported, adding: “Ukraine fatigue among allies could worsen if Kyiv continues to be closed to negotiations.”
The growing concern among hordes of Kyiv backers is that the longer the Ukraine war continues amid growing socio-economic hardships – characterised by constantly rising inflation and cost of living – the groundswell of support for the Zelensky regime will diminish.
This fear has been accentuated by Ukraine’s President Zelensky’s hard-line stance that he will only negotiate with Russia once President Putin is no longer in power.
The other condition for talks that Zelensky has spoken about is the total withdrawal of Russia from Crimea and the Donbass region. The areas have been under total control and direct influence of Moscow since 2014 when Crimea held a referendum to secede from Ukraine and was eventually incorporated into Russia. The Donbass region undertook a similar exercise recently and now identifies itself as part of Russia – claiming “the will of the people” – a move Putin cemented with a decree of recognition a few months ago.
Invariably, the outcome of any US general or mid-term election is crucial as the incumbent party typically tampers with the foreign policy priorities of the vanquished. And, let truth be told, as the world’s biggest economy and the remaining super power since the end of the Cold War, whenever the US sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold.
At the time of submitting this article, the complete outcome of the 2022 mid-term election was yet to be confirmed.
However, one thing was crystal clear, the Republicans did not achieve “a red wave” as per the forecast of the polls. But they surely have shaken the foundation of the governance of the ruling Democrats. President Biden quickly put a positive spin on the results before counting was completed late in the week, claiming “democracy” – his party’s key message during electioneering – had triumphed.
Biden and the Democrats had fashioned their campaign message around threats – perceived or real – posed to the US democracy by Donald Trump and dozens of the so-called Conservative election denialists featuring on the ballot box who had previously questioned the validity of the 2020 elections that were controversially won by the Democrats.
This week, the Democrats were evidently relieved and overjoyed about the preliminary results, which showed the Republicans were leading, or winning, but not by the wide margin the polls had suggested.
In other words, the Democrats seemed rather strangely pleased to lose by a lesser margin.
The control of Congress, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, is dependent upon numerical numbers, as is the case with all democracies. A loss by any margin is still a loss. Democracy is a numbers game, where a royal and a commoner, the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick are equal before the ballot box.
But what may compound the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda, particularly its unwavering material support for Ukraine, is a negative performance in the mid-terms.
The Republicans had made it categorically clear that should they take control of Congress, or a section of it, they would halt the dispatch of Washington’s “blank cheque to Ukraine”.
So far, the US has given Ukraine $18.9 billion (about R329bn) worth of aid since the war broke out in February and more is in the pipeline, should Biden’s Democrats win. Biden vowed: “We will support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
But to understand the somewhat cantankerous nature of US foreign policy, one need not look back too far. At the height of the Conservative rule led by former president Trump the US foreign policy was more inward looking, premised on the slogan: “Make America Great Again.” If Trump announces that he would run again for the White House in 2024, as is widely expected when he addresses the media at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida on November 15, the slogan could be popularised once again.
While in office, Trump drastically reduced the US’s funding of Nato to the bare bones, saying for its operational costs in particular, Nato member-states ought to fork out from their national budgets instead of depending on the US’s goodwill and deep pockets.
But when it comes to Russophobia, the Republicans are not too different to the Democrats, although their appetite for military confrontation in recent years has proved less insatiable than the current regime.
That is why whichever party controls Congress matters. And, although the Republicans are favoured to win the House, the Senate is likely to be decided in a run-off in Georgia, which is scheduled to take place on December 6, after neither candidate – Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker – achieved a 50% mark as required by the law.
But what adds to the intricacy and excitement of the US politics and its impact on international relations in a post mid-term period is the revelation that the Biden administration had implored President Zelensky to tone down his Russophobia rhetoric.
The hostilities between Moscow and Kyiv were recently brought to the fore once again when President Zelensky said he would not attend the G20 meeting in Indonesia this coming week, where he has been invited to speak, as long as Putin is allowed to attend. But then, Russia is a member of the G20, whereas Ukraine is in fact not.
Veteran diplomat Alexander Vershbow was quoted in an interview with the Post explaining that Ukraine losing allied support led by the US and EU could have dire repercussions for the besieged country.
Vershbow was quoted as saying: “If the conditions become more propitious for negotiations, I don’t think the (US) administration is going to be passive.”
By all accounts, these are some of the clearest indicators that amid the back-door diplomacy, chances of a US-brokered truce between Kyiv and Moscow could be imminent.
And, the fact that this apparent willingness to negotiate with Moscow comes from two sides of the political power base in the form of Republicans and the Democrats makes these developments even more realistic.
Polls, imperfect as they are, have shown that the mid-term elections had been focused on national issues such as jobs, security and inflation, among others. Astronomical funding of the Ukraine war was down the pecking order of the US electorate, according to the exit polls. In the final analysis, it seems like the “Ukraine fatigue” is indeed catching up, and none in Capitol Hill no longer appears too keen to fund America’s protracted proxy war against a nuclear power that is Russia.