At a major NATO summit in Madrid last year, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to support U.S. allies and Ukraine against the Russian invasion for “as long as it takes.”
That line has come to define the U.S. policy on Europe under Biden, an avowed transatlanticist and longtime supporter of a democratic Ukraine. But as U.S. attention shifts to a new era of global competition with China—and a contentious presidential election in 2024—many Europeans are quietly beginning to wonder whether Washington’s “as long as it takes” strategy will outlast Biden.
U.S. lawmakers and 2024 presidential hopefuls across the political spectrum are all in broad agreement about hardening the U.S. approach to China and gearing up for an era of great-power competition. That’s left Europe wondering whether it will be left behind after Biden leaves office, a prospect that has major implications if the conflict in Ukraine drags on.
“The level of cooperation that we see now between Washington and European capitals is really something that we haven’t seen for a very long time,” said Liana Fix, a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations. But as election season approaches, “Is Biden the exception to a new rule, or is he the return to the old rule? That is very much keeping Europeans awake.”
In public, top European dignitaries have shown an unflappable confidence in U.S. leadership on Ukraine and as the anchor of the NATO alliance. Behind closed doors, they’re growing increasingly uneasy over whether skepticism of America’s European allies from top Republican presidential contenders such as twice-impeached and recently indicted former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will take root in U.S. foreign policy, and whether the brewing new Cold War with China will sap American political focus and military resources from Ukraine and the European theater.
“I’d be lying if I were to say we’re not all a little nervous, especially if the war in Ukraine grinds into a war of attrition over years,” said one senior European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “What will that mean for U.S. commitments [to Ukraine] in two years, or five years or more?”
Top advisors to Russian President Vladimir Putin have reportedly told their colleagues they are preparing for a long war against Ukraine, a prospect that could sap U.S. interest and motivation to shore up defense in Europe in the long term.
The simmering unease in Europe underscores the uphill battle that the Biden administration faces in charting a long-term strategy on Ukraine and Russia that could outlast its time in office. It also previews an existential question that may very well define U.S. foreign policy in the coming decades: Both China and Russia are mounting threats to Washington and its allies. Can it focus on both at the same time? Can it afford not to?
“The Biden administration has given all the signs and reassurances that it is very committed to the security of Europe,” said Mathieu Droin, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think the real question mark is on the next administration.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Washington has ramped up its support for Kyiv, funneling nearly $33 billion in aid to the embattled country. By defending Ukraine against Russia, many U.S. officials say they are also helping deter a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
“If Putin gets away with this, there goes Taiwan,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told Politico in January. “If Putin’s successful in Ukraine and is not prosecuted under international law, everything we said since World War II becomes a joke.”
But with the next U.S. presidential election looming in 2024, a growing number of prominent Republican voices have been questioning the future of U.S. aid to Kyiv—including Trump and DeSantis, two front-runners for the Republican ticket.
Even as the center of gravity in the Republican Party has remained staunchly pro-Ukraine, DeSantis referred to the war as a “territorial dispute” and suggested that it is not a “vital national interest” in controversial comments that he later walked back. U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has criticized sending what he called a “blank check” to Kyiv, bowing to pressure from the far-right flank of his party as he tries to manage his razor-thin majority in the House.
Some GOP politicians have gone even further, urging Washington to limit military support for Ukraine and focus instead on China. In a speech in February at the Heritage Foundation think tank, Sen. Josh Hawley explicitly linked U.S. support for Ukraine to a weaker posture on China. “We should cut off U.S. military aid to Ukraine, until our European allies step up,” Hawley said. “We must make clear that, given the Chinese threat and the need for deterrence, we will be forced to withhold forces from any direct conflict with Russia.”
Whether this faction of the Republican Party wins out over the pro-Ukraine faction is an existential question for Ukraine and its backers in NATO. Despite billions of dollars in military and economic support from European countries, it is the United States, with the world’s most powerful military, that represents Ukraine’s most powerful backer.
“Europe understands that it cannot manage this conflict by themselves,” said Heather Conley, head of the German Marshall Fund think tank.
“U.S. support to Ukraine is absolutely paramount. Without U.S. support, the situation would be much more dire and dangerous,” said Mantas Adomenas, Lithuania’s vice minister for foreign affairs.
The debate in Washington is playing out as Europe grapples with its own internal debates about Russia and China.
The war in Ukraine has exposed fault lines between Eastern and Western Europe, with Eastern European allies calling for more hawkish approaches to Moscow and boosting defense spending at higher rates than their Western counterparts. European leaders have been more inconsistent on China—some echoing the hawkish views coming from Washington but others calling for more dialogue and economic cooperation with the nascent superpower—offering up more ammunition to skeptical politicians in the Republican Party and creating the potential for more friction with Washington even in the Biden era.
Top EU leaders have sought to closely align its approach to China with Washington to head off these tensions. “The Chinese Communist Party’s clear goal is a systemic change of the international order with China at its center,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech on Thursday. “We have seen the show of friendship in Moscow which says a thousand words about this new vision for an international order.”
At the same time, national leaders in Europe may be singing a different tune. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz brought a trade delegation along with him on a visit to Beijing last year. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited China this week, and French President Emmanuel Macron and von der Leyen are visiting Beijing in the coming weeks.
“I think Europeans will want to keep some channels open to see how to engage with China,” said Rosa Balfour, the director of Carnegie Europe. Since China has also been conducting a charm offensive toward Europe to try to undermine transatlantic unity, “it’s a difficult game to play.”
Amid all the unease, growing ties between Russia and China, including recent reports of Beijing’s plans to possibly send military aid to Russia for its war in Ukraine, could offer a way out of the “China or Russia” conundrum. Or so many transatlanticists hope.
“This is where Putin and [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] are going to help us out,” Conley said. “We have to look at their own strategic alignment, because they’re joining together in new ways now.”