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With aid on the line, Kyiv pays close attention to US presidential debate

by Kateryna Denisova June 29, 2024 1:33 AM 5 min read
Guests at the Old Town Pour House watch the debate between President Joe Biden and presumptive Republican nominee former President Donald Trump on June 27, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
by Kateryna Denisova June 29, 2024 1:33 AM 5 min read
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U.S. President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, faced off on June 27 in the first presidential debate in the lead-up to the country's presidential election.

The debate marked a shaky start for Biden, whose administration proved to be a pivotal ally for Ukraine in its defense against Russia.

The debate was a key event across the world, with foreign governments and powerbrokers preparing for what awaits them next year. According to a CNN flash poll, 67% of U.S. debate watchers said that Trump outperformed Biden – a result not received well in Ukraine.

Although there was little focus on foreign policy, Kyiv eyed the two presumptive nominees' takes on Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine.

While the remarks on Ukraine and its war effort were "more or less adequate," the overall debate was "very depressing," said Oleksandr Kraiev, an expert on North American policy at the foreign policy think tank Ukrainian Prism.

"In terms of information and narrative saturation, none of them showed any real class — one because of fatigue, the other because of lies," he added.

Trump said during the debate that Ukraine has taken too much military aid from the U.S. and referred to President Volodymyr Zelensky as a "salesman." Trump claimed that had he been the U.S. president in 2022, Russia would not have launched the full-scale invasion.

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Yaroslav Zhelezniak, a Ukrainian lawmaker, said that the statements of both Biden and Trump were not unexpected, and the debate was aimed solely at domestic voters.

"I would definitely not pay attention to some of the statements now, but the results of the debates do not look like they helped Biden. It seems to me that they have made it much worse… even within the Democratic Party," Zhelezniak told the Kyiv Independent.

"This means that the probability of Trump's election is increasing," he added.

Trump was more cautious in his remarks about Ukraine than at the beginning of his campaign, the lawmaker said. Yet, the Republican presumptive nominee reiterated claims against Biden, accusing him of being soft and giving too much aid to Ukraine. He also once again claimed that he could "settle" the war by January if he wins a second term.

On the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly said he could end Russia's war within 24 hours if elected president, without specifying the steps for reaching a peace deal between Kyiv and Moscow.

"It is not good that he repeats this — 'if he is elected president, he will resolve this issue.' To put it mildly, it probably won't be on Ukraine's terms," Zhelezhiak added.

U.S. President Joe Biden participates in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Oleksandr Merezhko, head of the Ukrainian parliament's foreign policy committee, said he did not hear any specific threats in Trump's rhetoric.

"I heard a very important thing for Ukraine from Trump that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin's plan is not acceptable to him. That is, he does not accept Russia's occupation of parts of the territory. I think it is a very important and positive signal," Merezhko told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

Ahead of Ukraine's peace summit in Switzerland, Putin claimed that, as a condition for peace negotiations, Ukrainian troops must leave Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, which now are partially controlled by Russian troops.

Putin added that Ukraine must recognize Russia's illegal annexation of the regions, including Crimea, and abandon any ambition to join NATO.

"He wants all of Ukraine. That's what he wants," Biden said at the debate, calling Putin a "war criminal."

"And then you think he'll stop there? Do you think he'll stop if he takes Ukraine? What do you think happens to Poland, Belarus? What do you think happens to those NATO countries?"

Yet, neither Biden nor Trump voiced a clear strategy on how to end Russia's war against Ukraine, said Hanna Hopko, co-founder of the International Center for Ukrainian Victory and head of the Ants think tank.

"The absence of a strategy for Ukraine's victory also affects (U.S.) domestic policy. Imagine if, in 2022, Ukraine had received everything to liberate Crimea, when the chances of this were very high," Hopko told the Kyiv Independent.

"If there had been no delays on F-16s, no delays on ATACMS in the amount that was needed. It is obvious that now we could have heard about Ukraine as a success story."

Trump attacked Biden on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021, claiming that Putin was allegedly "encouraged" to invade Ukraine by the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul.

Hopko believes that although it is too early to talk about the results of the U.S. presidential election, Ukraine should work with Americans across the aisle to ensure that the level of support does not decrease.

"The U.S. must now realize that its competitors are global adversaries, they have very quickly mechanized the weakness of democracies and are preparing to form a new agenda."

"Therefore, the Ukraine question — how to end the war, not to force Ukraine to make concessions — will show whether the U.S. is a leader who is able to restore the world order that has been destroyed, or not."

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