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How Washington has juggled messaging on Ukraine and Israel

President Joe Biden shifted his public remarks away from the war in Ukraine and toward the Israel-Hamas war in the final months of 2023 — giving less airtime to Kyiv at a critical moment in the war, according to a POLITICO analysis of speeches and statements.

Mentions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing conflict there picked up again at the start of 2024 amid an intensifying debate about American military assistance.

While it makes sense that Biden paid different attention to each conflict as they unfolded, the findings offer new insight into how his administration has chosen to balance its approach to multiple conflicts abroad that continue to animate voters in a major election year and test the White House’s foreign policy abilities.

The analysis looked at mentions of each war by both Biden and congressional leaders over the two years since the Ukraine war broke out. The data interpreted the number of mentions rather than the content of the public statements.

The data show from January to Oct. 7, 2023, the day of the Hamas attacks on Israel, Biden was mentioning Ukraine about 32 times per month. After the attack, through January 2024, it dropped to fewer than 22 times per month. It picked back up in February 2024, as Congress reignited the debate about including a supplemental aid package for both Kyiv and Israel.

“It’s an interesting finding,” said Steven David, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, who noted that Ukraine mentions initially went down as Israel “sucked up all the foreign policy oxygen.”

But the White House later began mentioning Israel and Ukraine aid together, which David said made sense because “the appeal for aid attracted, at times, different constituencies, which meant you got more traction by bundling them together.”

The White House insisted Biden’s attention has not wavered on Ukraine.

“Ukraine has been a top priority for President Biden and the White House since October — as it has been throughout the past two years — and that will continue,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement responding to the analysis.

The data also reflect how closely the conflicts became intertwined within Biden’s public remarks: Before the Israel-Hamas war started, almost none of Biden’s speeches or press releases about Ukraine also brought up Israel. But in October, more than half of the time he talked about Ukraine, he also mentioned Israel. In each month since, that figure remained above 40 percent.

Still, there was a clear drop in the number of times Biden mentioned Ukraine after Oct. 7. From October through December, the president mentioned Israel about twice as much each month as he did Ukraine. In February, as the Russian war hit the two-mark, mentions of Ukraine surpassed those of Israel.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office became concerned when Biden’s attention turned to Israel, according to a person close to the talks in Kyiv, granted anonymity to speak candidly about internal discussions. Ukrainian officials then began to sound the alarm about Western aid slowing down, ammunition shortages and other issues that hinged on support from the U.S. and allies.

But while Biden’s public comments about Ukraine have picked back up since, Kyiv still wants more action.

“I feel that the Biden administration and pro-Ukraine Republicans try to mention the need to support Ukraine at any opportunity,” the person said. “The problem is that it doesn’t work, and words don’t protect against shells and bullets.”

Biden showed a bolder approach in his recent State of the Union speech, leading the address with a rallying cry for Ukraine aid but keeping the topic separate from a much later discussion of the conditions in Gaza and reiterating his support for Israel.

The White House said Biden’s public addresses showed continuing support for Ukraine throughout.

Biden has shown his support through public remarks, “including in a national address from the Oval Office and his State of the Union address, and in regular briefings and gaggles from the White House briefing room which aren’t included in the study,” Watson said.

The analysis focused on Biden, and not other members of his administration or press team who conduct such briefings and gaggles with reporters, because what the president says matters: Foreign leaders are closely watching the U.S. leader, from whom even a brief remark can signal direction on how to handle a war allies are supporting. The president’s public statements influence media coverage of any given topic — and a lack of attention from Washington’s top official has the potential to push the urgency of funding for Ukraine, for example, to the wayside.

Zelenskyy has visited the White House twice since the war broke out. The Biden administration also recently announced a new $300 million package of military aid to Ukraine that includes additional Army Tactical Missile Systems, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to Kyiv last week to reassure the country’s leadership that U.S. support is still strong.

The data for Congress, collected through press releases for the top four party leaders in each chamber, shows similar trends of lawmakers devoting more words to Israel right after Oct. 7. But it also shows a notable uptick in mentions of Ukraine among certain lawmakers after the Hamas attack as well as stark differences between political parties.

None of the lawmakers gave responses to requests for comment by POLITICO.

Looking at the Senate’s top Republicans, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Thune mentioned Ukraine an average of eight times per month from July to September. From October to December, that increased to an average of 15 times per month in statements. Both have been outspoken supporters of Kyiv, trying to rally skeptics within their party.

Top Democratic senators’ mentions of Ukraine also went up: Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Majority Whip Dick Durbin brought up the country eight times per month on average from July to September, compared to 22 times per month from October to December.

The pair of top Democrats were also more vocal about Israel at the end of 2023, mentioning Israel an average of 26 times from October to December, compared to Republicans’ 19 times.

But across both parties, senators were less outspoken about Israel when Hamas attacked than they were about Ukraine when Russia invaded.

Schumer and Durbin mentioned Ukraine 55 times in releases in the month following Russia’s 2022 invasion, while McConnell and Thune mentioned Ukraine 31 times in that same month. Immediately after Oct. 7, the Democrats mentioned Israel 30 times, while Republicans mentioned Israel 24 times within a month. 

Those are notable trends given the divisions among Republicans about whether to continue sending Ukraine support, compared with their relative unity over Israel. Democrats, on the other hand, largely agree on backing Ukraine but are split over Israel.

The content of public statements also matters, said Bradley Bowman, an expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who spent years as a national security and defense adviser in the Senate. But the trends shown in the analysis paint a broader picture of how specific lawmakers and parties respond to foreign conflicts.

“It really does say something about the priorities of the individual senator, so the quantity is not irrelevant,” Bowman said. “It does provide quantitative evidence to some degree about what is a priority for the individual member.”

Between the Democratic senators on Israel, there was some daylight between Schumer and Durbin that could’ve contributed to fewer mentions, Bowman noted. The majority leader, who’s Jewish, spoke more often about antisemitism and the need to support Israel. The majority whip, however, became the first senator to call for a cease-fire in November.

But Schumer’s tone has shifted since the beginning of the war. In early March, he delivered a scathing speech on the Senate floor calling for new elections in Israel and railing against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The remarks, from the highest-ranking Jewish member of Congress, represented a shift in the Democratic Party’s tight-knit relationship with Israel.

In the House, where Biden’s package for Israel and Ukraine remains stuck amid conservative opposition, the data also shows increased discussion of Ukraine after Oct. 7, as well as differences in party responses. The analysis for the House started at the beginning of 2023, when leadership changed in the chamber, with Republicans taking control after the 2022 midterm elections.

In the three months before October, top House Democrats — Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Minority Whip Katherine Clark — brought up Ukraine 11 times. Between October and December, that rose to 21. The top two House Republicans spoke about Ukraine six times in the three months before, and between October and December that climbed to 23 times.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders were initially more outspoken about Israel after the Hamas attack. Jeffries and Clark brought up Israel 16 times in October press releases compared with the 10 combined mentions from Majority Leader Steve Scalise and the House speaker — whether it was Mike Johnson or Kevin McCarthy, during their respective tenures.

That dynamic changed in November. Those same House Republicans mentioned Israel 25 times during that month, while Democrats did so 11 times. Republicans continued to be more outspoken than Democrats in releases on Israel until February, when both parties’ leaders mentioned Israel an equal number of times.

But despite Biden’s efforts and advocacy from high-ranking Republicans who back Kyiv, the White House still hasn’t figured out how to persuade the GOP-led House to push through Ukraine funding while appeasing Democrats.

“He thought it would be clever to try and save Ukraine aid by tying it to Israel,” said Matt Duss, who previously served as foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “Turns out it wasn’t.”

Methodology

POLITICO counted the number of transcripts and press releases from The White House, as well as press releases from congressional leaders, that mentioned Ukraine, Israel or associated terms, such as Zelenskyy, Netanyahu, Putin or Hamas. For transcripts, only times when President Biden mentioned one of the keywords were counted; other speakers in the transcript at the same event were excluded. All data is as of the end of February 2024.

House leaders included Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark, Steve Scalise, as well as Mike Johnson and Kevin McCarthy when they served in their posts as speaker. Senate leaders included Sens. Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Mitch McConnell and John Thune.

Press releases and transcripts were obtained from House, Senate and White House web pages. For McCarthy, press releases that have been deleted from the House speaker’s website were obtained from ProPublica’s Congress API and the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

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