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Maintaining the Fight in Ukraine: Jake Sullivan Addresses World Leaders

18 Jan 2024
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the World Economic Forum, Davos, 2024. Source: Office of the President of Ukraine /

Despite political roadblocks to Ukraine assistance in the US, the Biden administration is optimistic that it’s support will not be disrupted. With Donald Trump’s march through the primaries begun, this optimism however may change.

In a lively week for geopolitics, four actions have provided a useful pointer to the changing shape of international affairs in the United States and Europe. Perhaps the most significant was on Tuesday with the Iowa caucuses of the American primaries where in a blistering cold temperature of some -30°, Donald Trump emerged, not unexpectedly, as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, taking on Joe Biden in November’s federal election.

But just as significant were events surrounding the war in Ukraine, which shows no sign of ending. There was a hastily assembled meeting of 60 potential peacemakers, but with no Russians present no progress was made. President Vladimir Putin’s response was to intensify the bombing of civilian targets in Kiev and other centres. He has already been arraigned at the international court for war crimes which is due to deliver its verdict on a South African application in a few weeks’ time.

The Russian attack on Ukraine was one of the main subjects discussed at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, where President Volodymyr Zelensky was given a warm reception. But one of the most significant speeches came from President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan. The youngest person to take the job in 60 years, Biden has described Sullivan as having a “once in a generation intellect.” That intellect was very much on display as he addressed 350 heads of state and international leaders in Davos. “I think everyone who serves in positions of responsibility in foreign policy and national security likes to say that their time in the seat is the most complex and difficult of anytime in recent history but in our case it’s actually true.” Sullivan’s thesis was that the world is entering a new era, one in which “major powers are vastly more interdependent than at any time during the Cold War but we’re also in stiff competition about the type of world we want to build. The age is one of disruptive change.” He continued, “Some of this has been positive, as countries find new ways of harnessing technology, promoting development and deepening ties with one another, but some of this [change] has been negative, as dangerous actors test the limits of our ever-evolving international system.”

Sullivan made no bones about the fact that he sees one of the most dangerous actors as Vladimir Putin. His analysis of the cause and current state of the war in Ukraine is worth quoting in full.

Let me take you back two years ago to this day, when Putin had amassed 180,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s border, surrounding the country on three sides. He expected a quick victory; that he could send a column of tanks to Kyiv and topple the democratically elected government of Ukraine; that he could weaken NATO and restore Russia’s sphere of influence. But he underestimated the people of Ukraine. For two years, with support from a coalition of more than fifty partners led by the United States, the people of Ukraine have remained unflinching against an adversary with an economy ten times larger, a population three times bigger, and a military once ranked as the second best in the world. Two years, later Putin has not only failed in his imperialist quest to subjugate Ukraine, his invasion has strengthened Ukrainian sovereignty – the very sovereignty he sought to erase – and bolstered the very NATO resolve he sought to weaken. In fact, while he sought to diminish NATO, his action grew our ranks. Instead, brave Ukrainian soldiers have retaken more than half of the territory that Russia occupied from the start of this conflict. They repulsed Russia’s attempts at an offensive last winter and they are repulsing one this winter. They have severely degraded Russia’s Black Sea fleet, dramatically increasing Ukraine’s exports through the Black Sea. They have  imposed severe costs on the Russian military, destroying major capabilities built up over decades. And, amid all of this, Ukraine has made economic reforms, strengthened its own defence industrial base, and accelerated its integration with the West.

Of course, the fight is not over. Russia has laid dense minefields across the front lines, making it harder for Ukraine to make major territorial gains. With China’s help, Putin is mobilising Russia’s defence industrial base, putting the country’s economy on a wartime footing and Russia is seeking more weapons from both North Korea and Iran, which violates multiple UN Security Council resolutions, resolutions that Moscow itself voted to put in place. But, as President Zelensky has discussed with President Biden and Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken, and I discussed with him earlier today, the people of Ukraine are steeled for the struggle ahead. And the United States and our partners will continue to stand with them. We are expanding training for Ukrainian troops; we’re working to secure bipartisan support for the necessary resources to supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs; we’re ramping up our own defence industrial base while denying Russia access to critical inputs it needs to do the same; we’re also innovating — and this is a critical point — working with our partners and especially with the private sector to help Ukraine solve the key technological challenges of an evolving battlefield, like electronic warfare drones and de-mining. Together, we will build on our sanctions to ensure that, even as unsustainable war spending masks underlying weakness, the economic costs for Russia continue to mount. And we will keep supporting Ukraine’s diplomatic efforts to secure a just and lasting peace that protects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in line with the principles of the UN charter.

In other areas, the United States and the United Kingdom came in for criticism at the World Economic Forum for their retaliation against the Houthis in Yemen, who have mounted a series of attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, forcing a number of major shipping lines to divert their vessels plying between Europe and Asia around the Cape of Good Hope.

The Institute of Export and International Trade has forecast that this will add significantly to the cost of moving goods around the world. Asked about this, Sullivan said the damage to European and Asian economies was considerable and insisted that the White House would repeat its attacks on the Houthi rebels if they continued with their campaign.

He was supported by the Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres who told the World Economic Forum that he would be introducing major changes to the way the UN works to reflect a changing world order. The rules in place today are based on our grandfathers’ day, he said. We need a UN that works for today’s children. Further details will appear in future editions of Outlook.

Colin Chapman FAIIA is a writer, broadcaster, public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017. Colin is editor at large with Australian Outlook.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.