Kyiv Must Prepare for a Possible Change of Heart in America and Europe
When Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, Kyiv had many supporters. France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States sought the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty through sanctions on Russia and through diplomacy, but they refused direct military involvement. Only belatedly did they provide lethal military assistance—not until 2019, in Washington’s case.
By late February of 2022, however, as Russia amassed its forces on the Ukrainian border, that reluctance had mostly melted away. The brutal invasion that followed, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s charismatic leadership, generated a first round of Western military and financial aid. Ukraine’s stunning battlefield successes in September and October 2022 opened the door to even more ambitious support.
A coalition of the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries gives Ukraine a major structural advantage. Russia, by contrast, has only two countries—Iran and North Korea—openly assisting it with its war, although China has been both an important economic backstop to the Kremlin’s war effort and a provider of nonlethal military aid. Yet Western military support comes with its own risks and challenges. One is Ukraine’s extreme dependence on Western military and financial assistance. Ukraine’s army has shifted away from the aging infrastructure and antiquated doctrines that defined it during the post-Soviet era, becoming heavily reliant on Western equipment and strategic planning. Meanwhile, Russia is waging waron Ukraine’s economy, which would struggle to function without international help.
Continued Western commitment to Ukraine cannot be guaranteed. Political constituencies in Europe and the United States are questioning long-term support for Ukraine. So far, such voices remain in the minority, but they are multiplying and becoming louder. The promotion of openly pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian views remains a political rarity. Instead, skepticism tends to emerge from long-running domestic political debates. In the United States, the war in Ukraine has become the latest flash point in the fight over how much Americans should care about (and spend on) supporting overseas partners and allies. In Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic and high inflation in the wake of the war have exerted economic pressure. Optimism about Ukraine’s success has begun to waver, leading to uneasiness about a major, open-ended war on European soil.
Meanwhile, developments on the frontlines—especially the relatively slow pace and modest gains of the counteroffensive Ukraine launched earlier this summer—have emboldened skeptics of Western support for Kyiv. Even if the counteroffensive picks up steam, it will not end the war anytime soon. Ukraine’s advocates do not have a clear, agreed-on theory of victory, which presents a political liability. Outside Ukraine, stories other than the war now dominate the news. The longer the conflict continues, the more the David and Goliath struggle of its early days will fade into the background, fueling a perception of futility and bolstering calls to find at least a cosmetic solution.
The main risk for Ukraine is less an abrupt political shift in the West than the slow unraveling of a carefully woven web of foreign assistance. If a sudden shift does occur, however, it will start in the United States, where the basic direction of U.S. foreign policy will be on the ballot in November 2024. Given the peril even a gradual loss of support would pose, not to mention a sudden break, the Ukrainian government should diversify its outreach across the political spectrum, adapting its appeals for help to the prospect of a drawn-out war. Meanwhile, political leaders in the United States and Europe should do what they can to entrench financial and military assistance to Ukraine in long-term budgetary cycles, making the aid more difficult for future officials to unwind.
In Europe, the United States is a source of anxiety, the possible weak link in the transatlantic chain. Ironically, European countries foster the same anxiety in Washington. Undiminished devotion to Ukraine characterizes the governments of Finland, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the Baltic states. Fears that a far-right government would reverse Italy’s course on Ukraine have proved unfounded. Instead, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has reaffirmed the West’s course. Given how unpopular Putin’s war is in France, even the main French opposition figure, the far-right populist Marine Le Pen—who has historically been supportive of Putin and even approved of the annexation of Crimea in 2014—has stuck with her earlier denunciation of the full-scale invasion. She does, however, oppose sanctions and heavy weapons deliveries to Ukraine. Hungary remains an outlier, an EU and NATO member that is clearly unenthusiastic about Ukraine’s cause. In exchange for not breaking a Brussels consensus that favors sanctioning Russia, Hungary has extracted many concessions from the EU. So far, that has been enough to keep Prime Minister Viktor Orban on board.
Staunch European support seems unlikely to buckle soon. According to a June survey by Eurobarometer, 64 percent of EU residents support financing the purchase and supply of military equipment to Ukraine, ranging from 30 percent in Bulgaria to 93 percent in Sweden. No European party that advocates an openly pro-Russian agenda has been able to build a sustainable electoral coalition. Indeed, many European publics have become more supportive of the EU and NATO since the war began.
Nevertheless, a kind of fatigue is taking its toll on Europe. The best example of this can be found in Germany, which has survived an energy bottleneck caused by the war and accepted a million Ukrainian refugees while gradually increasing its assistance to Ukraine. As with the pandemic, it is the long arc of the crisis that engenders frustration: high energy prices, a recession, concerns about deindustrialization and a dysfunctional governing coalition have brought about a malaise, which has benefited the far-right party Alternative for Germany. Polling now places the AfD as Germany’s second-strongest party. It wants to withdraw Germany from NATO and halt support for Ukraine, but the party’s popularity does not stem from its pro-Russian views. The AfD exploits general discontent to make its critique of Germany’s Atlanticist foreign policy seem more mainstream.
To Europeans, the longer the war continues, the more it could seem intractable and costly, more a vehicle for U.S. power than a core European interest. Since support for the war is the status quo position in Europe, entrepreneurial politicians could focus on the home front and blame elites in capital cities and Brussels for caring more about Ukraine than about their own populations. For example, a popular left-wing German member of parliament, Sahra Wagenknecht, recently compared support for Ukraine to a bottomless pit, while the federal budget is being cut in all other areas. Such views could easily become more common in Europe, and their proponents would not need to furnish a viable alternative policy; they need not even speak the truth. It would not take a particularly skilled demagogue to persuade those Europeans enduring economic pressures that an easy end to the war is available and that ending it would deliver them from their woes,
The main risk for Ukraine is the slow unraveling of a carefully woven web of foreign assistance.
The wildcard in the war is the United States. In recent polls, President Joe Bidenis either behind former President Donald Trump or even with him. Trump’s return would likely be a calamity for Ukraine. As president, Trump treated Ukraine as an appendage of his reelection campaign and attempted to strongarm Zelensky into damaging the reputation of Biden, Trump’s main rival at the time. According to The New York Times, several times in 2018 Trump privately proposed withdrawing the United States from NATO in the presence of senior administration officials. He never followed through on the idea. But to judge from his rhetoric on the campaign trail, he seems determined to go even further in breaking with established norms and traditions if he returns to the White House. And in recent months, Trump has suggested that he could end the war in Ukraine in 24 hours. Such campaign bluster suggests that Trump would prefer a negotiated settlement to the conflict (most likely on Russian terms) to the steady continuation of aid and assistance to Ukraine.
Trump may not become the Republican nominee. It is striking, however, that among the other candidates, the two with the highest poll numbers, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, are the most dismissive of Ukraine. The Reaganite wing of the Republican Party—which supports a robust defense of allied democracies and includes figures such as former Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky—remains well represented on Capitol Hill and in Washington think tanks. But among the Republican primary electorate, that vision is falling flat. The GOP base sees China as a far greater threat than Russia, and many Republicans see a tradeoff between supporting Ukraine and addressing domestic problems. According to a poll released by Gallup in June, 50 percent of Republicans believe that Washington is overdoing its support for Ukraine, up from 43 percent at the beginning of the war. Forty-nine percent of Republicans prefer to end the conflict quickly, even if doing so would allow Russia to keep captured territory.
“We’re going out of our way to use U.S. military resources to defend an invasion of someone else’s border when we’re doing absolutely nothing to stop the cartel-aided invasion across our own southern border right here at home,” Ramaswamy wrote last month, repeating a refrain that has become commonplace in conservative U.S. media. That argument, which may be facile and xenophobic, has a strong intuitive appeal for many Republicans and conservatives. It likely resonates with many independents and even some Democrats and progressives.
The curtailment of Western support for Ukraine would not end the war. No Western country is actively fighting in Ukraine, and despite the pivotal role of Western arms and money, it has been Ukraine’s war from the outset. It is Ukrainians who have demonstrated extraordinary valor and made extraordinary sacrifices. With or without Western partnership, Ukraine would face the same predicament: an adversary that does not accept the existence of the Ukrainian nation or the legitimacy of Ukrainian culture or Ukrainian language, and that has given itself license to attack civilians—with horrific consequences. Ukraine must contend with this adversary however it can. Until there are new leaders in the Kremlin, Ukraine has no choice but to resist Russia by force.
Without Western backing, Ukraine would face two dilemmas. One would be the challenge of fighting the war if Western materiel became either more expensive, less forthcoming, or both. Ukrainian soldiers have devoted considerable time to training on Western equipment. Ukrainian strategists have benefited enormously from the targeting help and the intelligence sharing they receive from the United States and from other countries. Internet access on the battlefield often goes through Starlink, through technology that the U.S.-based tech entrepreneur Elon Musk provided free of charge for a while (apparently with restrictions) and that, more recently, the Pentagon has decided to pay for. If Europe or the United States (or both) were to cut off Ukraine, it would amount to an incalculable loss of military prowess.
The other dilemma would extend beyond Ukraine. Western support for Ukraine and Russian self-perception are deeply intertwined. Putin’s invasion was not just a wager that Ukraine would fall and that Russia could then control or partition the country. It was a wager about the West and in particular about the United States—which, months before the invasion, had finally cut its losses in Afghanistan after a long, difficult war. Putin was betting against the strategic acumen and patience of the United States—and that of NATO, by extension. Were the United States and fellow NATO members to lose patience in Ukraine, the Kremlin might well declare the war a strategic triumph even if Russia remained mired in conflict in Ukraine, and it might be seen globally as a triumph for Moscow.
Should support for Ukraine fade in Europe but not in the United States, Russia would pursue a divide-and-conquer approach. It might propose a faux negotiated settlement, a pause in the fighting, or poison-pill diplomacy of the kind that Russia practiced in 2014 and 2015, when it gave the impression of being open to compromise but was in fact seeking to dominate Ukraine. The idea would be to drive a wedge between some European governments and Washington and between western Europe and eastern Europe. A Europe at odds with the United States and a Europe at odds with itself would be an excellent playing field for Russian efforts (through manipulation and espionage) to normalize the absorption of Ukrainian territory into Russia. Should U.S. support and leadership hold, however, Ukraine will have a strong foundation. It would be impossible for western Europe to reach out to Russia or to negotiate an agreement with Russia over Ukraine’s head were the United States to oppose this outcome.
A loss of support from the United States, and not in Europe, would have a more dramatic effect. EU members and institutions have now committed almost double the United States’ total aid for Ukraine (financial, military, and humanitarian), via multiyear packages. But U.S. military commitments match all of the EU’s combined military pledges for Ukraine. Europe cannot substitute for U.S. military assistance on such a large scale, and it would struggle to fill the leadership gap. If the United States tried to force a negotiated settlement on Ukraine, Europeans would have little capacity to resist. A myopic or rushed settlement would imperil Ukraine’s security and the security of Europe alike. In Russia’s eyes, such a settlement might demonstrate a diminishing U.S. commitment to Europe’s security writ large.
PUTIN’S SECRET WEAPON
Ukraine has little leverage over the domestic politics of its wartime partners. Although no one could make a better case for Ukraine than Zelensky has, public opinion and elections in Europe or the United States will follow a logic internal to these countries. The Ukrainian government should cultivate relationships with political figures and parties that are not strongly in Ukraine’s camp, including parties on the far left and the far right, much as the Ukrainian government has developed ties with China during the war, despite China’s proximity to Russia. In this manner, Kyiv can work against the political polarization that risks eroding support for Ukraine.
When Zelensky came to power in 2019, he was almost immediately caught up in political machinations from Washington—but survived to lead his country when it needed him most. He is skilled at not aligning himself too closely with any one political party. To political constituencies not yet convinced about supporting the war, such as left-wing parties in Germany, far-right ones in France, and surging populist parties in countries such as Slovakia, Zelensky should emphasize the enormous military and economic costs a Russian victory in Ukraine would impose on the individual countries of the West, not least from the massive wave of migrants it would produce.
In Washington and in European capitals, support for Ukraine cannot be set in stone. All foreign policy choices should be put to the test of elections, but some priorities can be safeguarded. Financial support and security guarantees for Ukraine can be included in legislation and embedded in far-sighted budgets. In the EU, for example, the European Commission has proposed allocating more than $50 billion to Ukraine’s recovery, reconstruction, and modernization for 2024–27. Brussels and EU member states should expand these multiyear pledges well into the future.
Ukraine has little leverage over the domestic politics of its wartime partners.
No single election, even the 2024 presidential election in the United States, is a life-or-death referendum on Western policy: Trump campaigned in 2016 on a rapprochement with Russia and ended up sending lethal aid to Ukraine. The separation of powers and the recurrence of elections are themselves democratic protections against worst-case scenarios. Regardless of whether the status quo holds in the West, officials must continually and imaginatively make the case for helping Ukraine.
As the conflict lingers, Ukraine will have to adapt its narrative of the war for Western publics. Instead of a quick and decisive victory, as many had hoped for when the summer counteroffensive was first launched, Kyiv will need to explain the endgame of a prolonged war, which remains the survival of Ukraine. Otherwise, a feeling of detachment could take hold, especially if the war shifts increasingly to Russian territory through drone strikes or other kinds of attacks. Even though they may be necessary for Ukrainian self-defense and morale, such attacks could become politically costly if they contribute to “both-sides-ism” in Western debates.
In 2015, after the worst of the fighting in eastern Ukraine ended after a flawed cease-fire deal, the cardinal error of the West was to lose interest. Somehow the crisis was supposed to take care of itself. From this, Putin learned what he took to be an essential truth about the fickleness of Western leaders. Going forward, Europe and the United States must keep demonstrating that Putin drew the wrong conclusion. The containment of Russia and the preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty are first-order Western interests. They should not depend on images of horrific violence, on constant media attention, or on the charisma of any one Ukrainian politician. Western indifference and impatience are Putin’s ultimate weapons in this war. Without them, Putin faces a strategic dead end.
©2023 Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.