Analysis: An awkward tension lies beneath the West’s support for Ukraine
At the end of last week, the world marked the grim anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Speaking to American and European top officials, my colleagues stitched together a powerful oral history of Feb. 24, 2022 – a day that saw the start of the largest land war on the European continent since 1945, a sprawling series of battles along what’s now a 600-mile front line that has forever changed the West’s geopolitics.
“What I understood in that moment, when I was getting dressed, I thought about the rockets flying over my children, over all of our children,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told The Washington Post, referring to what he felt after being notified by an adviser of the start of Russia’s offensive. “This means that there will be a huge number of deaths. It was clear.”
Others recall worrying for Zelensky’s life and the fate of his government in Kyiv, Ukraine. “There were moments during this day, and in particular in the evening, when I was very much anxious and fearful of Ukraine surrendering very quickly,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told my colleagues.
Zelensky and his political allies – and the Ukrainian armed forces under their command – bucked the conventional wisdom at the time. They survived the initial Russian onslaught and even delivered a stunning humiliation, routing a major Russian column that sought to capture Kyiv itself. A year later, Ukraine “stands strong,” as President Biden declared in Warsaw last week. Zelensky, though, was all too prescient about the “huge number of deaths” that would follow.
Now, in the second year of the war, there’s an intensifying focus on how it will end. The line articulated by Biden and the bulk of his NATO counterparts is that Western governments will support Ukraine “as long as it takes” to drive Russian forces out of its territory. Zelensky wants the West to keep flooding Ukraine with more and more sophisticated weaponry, including fighter jets. “I don’t even want to think that next year, on 24 February, we will be in the same situation as now,” Zelensky told reporters over the weekend.
As the war grinds on, it’s playing out as a test of wills. “We should all aim for a swift conclusion of the fighting,” wrote Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission. “But, paradoxically, to bring about that outcome, we must make clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that we will stay the course, doing whatever it takes for as long as it takes, so that he sees there is no point in endlessly sending young Russians into the meat grinder that is the Ukrainian front.”
For all of the bravura on show last week, with Biden journeying to Kyiv and Warsaw, it’s still uncertain that a united West won’t blink first. The current phase of the war is being played out by attritional struggles, with the conflict bogged down and neither side in position to deliver a decisive blow. Ukraine is waging a conventional battle for territory, while Russia has adopted a more “brutish” approach, observed military historian Lawrence Freedman, including continued airstrikes on civilian areas.
“Russia seeks to create circumstances in which the Ukrainian people have had enough,” he wrote. “Ukraine seeks to make the position for the Russian military untenable.”
But in public that’s not quite the Ukrainian position. Kyiv and its Western allies still proclaim their desire for a total victory, one that will see Russia driven out of every inch of Ukrainian land, including the Crimean peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014. In private, some U.S. and European officials have already conceded that this outcome is improbable.
“In public, the talk might still be of liberating every inch of Ukrainian territory, but speak privately to those in London, Paris or Washington, and a cynical and sombre mood emerges,” wrote UnHerd’s Tom McTague. “Here the talk is less of sweeping Ukrainian advances to come and more of a conflict that is likely to descend ever further into the anarchic quagmire before it stands a chance of emerging, grasping towards some kind of settlement.”
Russia has paid a dear price for the war, with up to 200,000 killed or injured, its military severely degraded and depleted, and a sweeping regime of sanctions on the country cementing its geopolitical isolation from the West. But it’s shown the ability to hold the line, while ties elsewhere endure: China is rumored to be considering deliveries of lethal aid that could buttress Russia’s war effort; Russian bilateral trade with India grew 400 percent over the course of the past year.
Meanwhile, while Western military support to Ukraine is steady, the complexity in sourcing new equipment like battle tanks and readying Ukraine’s armed forces to use them has led to considerable delays. “Our verbal commitment is out ahead of our ability to perform on that commitment,” said Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser to President George W. Bush, to my Washington Post colleague Dan Balz. “We are six months behind on getting them the military equipment they need.”
That may impact the state of play on the ground, as new springtime battles loom. Much hangs in the balance and some analysts fear the over-exuberance of Kyiv and its backers may one day haunt them.
“Zelensky is an inspiring and effective wartime leader, but he risks overpromising, potentially tying his hands politically should he need to scale back his war aims,” wrote Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The same goes for NATO’s leaders. They too may come to regret overstating the strategic importance of a Ukrainian victory should they eventually need to explain to their electorates why they are not doing more to prevent Kyiv from falling short of vanquishing Russia and restoring full territorial sovereignty.”
“It feels like we are playing for a long war,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, to my colleagues. “I think it’s at odds with what so many people would hope for, that we’re actually trying to help Ukraine win militarily.”
For now, opinion polls show broad, if not overwhelming, U.S. and European support for backing Ukraine. In the United States, though, a growing partisan split is emerging, with a segment of Republicans increasingly opposed to doing much more to help Ukraine. That split may prove more troublesome as elections near.
“I think he’s made the moral case for why Ukraine matters,” Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told The Post, referring to Biden. “There may be a time where he needs to do more to explain to people why it’s in our strategic interest in addition to our moral interest. I don’t think that moment has arrived.”