Kyiv Must Prepare for a Possible Change of Heart in America and Europe, warns “Foreign Affairs” magazine. A coalition of the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries gives Ukraine a major structural advantage. 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 war on 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.
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. 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. 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 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. 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.
The wildcard in the war is the United States.
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.
Without Western backing, Ukraine would face 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.
If Europe or the United States (or both) were to cut off Ukraine, it would amount to an incalculable loss of military prowess.
In Washington and in European capitals, support for Ukraine cannot be set in stone.