Two months into Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, I warned about “Ukraine fatigue”. In the event, western leaders and their publics surprised everyone by how resilient their support for Ukraine turned out to be — morally, financially and (although always several steps too late) militarily. But while it took much longer than I feared, Ukraine fatigue has caught up with us, writes a Financial Times observer Martin Sandbu.
Don’t be too encouraged by EU leaders’ ability to avoid the worst. To be sure, the decision to open membership talks with Ukraine (and Moldova, and — in time — Bosnia and Herzegovina) is welcome. And in spite of Hungary’s opposition, the other 26 EU members will undoubtedly find a way to secure their promised €50bn four-year funding programme for Ukraine when they reconvene in the new year.
But the fact that these decisions were in the balance, and were seen by many as equally likely to go the other way, shows how brittle the support for Ukraine could be.
They come after a month in which the public discourse on Ukraine changed markedly for the worse. The focus shifted from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s heroism to his exhaustion, and from Ukrainian unity to political divisions. Much has recently been made of mistrust between the president and his top general, Valeriy Zaluzhny, and of the stalled counteroffensive. The west’s failure to push forward with financial and military support has rightly garnered a lot of attention.
But none of this is new. Zelenskyy’s prickliness about Zaluzhny’s popularity, and the disquiet about his team’s centralising tendencies, have long been well known. It is hardly a shock that he is exhausted. As for the disappointing counteroffensive, military experts had warned beforehand that it would be unprecedented for such an operation to succeed in the absence of air superiority. And the US and EU’s difficulties in pushing their funding promises over the line have been going on for months.
What is striking, however, was the speed with which these well-known facts came to be interpreted as a picture of a faltering Ukraine and a wavering west. The lesson is, in other words, how suddenly a narrative dam can break even without big changes on the ground. In a matter of weeks, Vladimir Putin’s gamble that the west cannot stay the course looked better than it ever had — and began to be acknowledged as such.
Aware of this, western leaders are working laudably hard to counter the changing narrative. But to succeed they must tend to their neglect of the public understanding of the conflict at home. It is not enough to say “Ukraine’s struggle is our struggle” and promise to stand by Kyiv “for as long as it takes”, if your actions reveal your discomfort with the implications of those vows.
We are contending with public opinion growing weary of a conflict that is dragging on because of our own delays in providing Ukraine with the most powerful weapons.
Financially, we have allowed a debate to take hold over the imperative to find budgetary savings while attending to a cost of living crisis — which naturally makes it to harder to tell the citizenry that funding for Kyiv must be an absolute top priority. Tellingly, the one western country to set aside significant long-term funding for Ukraine — Norway has committed €7.5bn over five years — was enriched rather than impoverished by Putin’s weaponisation of energy sales.
Leaders face the need to expend more political capital today because they evaded hard political choices earlier. This is as true for weapons as for financial support. And it is true for where the two come together: Europe’s failure to make good on the promise of 1mn artillery shells for Ukraine flows from its limited physical production capacity — a capacity that could have been greater if money had been committed sooner.
Bluntly, western leaders let their publics feel that this would be easier than it is. They never dared to ask for sacrifice in the form of a “war economy lite”. But to do so remains crucial in a Europe whose security will still depend on helping Ukraine to victory — especially if Donald Trump returns as US president. Resilience and strategic autonomy demand a minimum ability to accept some privations, because Ukraine’s defeat would make everything worse.
After the decision to open Ukraine’s EU membership talks was announced in Brussels, Zelenskyy said: “History is made by those who don’t get tired of fighting for freedom.” That is not quite right. Everyone gets tired. History is made by those who press on nonetheless.