In the West, support for Ukraine is waning - Hindustan Times
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In the West, support for Ukraine is waning

Dec 09, 2023 10:12 PM IST

For now, Putin is forced to play a long game, where he believes he can outlast the West. That confidence is in shorter supply in the US and even inside Ukraine

When Russia invaded in February 2022, the courage, determination, and skill of Ukrainian fighters quickly captured the imaginations of Europe and the United States. Once Russian forces were forced to abandon plans to win a decisive victory, Western leaders moved to help Kyiv. From the beginning, US and European officials worked hard to avoid an expansion of the war to bring NATO into direct conflict with Russia, but Western military, financial, and humanitarian assistance began to flow in increasingly impressive volumes.

FILE - An armored personnel carrier burns and damaged Russian light utility vehicles stand abandoned after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 27, 2022. Vladimir Putin on Friday Dec. 8, 2023 moved to prolong his repressive and unyielding grip on Russia for another six years, announcing his candidacy in the 2024 presidential election that he is all but certain to win. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko, File)(AP) PREMIUM
FILE - An armored personnel carrier burns and damaged Russian light utility vehicles stand abandoned after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 27, 2022. Vladimir Putin on Friday Dec. 8, 2023 moved to prolong his repressive and unyielding grip on Russia for another six years, announcing his candidacy in the 2024 presidential election that he is all but certain to win. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko, File)(AP)

But 21 months of war have now made clear that Ukraine can’t post a quick victory either. Russian forces still occupy about 18% of Ukraine’s territory, and though threats to other parts of the country have been limited to missile and drone attacks, Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive has failed to change the war. In occupied Ukraine and Moscow, Russians have dug in for a war of attrition that Putin believes his forces are better equipped than Ukraine to endure.

This reality has raised new questions in America and Europe about just how long they can afford to help. Though Western leaders can see that Putin has little current incentive to bargain with Zelensky, they’ve begun to push privately for an opening of talks. In the US, a growing number of conservative Republicans have adopted the isolationist views of Donald Trump, their party’s likely 2024 presidential candidate, that Ukraine is taking advantage of gullible Biden administration officials and beleaguered American taxpayers. In addition, many Republican lawmakers see Ukraine aid as a legislative bargaining chip they can use to force Democrats to make concessions on other issues. And given Trump’s well-known scepticism of the value of US alliances in general and of NATO in particular, continued military and financial aid for Ukraine will be a flashpoint in next year’s US elections.

President Biden understands that US allies, especially in Europe, fear Washington will again become an unreliable security and trade partner. He has made Ukraine a cornerstone of his foreign policy and offered repeated promises that the US will back Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” but Europeans can see that Republican lawmakers will use their narrow lower house majority to portray Biden’s Ukraine support as a costly failure and that Trump will pose a serious election challenge. Washington provides the overwhelming majority of military support for Ukraine. Europeans could fill some of the gaps created by US politics, but they face opposition from some quarters within their own countries to doing more to bolster Kyiv, and the military capacity to replace the US role as Ukraine’s “arsenal of democracy” doesn’t exist.

The Biden administration and Ukraine supporters of both parties in Congress have already provided Kyiv with enough support to continue the fight for several more months. Washington has even sent Ukraine about two million bullets and additional light arms seized from an Iranian ship. But Pentagon officials are warning that new supplies are drying up. This reality will force Ukraine to shift its military tactics toward greater caution in the coming months, sharply limiting the prospects of the still-ongoing counteroffensive and increasing doubt in the West that Ukraine can retake more of its territory. Indeed, it’s no longer clear that Ukraine can prevent further Russian advances through 2024, much less recover lost ground. Now the war is becoming a political football in Europe, as well. On the financial side, Germany, Europe’s largest economy and the engine of EU help for Ukraine, faces both serious fiscal challenges of its own and political divisions over budget questions within Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition, putting the EU’s multi-year funding of Ukraine at risk. Other EU governments, faced with low growth and high-interest rates, are watching closely. They will shrink from any responsibility to spend on the war that’s made greater by political and economic challenges in Germany.

Complicating matters further, at the EU level, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has again threatened to stall support for Ukraine and its proposed EU membership. And while other countries aren’t publicly backing Orban’s latest moves, there is quiet support for his demands for greater EU support for his own country from political leaders in countries like Italy, Greece, and Slovakia that want concessions on the EU’s migrant policies. None of this kills Ukraine’s eventual EU accession bid, but it slows Kyiv’s momentum at a time when anti-migrant, euro-sceptic populism is growing across the continent following recent election gains for populists in the Netherlands, Germany, Slovakia, and elsewhere.

For Ukraine, the timing of all these problems is troubling. Domestic political tensions — most notably between President Volodymyr Zelensky and military chief Valery Zaluzhny — are starting to spill into public view. Ukrainians themselves are growing more frustrated by the emerging military stalemate in their country, though a strong majority still reject territorial concessions to Russia.

For now, Putin is forced to play a long game, but one where he believes he can outlast the West. That confidence is now in much shorter supply in America, in Europe, and even inside Ukraine.

Ian Bremmer is president and founder of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World. He tweets as @ianbremmer.

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