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The West’s Patience Is Running Shorter Than Ukraine’s War

Ukraine Image
Thought Leader: Niall Ferguson
September 24, 2023
Source: Bloomberg
Written by: Niall Ferguson

Nobody would deny that Volodymyr Zelenskiy gives a good speech. The Ukrainian president delivered another at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. “The goal of the present war against Ukraine,” he declared, “is to turn our land, our people, our lives, our resources, into a weapon against you, against the international rules-based order.” And: “Evil cannot be trusted.”

By explicitly likening Russian President Vladimir Putin to Hitler and citing the kidnapping and Russification of Ukrainian children as evidence of genocide, Zelensky did not hold back. In this he was, as usual, channeling the sentiments of his fellow Ukrainians. According to recent polls, only 5% to 10% of Ukrainians would accept a peace that involved territorial cessions to Russia. Around 43% define victory as full territorial integrity, returning to the borders of 1991. But many others regard even this as insufficient. They want Russia not only to return stolen land but also to pay reparations and hand over its leaders to be tried for war crimes.

Yet there was a striking contrast between this uncompromising defiance and the realities I encountered when I visited Ukraine earlier this month. The song Powers of Victory (Sili Peremohi), by Ukrainian musicians Evgeny Gudz and Serhiy Zhadan, summed up the mood. It begins, “When I think I cannot go on anymore, I suddenly know that we will win. / When I am half-way, the powers of victory wake up.”

The euphoria that was detectable when I visited Kyiv a year ago, just as the Ukrainians forced a major Russian retreat from Kharkiv, has largely faded, replaced by defiant exhaustion. Soldiers back from the front line are weary, and they do not mind admitting it. More was expected of this summer’s counteroffensive than they have been able to achieve.

The principal problem is that relatively raw troops, without air superiority, have been advancing against well-fortified Russian positions. The time the West took agonizing about which weapons to send Ukraine was used by the Russians to dig in and lay mines. Some Ukrainian commentators regard the supply of military hardware to Kyiv as — by design — enough for their side not to lose, but not enough for them to win. Example: the belated US decision to send Ukraine a limited number of long-range ATACMS missiles, just as the Ukrainian offensive is drawing to a close.

Despite Ukraine’s lack of meaningful progress, there has been much to admire about the Ukrainian way of war this summer. As one Ukrainian general told the conference I was attending, “Not a single unit goes to the battlefield without a UAV [i.e. drone] of its own.” Each exploding drone can destroy an estimated $1 million of enemy military equipment. Ukraine has become an experimental laboratory for the war of the future.

However, no amount of technology can entirely compensate for the lack of experience of the troops themselves. The chief of staff of Ukrainian forces on the eastern front told us that in recent days it was the Ukrainians who were on the defensive against Russian attacks on Bakhmut. Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense similarly noted that the Russians are seeking to take back some of the territory they lost last fall.

The Russians retain a considerable advantage in artillery, firing eight times more shells than Ukraine the week before my visit. But Moscow has also reacted faster than many expected to the new possibilities of drone warfare, with Iran’s help. In the words of another general, “The Russians have adapted. Before they had no drones. Now they are copying us.”

Ukrainian drone strikes against targets inside Russia are having meaningful effects on Moscow’s war industries. Yet drone strikes are no substitute for bigger gains in the south. It now seems less and less likely that the Ukrainians will succeed in dividing the Russian “land bridge” to Crimea with a breakthrough to the Black Sea or the Sea of Azov. The next phase of the war may be a Russian air offensive against Ukraine. Lviv, a city in the west of Ukraine which I passed through on the train to Kyiv, was hit last week.

Ukraine’s Western allies are watching all this with disquiet. In the words of Victoria Nuland, US acting deputy secretary of state, “We haven’t seen defenses like the Russians’ in a hundred years” — a pardonable exaggeration. “This is a long fight,” she told a mostly Ukrainian audience on Sept. 9.

General Christian Freuding, director of the joint planning and command staff of the German Defense Ministry echoed her words. “No one expects the war to be over within six months,” he said. The German government is planning with a “time horizon of 2032.” The German definition of victory, he said, is to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine to its 1991 borders. That is also the position of the Ukrainian government. The hard question is how this can be achieved.

Bob Seely, a British Conservative MP who has recently visited the front line, reported that the Ukrainians have been suffering heavy casualties. “For every 75 meters that are retaken,” he estimated, “a Ukrainian soldier dies.” A great deal of the killing is being done by 120 mm mortar shells. Seely also noted the increasing effectiveness of the Russians’ ZALA Lancet drones.

Wars of attrition do not favor the smaller combatant. It is hard to see how many more offensives Ukraine is capable of mounting between now and 2032 — or indeed between now and this time next year.

True, Ukraine’s resilience continues to amaze. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the past year is how well the economy has held up under the strain of war and occupation, even allowing for the fact that around 70% of the Ukrainian budget is covered by international assistance. Inflation has been kept under control, falling from 27% in December to 11% last month. GDP will grow slightly next year by 1%-2%. Ukraine’s economic outlook is not bad.

Furthermore, the war has made possible a crackdown on corruption that had seemed unachievable prior to last year. For example, the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, whom many saw as Zelensky’s key backer when he was elected in 2019, is now behind bars awaiting trial for money laundering. The replacement of popular Oleksii Reznikov as defense minister by Rustem Umerov happened not because Reznikov himself was corrupt, but because he presided over one too many scams by subordinates. Everyone in Kyiv knows that stories of corruption are toxic for the Ukrainian cause, as each one is seized upon by conservative media in the US.

Ukraine’s more serious economic challenge is that it lacks the resources for reconstruction. Influential Americans argue for the confiscation of currently frozen Russian assets so that they may be used for this purpose, but there is a considerable European opposition to this idea. Meanwhile, some asset managers talk a big game about investing in Ukraine. Thus far, however, not a dollar has arrived, according to Ukraine’s former finance minister Natalie Jaresko. If no money is forthcoming until there is peace, what happens if no peace is forthcoming?

International support for Ukraine is certain to become more controversial in the year ahead. It is worth noting that in many ways it is less than meets the eye. In all, 39 countries have given or pledged some form of support totaling €250 billion, of which 16 countries plus the European Union contribute the vast majority. Those 39 countries represent 59% of global GDP, but only 11% of the world’s population.

Many countries in the so-called Global South have qualms about supporting Ukraine, which explains the recent G-20 communique’s weak language on the subject. Those nations don’t buy the analogy of Russia’s land grab with European colonialism. They have reasons for not wanting to alienate Russia and its backer China. They hear the echoes of the Cold War and remember the arguments against being on the US side in what was then called the Third World. They resent that less attention is paid to wars in Africa (Ethiopia, Sudan). And they see the effects of the war on African food supplies as a compelling argument for a peace based on Ukrainian concessions.

That means Ukraine is now mainly supported by the US and other Anglosphere countries (mainly the UK), and increasingly by the EU and its member states. In February, according to the indispensable Ukraine Support Tracker, the English-speaking world was in the lead, accounting for half of all bilateral commitments to Ukraine. Now, the EU provides 53% of the total, compared with 37% in February. On a country-by-country basis, it is true, the US provides 82% more support than the next-largest country, Germany. However, if one includes the cost of accommodating Ukrainian refugees and scales total assistance relative to GDP, the countries doing the most for Ukraine are Poland, the Baltic States and the Czech Republic.

Europe Steps Up for Ukraine

The US and English-speaking allies dominated bilateral aid for the first year of the war but the EU has been more generous since

Source: Ukraine Support Tracker

The US has made bilateral commitments to Ukraine totaling $76.8 billion. Like anything involving the word “billion” that sounds like a lot of money. But it amounts to just 0.33% of U.S. GDP. If one considers only military aid to Ukraine, the US spent 15 times as much as a share of GDP on the Korean War, five times as much on the Vietnam War, five times as much on the Gulf War, and four times as much on the Iraq War.

Another way of putting this war into perspective is to compare the amount the EU is spending in support for Ukraine with its spending on other recent disasters. It spent 10 times as much on the EU pandemic recovery fund (the clumsily named NextGenerationEU) and five times as much on the Eurozone bailouts between 2010 and 2012. Since the war began, Germany, Italy and the UK have all spent seven times as much on energy subsidies for their own citizens as on aid for Ukraine.

In short, it is true in a narrow sense that, for Western taxpayers, the war in Ukraine is a remarkably cost-effective way to degrade Russia’s military capabilities without risking a single life. Is it nevertheless realistic to expect Western support to increase or even hold steady in the next 12 months, never mind the next nine years?

Most media discussion of this question focuses on the ebbing enthusiasm among Americans — especially Republicans — for funding Ukraine’s war effort. A recent CBS poll showed a decline in GOP voters’ support for sending weapons to Ukraine, from 49% in February to 39% now. Republican support even for sending aid and supplies has fallen from 57% to 50%. This explains the grumbling in Congress about the latest aid package from President Joe Biden’s administration.

Yet European attitudes may matter more and somehow receive less attention. There have been two major Eurobarometer surveys of EU citizens’ attitudes since the Russian invasion, one in April 2022 and one in August 2023. On the whole, Europeans remain supportive of Ukraine, but there too enthusiasm has diminished. The share of people who “totally agree” with welcoming people fleeing the war is down by 19 percentage points. The share who totally agree with financing the purchase and supply of military equipment to Ukraine is down by 17 points. The share who totally agree with supporting Ukraine financially and economically is down 16 points. And the shares who totally agree with imposing economic sanctions against Russia and financing the purchase and supply of military equipment to Ukraine are also both down by nine points.

Slipping Support for Kyiv

Fewer Europeans now say they “fully approve” or “totally agree” with various efforts to aid Ukraine

Source: Eurobarometer

The EU will decide to open accession negotiations with Ukraine within the next 12 months. The European Commission is supposed to issue its recommendation on whether to greenlight the accession negotiations in October. The Ukrainians are hoping for progress by the time of the December meeting of EU heads of state. That seems optimistic.

One obstacle to the decision to open negotiations, which has to be taken unanimously, is Hungary. Ukraine is trying to address this by changing a Ukrainian law on minorities that Budapest dislikes.

Another obstacle is Slovakia, where populist and far-right parties with varying degrees of sympathy for the Kremlin may end up joining the government after the election on Sept. 30. Smer, the party of former prime minister Robert Fico, has highlighted the cost of the war to ordinary Slovakians. Two other parties — Republika and the Slovak National Party — make similar noises. In a survey conducted in March by Globsec, 34% of Slovak respondents blamed the West for provoking Russia. A Slovak expat in London explained this to me. To her father, she said, the Ukrainians were just Russians — “exactly the people who invaded us in 1968,” when Czechoslovakia’s political “spring” was crushed by Soviet tanks.

And then there is Poland, which also has elections coming up within the next month. In vintage Ruritanian fashion, Poland is simultaneously the most hawkish of all EU member states when it comes to supporting the war against Russia and the least economically receptive to Ukrainian exports. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared in a television interview that his government was “no longer transferring weapons to Ukraine, because we are now arming Poland with more modern weapons.”

The background to this announcement is the refusal of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia to comply with the European Commission’s insistence on Ukraine’s right to sell its grain throughout the EU. Threatening to escalate his country’s trade war with the country at actual war with Russia, Morawiecki explained: “Ukrainian authorities do not understand the degree to which Poland’s farming industry has been destabilized” — by which he meant the degree to which his party needs the votes of Polish farmers. Welcome back to Mitteleuropa, where it’s always been about wheat and probably always will be.

In principle, we should all want Ukraine to win this war and regain all the territory seized by Russia since 2014. In practice, that outcome will not be attainable in the absence of a collapse of either the Russian government or the Russian army’s morale, neither of which seems imminent. Rather than risk a protracted war with the added danger of waning Western support, Ukraine needs to lock in what it has already achieved. It has exposed the limits of Russian military power. It has established credible claims to EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership. It has transformed its international image from a den of corruption to a land of heroes.

More than you might think can be achieved while you await the return of enemy-occupied territories. Think only of South Korea’s extraordinary economic and political progress over 70 years, even though the armistice of 1953 has never become a fully fledged peace and there remains a highly dangerous border zone between it and a hostile neighbor. Fact: In 1991, per capita GDP was slightly higher in Ukraine than in South Korea. Today, South Koreans are four times richer.

Wartime in Kyiv has its surreal aspects to which people are now more accustomed than they were a year ago. There are signposts to shelters and curfews to be observed. While young men fight and die in the trenches of Bakhmut, the lucky few sip the old Soviet dessert wine that was produced there in the days when the town was known as Artemovsk, in honor of a Bolshevik leader Fyodor Sergeyev, whose nom de guerre was Artem. Intellectuals debate whether young Ukrainians should even read the Russian literature which for so long dominated education here.

“Decolonization” is now in vogue — so much so that street names and other public places are being renamed. In Kyiv, the metro station Ploshcha Lva Tolstoho (Leo Tolstoy Square) is now known as Ploshcha Ukrainskykh Heroiv (Square of Ukrainian Heroes). An earlier proposal had been to name the station after the Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus, who died while on hunger strike in the Soviet labor camp Perm-36 in 1985, where he was serving a 10-year sentence for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”

One of Stus’s poems begins: “You’re still alive. You’re at the very bottom / of dimming ashes, and you’ve finished burning.” Ukraine is still very much alive. Alas, it has not finished burning.

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