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Waiting Out The West

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

By Peter Mumford

International Affairs Analyst

Vladimir Putin at Naval Parade, 2022 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February 2022, many observers across the world predicted that the war would be over in weeks or even days. It is a testament to Ukraine’s extraordinary courage and resilience, combined with a litany of Russian failures, that over 18 months later the outcome of the war remains uncertain. Having failed in its initial attempt to subjugate Ukraine by taking Kyiv, Russia turned to the more limited objective of capturing the four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine that it claimed to have annexed last year, but this too seems highly unlikely to succeed.

Vladimir Putin’s declaration a year ago that the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson would be part of Russia “forever” has been rendered meaningless; a significant portion of these regions remains in Ukrainian hands and the Russians have proved unable to alter this reality over the past year on the battlefield. The only significant Russian gain since has been the city of Bakhmut, captured after ten months of brutal, costly assaults largely the work of the quasi-paramilitary Wagner group rather than the regular Russian army.

With their much-trumpeted spring offensive having made minimal progress and arguably their most efficient fighting force in Wagner neutralised, Russia’s prospects on the battlefield do not look promising. Yet Putin seems undeterred by the lack of progress and unwilling to renege on his ambitions; the recent reports of a planned increase in military spending are testament to this. He is preparing his country for a protracted war that he hopes to win by gradually eroding the Western support that has become vital to Ukraine’s war effort.

This is not a new aspect of Russia’s strategy. Over the last 18 months and even before the full-scale invasion began, Putin has used veiled threats and nuclear blackmail in an attempt to deter NATO and the West from providing military support to Ukraine. Russia also hoped, mistakenly, that the effects of Western sanctions on Russian oil and gas would create an energy crisis in European countries over the winter, sapping political will for continued support for Ukraine. This did not materialise last winter but, as winter once again approaches and the war continues, Putin seems content to play the long game.

This fixation on the West is unsurprising in the context of views expressed by Putin and echoed by a range of Russian politicians, journalists and commentators. He has repeatedly portrayed the Ukrainian state as Western puppets and insisted that Russia is fighting against not Ukraine but the whole of NATO, thereby denying Ukraine agency and casting the war as a proxy conflict where the West is the true opponent. He also likely believes that, in the long term, Western resolve will eventually falter when the war becomes economically or politically costly at home.

As it becomes increasingly clear that Russia cannot achieve its desired victory on the battlefield, Putin is probably hoping that Ukraine’s Western allies will eventually pressure it into unequal peace negotiations that would allow Russia to keep the territory it has occupied and would give it time to rebuild its military capabilities in preparation for a future invasion. Although the likelihood of this scenario in the near future remains slim, signs of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ have become increasingly prominent, particularly in the USA where the upcoming 2024 election could prove pivotal to the outcome of the war.

All three frontrunners for the Republican nomination have indicated scepticism about America’s support for Ukraine and hinted that they would curtail or end US military and economic support if elected. Donald Trump, who has expressed his admiration for Putin in the past, recently refused to say who he thought should win the war and instead criticised the levels of military support provided to Ukraine. His rival Ron DeSantis remarked earlier this year that it was not one of America’s “vital national interests”, although he later retracted his description of the war as merely a “territorial dispute”. Vivek Ramaswamy, currently polling third in the Republican field, has taken a strongly anti- Ukraine position, pledging to end all assistance to Ukraine and stating that “our goal should not be for Putin to lose”.

Their views have been echoed in the media by figures such as Elon Musk, who has used his Twitter platform to mock Zelenskyy and criticise aid for Ukraine, and Tucker Carlson, an influential right-wing talk-show host whose openly pro-Russian stance has been well-documented. The danger that this rhetoric poses to continued American assistance to Ukraine is growing. Earlier this week, a spending bill passed to avoid a government shutdown notably failed to include further aid for Ukraine, leaving Joe Biden’s proposed funding package in limbo. Whether or not this is rectified could depend on which Republican is elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, with one potential candidate already declaring that he would block aid to Ukraine if chosen.

The political right may be Ukraine’s most strident detractors, but they are not alone in their criticisms. A growing number of senior foreign policy analysts and former officials have publicly expressed doubts about Ukraine’s ability to win and have proposed negotiations that would essentially amount to the appeasement of Russia and recognition of its illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory. Several of them, according to NBC News, reportedly held secret meetings with Russian officials to discuss these proposals.

The US is not the only one of Ukraine’s allies to have major elections scheduled for 2024, but the results of the others are unlikely to have anywhere near as substantial an impact on the course of the war. In the UK, for instance, the strong levels of support for Ukraine across the political spectrum make it highly unlikely that its 2024 election will lead to a change in policy towards Ukraine or Russia, regardless of the outcome. For now, dissenting views appear confined to the political extremes, articulated by groups such as the Stop the War Coalition; but there remains a risk that growing apathy and disinterest as the war continues could enable the encroachment of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in politics and society.

Those advocating for a withdrawal of support and forced ‘peace talks’ will likely point to the difficulties Ukraine has faced in its ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive to support their opinion that Ukraine has no hope of winning the war. It is undeniable that the perhaps overly ambitious expectations held by many in the West of rapid Ukrainian success have not been met, although Ukrainian forces continue to move forward and liberate territory and the counteroffensive is not yet over. An end to the war, however, is nowhere in sight.

Responding to this by reducing or withdrawing support for Ukraine would be both a moral and strategic disaster for the West. Aside from the fact that it would be viewed as a betrayal by the Ukrainians and a triumph for Russia, it would not even achieve the peace that proponents of this strategy seem to venerate. Both the Ukrainian government and a majority of citizens oppose any negotiated compromise involving territorial concessions, and it is highly likely that Ukraine would continue to fight regardless of Western support. Russia, too, has no interest even in a ceasefire; Putin remains committed to the subjugation and destruction of Ukraine in the long term, and he would likely prefer to wait until after the 2024 election before pursuing a short-term peace deal in the hope that a Republican candidate is elected president.

If those advocating peace negotiations are doing so in good faith, they should recognise that Russia will not negotiate seriously until it accepts that it cannot win militarily. Furthermore, any lasting, sustainable peace settlement is impossible without NATO membership or equivalent security guarantees for Ukraine to preclude the possibility of a repeat invasion in the future.

There are several ways to ensure that Russia’s strategy of waiting out the West is no more successful than its initial war aims. Fighting disinformation and narratives spread by pro-Russian actors is crucial. So is reminding voters in America – where public support for Ukraine is not yet split along party lines despite the efforts of some on the right – of what could be at stake in 2024. However, there are more expedient solutions at the West’s disposal.

Ukraine would likely have had much greater success in its counteroffensive if Western weapons and equipment had been delivered more quickly and in less piecemeal quantities, but this mistake is by no means irreversible. Increasing Western military, political and economic assistance to Ukraine will help ensure that the conflict does not end in a frozen stalemate that would allow Russia to retain control over territory it has illegally seized and enjoy impunity for the war crimes and atrocities it has committed. An increase in support would lend credence to the oft-repeated promises of Western leaders to stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes”. It would signal to Russia that Ukraine’s allies are prepared to maintain their commitments in the long term.

If Putin comes to believe that he cannot wait out the West, he is far more likely to seek an end to a war he cannot win. Further support for Ukraine is both a moral and geopolitical imperative. Policymakers in the West are deluding themselves if they dismiss the war as unimportant or unwinnable. It has become an existential struggle for freedom, human rights, and the prevailing international order, and a resolution will not come easily or quickly. But Ukraine’s supporters must persevere.


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