Kyiv, EU fear that US support for Ukraine will wane if counteroffensive is unsuccessful

Washington has shown no signs of fatigue in its commitment but at the same time it is aware that aid has to be seen to be making an impact with presidential elections on the horizon

Ukraine war
A Ukrainian soldier during military training in the Donetsk region on Thursday.BERNADETT SZABO (REUTERS)
María R. Sahuquillo

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The Ukraine war is entering a phase that is expected to be decisive. The eyes of the world are on the imminent counteroffensive from Kyiv, which has been stockpiling NATO-supplied armaments, and Ukraine’s present and future of Ukraine will depend on what gains the armed forces are able to make in the big push. Both the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy and its western allies are fully aware of this, as is the Kremlin. With the stakes so high, the European Union is concerned that if the counteroffensive fails the support of the United States — which is mired in a period of high tension in domestic politics and with the 2024 presidential elections on the horizon — will begin to wane.

Kyiv’s allies continue to rummage through their depleted arsenals while keeping an eye on Washington, which continues to refuse to cross the red line of supplying fighter jets to Ukraine. The longed-for coalition to provide the Ukrainian Air Force with modern warplanes has not yet got off the ground, despite increasing pressure from the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and other European nations. This week, following a visit by Zelenskiy, London and Paris went a step further by setting up training programs for Ukrainian pilots, which for the moment will be purely theoretical and will not involve access to the aircraft, thus eliminating one of Washington’s arguments for not delivering F-16s: the lack of readiness of the Ukrainian Air Force to operate them. As things stand, the U.S. has not authorized flight training on F-16s, which is required for Ukrainian pilots to do so even if the aircraft belong to the air forces of European countries.

The U.K., which recently sent precision-guided, long-range missiles to Ukraine, sees the coalition to deliver fighters more as a sign to Russia than Kyiv. The case of the fighters is similar to the formation of the tank coalition, which Germany and the United States were both reluctant to join but ended up leading. “What’s really important here is to signal to Russia that we as nations have no philosophical principle objection to supplying Ukraine capabilities that it needs depending on what is going on, on the battlefield,” British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said Wednesday.

Washington, however, is more in favor of providing other types of weapons that can be deployed immediately, without the need for training to be provided, in view of the counteroffensive. Several diplomatic sources believe that if Ukrainian troops maintain their momentum, Washington could agree to issue re-export licenses for the F-16s it sold to countries such as the Netherlands, which has already stated that, together with Denmark and Belgium, it could provide a hundred fighters to Ukraine.

Washington and Brussels have adopted different levels of support for Kyiv, both committing to supporting the war effort for as long as necessary. However, while the United States has led the way in military support, providing $36.9 billion since the beginning of the Russian invasion, according to State Department figures, the European Union has established a long-term framework for the relationship. Brussels has declared Ukraine a candidate country to join the EU and is gradually assimilating Kyiv into a de facto union through treaties and agreements, which include the disbursement of military aid.

The EU has provided Ukraine with total support of €72 billion ($77.7 billion), according to European Council figures. Of this, slightly more than half has been in the form of financial assistance, with €15.3 billion earmarked for military, diplomatic and defense aid. The issue of accession, although there is no timeframe in place, is an important part of the equation, according to a senior European diplomat, while contributing to the security of its eastern neighbor is also a way of reinforcing the EU’s own security, said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at the Chatham House think tank in London. These points were raised a few weeks ago at a meeting between European and U.S. diplomats, at which Washington made it clear that support for Kyiv is not a blank check and that both the counteroffensive and the EU maintaining an upward path in contributing to the backstop are crucial to preserving unity and keeping U.S. support flowing.

Trump says U.S. has done enough for Ukraine

Zelenskiy’s government is also concerned about the possibility of losing support and has tried to temper expectations about the gains the counteroffensive might achieve. The Joe Biden administration has shown no signs of fatigue in its support, but at the same time it is aware that the aid sent to Kyiv has to be seen to be making an impact. After 15 months of war, the arsenals of Kyiv’s allies are increasingly depleted and financing to keep Ukraine’s war effort afloat is similarly becoming less flexible. “Overdependence on the United States is a risk,” notes Lutsevych. “Alleviating it means increasing defense spending and investing in production to replenish the materiel sent to Ukraine.” A poll run by Ipsos and the University of Maryland in April indicated that 46% of U.S. citizens believed that Washington should maintain its support for Ukraine for only one or two years, while 38% said the White House should remain committed to Kyiv’s cause for as a long as is necessary.

Polls also show that within the first group there is a large majority of Republican voters, or more precisely of supporters of Donald Trump supporters, says veteran researcher Bruce Stokes of the German Marshall Fund, which specializes in transatlantic relations. A few weeks ago, Trump said during an interview with CNN that the United States had already done too much for Ukraine while accusing the EU of barely lifting a finger, providing a clue as to what may happen in the coming months as the former president attempts to secure the Republican nomination to run for the Oval Office again. “The U.S. doesn’t like to see itself associated with the losing side. At the moment, Ukraine has not found itself at that point but there are fears that if the counteroffensive is not as successful, U.S. public support will suffer,” adds Stokes.

The war in Ukraine will be a point of contention during the presidential election campaign, Stokes notes. Even if the fighting ends later this year or there is some kind of ceasefire agreement, the multi-billion-dollar reconstruction of the country — as well as who will pay for it — will be another issue on the agenda.

There is some consensus among the military analysts and intelligence sources consulted that the war is unlikely to end this year. And if the Ukrainian counteroffensive stalls, time may run in favor of Russia and of an increasingly assertive China, which is benefiting from the Kremlin’s dependence, notes a Western diplomat. Neither would such a scenario favor the West, as it may shake the support even of Kyiv’s staunchest allies. That could translate not only into dwindling military aid reaching the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but also into pressure for Zelenskiy’s government to negotiate with Moscow over a diplomatic end to the war.

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