Western support for Ukraine is wearing thin

A new EU financial package for Kyiv is at risk, as are negotiations for the embattled country to join the bloc. Meanwhile, in the United States, support for Ukraine is suffering

Guerra de Rusia en Ucrania
Two Ukrainian soldiers in Avdiivka, in Ukraine’s Donetsk province, on Thursday, December 7, 2023.Getty Images (Getty Images)
María R. Sahuquillo

The West promised to sustain and support Ukraine as long as necessary. That statement has become a motto: almost every Western leader sprinkles it in their speeches. But with the full-scale invasion of Russia heading into its 700th day, that slogan is losing steam.

The economic, diplomatic and military support by the United States and the EU is showing signs of wear-and-tear. Washington is having serious problems keeping its financing promises, while the EU — where Kyiv’s possible future membership is also being debated — is entrenched in negotiations to overcome Hungary’s veto and pass a special package worth 50 billion euros ($54 billion) to keep Ukraine afloat.

Political struggles in the West and slow military production have taken their toll on support for Kyiv. The possible cracks in unity are already ammunition for the Kremlin, which has intensified its disinformation and propaganda operations about Western fatigue. Putin’s administration is grabbing on to any sign of deterioration to emphasize the political failure of the U.S. and the EU.

After the refusal of the U.S. Senate to approve $61 billion in financial support for Ukraine (some Republicans want to tie it to stricter immigration measures), fears are growing in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential elections, given that former president Donald Trump — who has a good relationship with Putin — could return to the White House.

This week is key for the future of Ukraine. President Zelensky is currently in Washington, D.C. seeking to salvage the aid package, while an EU summit is scheduled to be held in Brussels on Thursday. In Belgium, the new long-term economic aid package will be negotiated, while a decision will also be made as to whether or not talks should be opened regarding the possibility of Ukraine joining the EU.

Meanwhile, the government in Kyiv is facing its own political problems. Citizens are increasingly exhausted, and the counteroffensive has stalled, with hardly any progress being made against Russian defenses. Observing the slow supply of weapons to Kyiv from the West, Putin’s administration has intensified its military production capacity, despite the state of its economy and Western sanctions. This is according to several intelligence reports. “The [EU] has claimed that Ukraine fights for European values,” comments a senior European diplomat. “[Everyone is well aware] of the impact for Europe, in every sense, if the war is lost. [But] that sense of urgency from the first months of the invasion has evaporated,” he acknowledges.

Ukraine has become a hostage to partisan struggles in the United States, says Orysia Lutsevych, director of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. She also points to the upcoming European Parliament elections — scheduled for June 2024 — as influencing the policy on Ukraine. Kyiv is an important bargaining chip for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is currently vetoing the opening of Ukraine’s accession negotiations to the EU, as he tries to get Brussels to unfreeze funds that have been blocked due to his breaches of the rule of law. At the same time, he is upping his nationalist discourse at home, slandering the supposed impact of sanctions on Russia, while railing against military support for Kyiv.

Lutsevych believes that, this time, Orbán’s opposition — which Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and French President Emmanuel Macron are trying to deter with an intense diplomatic offensive — isn’t merely transactional. “This has a lot to do with the meeting he had with Putin in China,” the expert tells EL PAÍS by phone. She believes that Orbán is trying to crack the unity of the EU, in order to boost Russia. This strategy serves to “undermine the Ukrainians’ spirit of resistance” and fuel doubts in the West, which is suffering from its own problems and from the impact of the war.

An intelligence officer who deals with issues of disinformation and propaganda highlights that the kind of messaging pushed by Orbán has increased in recent months. “Ukraine will become a black hole, absorbing more and more resources and people,” said the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin, in a message similar to the one Orbán spreads.

Talks for Ukraine to join the EU — which a majority of member states want to start, as the European Commission has recommended — could last for years. These discussions aren’t a lifeline in the same way that economic aid and military are, but the prospect of joining the bloc represents a political and moral boost for Ukraine. This is a more concrete guarantee than that slogan that promises to maintain support for “as long as necessary.”

Risk of hyperinflation

Kyiv — at risk of hyperinflation — urgently needs Western economic support. But while Western legislators are debating over future aid to the invaded country, economic and military aid to Ukraine reached an all-time low this fall, according to an analysis by the Kiel Institute in Germany. Between August and October 2023, financial aid fell drastically, by 90% compared to the same period the previous year. Just over $2 billion were distributed to Ukraine over the fall, the lowest amount since January 2022, according to data collected by the German center. However, several polls conducted in the U.S. and the EU show that Western citizens’ support for Ukraine hasn’t plummeted. A majority still remain in favor of sending support to Kyiv.

A resident of Avdiivka, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, walks between bombed buildings on October 17, 2023.
A resident of Avdiivka, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, walks between bombed buildings on October 17, 2023. STRINGER (REUTERS)

Borja Lasheras — an international policy expert who advises the EU’s External Action Service on Ukraine — believes that the risk of collapse of fundamental elements of the Western policy in support of Kyiv can be explained by the political influence of certain extremist factions. “This is clearly the case of the United States, where there’s an influential minority that represents around 30% of the most hard-line Republican base. [These politicians] are managing to subvert a policy of support that still commands majority support…they have no qualms about the risk of giving Putin more opportunities,” Lasheras tells EL PAÍS by phone from Ukraine.

“In the case of Europe, there are nuances, because a majority of [EU] ember States are in favor of starting accession negotiations due to [Ukraine’s political importance] and as a sign of deterrence to Putin. They’re in favor of the [$54 billion] package, which provides clarity regarding financial stability to Ukraine. But there’s one state — Hungary — or another (such as Austria, which wants Bosnia to join too, something that causes hesitation among other member states) which slows down these almost unanimous initiatives, while revealing the dysfunctionality of our rules,” Lasheras laments.

Kyiv also faces other problems, such as Poland’s blockade of Ukrainian agricultural imports — an appetizer of what may be coming when the accession negotiations begin and Kyiv begins to compete with its neighbors for European subsidies. Despite this, a majority of European citizens believe that — in light of the large-scale invasion — enlargement of the bloc must be accelerated, according to a special Eurobarometer poll published last week. Of course, ahead of the European Parliament elections in June, the absorption of new members will be a major debate.

Guerra Ucrania Rusia
Ukrainian soldiers on the frontlines in Avdiivka, on Thursday, December 7, 2023. Libkos (Getty Images)

On the frontlines, where lack of ammunition has become a chronic problem (despite promises that have been made, such as that of a million rounds of EU artillery), the debate over aid to Ukraine has become a matter of life and death. “It’s the same thing that we’ve been repeating for a year: we have enough to not bleed to death, but not enough to advance,” laments the head of a brigade through encrypted messages. He’s fighting in the southeast, one of the main areas where the Ukrainian counteroffensive is taking place. The problem, he summarizes, is that everything arrives “in trickles,” when what’s really necessary is to receive long-range missiles. Added to this is the lack of soldiers — a growing problem. The war in Ukraine is a combination of 20th century battles with 21st century elements. Kyiv is trying to build its own capabilities with the support of its allies — something that, if achieved, would truly be a turning point.

Ukraine has already entered its second winter of the large-scale war, impacted by attacks on civil and energy infrastructure. And the conflict will drag on, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned this past September. A few days ago, he even ventured that bad news may be coming from the front. Several intelligence reports maintain that, without new Western support, Russia could make significant territorial advances.

The talks on Ukraine in Brussels this week are crucial, not only for the invaded country, but also for the EU. As a debate over the $54 billion aid package progresses, a search for a plan B is already beginning to guarantee Ukraine’s financial sustenance… if not through the EU, through bilateral partnerships. However, in this scenario, even if support for Kyiv were to be partially saved, a large rift would appear in the Union.

“If Ukraine receives a double refusal — [regarding] funds and accession — it will be shameful. It will be a monumental failure and will weaken the EU, which is not the geopolitical union that it claims to be,” Lutsevych warns. “Either of the two refusals will also be a sign to Putin that the political future of Ukraine is undecided, that it remains in limbo. And it will play to [the Kremlin’s] advantage in their narrative to the Global South, that autocracies can command policies and resources, while the EU is trapped within its own dysfunction.”

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