Mixed prospects in Ukraine: a wavering West and a silver lining

In their description of the frontlines in Ukraine, Western analysts often talk about a ‘stalemate’ to hide their own fatigue. This wavering of the West is not only a type of cowardice, but also fails to recognize Russia's weakness. The Kremlin doesn’t believe that it can win the war soon. Therefore, Europe and America should deliver more aid and weaponry to Ukraine, argues our commentator Mykola Riabchuk.

Cartoon op X.

By Mykola Riabchuk

International news on Ukraine looks increasingly like an obituary. Examples are headlines such as: ‘Kyiv on edge’, ‘Ukraine’s grim prospects’, ‘Ukraine Braces for Political Disaster’ and ‘Ukraine’s Nightmare Scenario Is Now Its Reality’. This is only a small portion of titles from reputable Western media.

For some analysts it was merely a way to draw public attention to the ‘perils of abandoning Ukraine’: unrepairable damage to international law, to the reputation of Western democracies and their institutions, and ultimately to European and global security. But for others, it was one more suitable opportunity to call for peace talks and ‘reasonable compromises’, proving that ‘Ukraine can't win’ and that ‘Russia’s plan B is working’ (the plan of the West’s fatigue and Ukraine’s exhaustion). In any case, the cumulative effect of these headlines is that they tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Language unveils deeper sentiments

Since the failure of Ukraine’s summer-2023 counteroffensive, two buzz-words became especially popular in describing the situation: ‘stalemate’ and ‘fatigue’. Yale professor Timothy Snyder ran angrily against both terms, arguing that they not only obscure reality, but also distort adequate policies: ‘How we speak drives how we think, and how we think drives what we do, or choose not to do’. The term 'stalemate' is a metaphor, borrowed from chess. It reflects a peculiar situation when the figures are deadlocked: they cannot move because of the rules. But the war is not a chess game. The number of actors and resources on this ‘chessboard’ can be changed. Ukraine can get more weaponry to gain a strategic advantage. And it needs to get those weapons, because so far, as another observer sarcastically remarked, ‘Ukraine is fighting a war against Russian aggression with one hand tied behind its back’.

Snyder reacts to the term ‘fatigue’ even more emotionally: ‘I have been in Ukraine three times since the war began. I have been in the capital and in the provinces. I have seen almost no Americans, fatigued or otherwise, in the country. And that is for the simple reason that we are not in Ukraine. How can we be fatigued by a war we are not fighting? When we are not even present? This makes no sense. It causes no fatigue to give money to the right cause, which is all that we are doing. It feels good to help other people help themselves in a good cause’.

Lacking will and skill

Human parsimony might be a problem, but it certainly is not the only and probably also not the main one. When we count the percentages of GDP that the Western states spend on Ukraine (including all forms of aid) the figures are miniscule: from 0.9 % endorsed by Germany to 0.5% by France and Italy, 0.4% by the UK and 0.3% by the US and Canada. That’s a far cry from what the small Nordic states are giving to Ukraine: 1.8% of GDP by Lithuania and Estonia, and 1.6% by Norway, Denmark and Latvia. Anyhow, in gross (nominal) terms these modest figures turn into millions and billions of dollars that the citizens of any state would be happy to appropriate domestically for various social programs rather than give them away for some uncertain and sometimes unclear purpose abroad.

In other words, we encounter a problem of communication: the ability (will and skill) of the governments, experts, public figures and media workers to explain comprehensively what the whole story is about and how many Ukrainian lives can be spared with each percentile of the sacrificed GDP.

Explosion at the Crimea bridge.

Ratrace of news items

And here we come back to the ‘fatigue’ problem that is largely induced by the media and exacerbates many other problems. Sorbonne professor Francoise Thom expresses a rather grim view of her fellow citizens, who have not the ‘slightest notion of what is at stake in the conflict’. ‘Subjected to the daily bombardment of the news, they have acquired a flickering perception of the world, where one sensational news item drives out another, where the same irrational affects pour out on successive objects, one event eclipsing and erasing the previous one, while only the torrent of emotions remains permanent’, she wrote. ‘The passions aroused by the Middle East conflict have diverted attention from the Russian-Ukrainian war, and obscured in our minds what is at stake: the freedom of European nations’.

Thom is convinced that too many people ‘stop trying to understand the world around us, and abandon any attempt to see clearly, in favor of a permanent state of emotional over-excitement’. This makes them an easy prey of Russia’s psychological warfare against the ‘collective West’ that uses two levers: intimidation (nuclear blackmail) and demoralization. The aim is ‘not only to frighten Western democracies into denying Ukraine victory, but above all to provide arguments to justify their cowardice and abandonment of Ukraine. And here the Kremlin showed itself to be utterly inventive. The number one objective was to destroy the idea of the moral superiority of the Ukrainian cause. Everything was used to this end: the corruption of the Kyiv elites, discord at the top, Zelensky’s infatuation with the limelight, etc. Pseudo-humanitarian rhetoric was called to the rescue: let’s put an end to the needless suffering of the Ukrainians, who in any case will return to the Russian fold, from which they are not far away anyway, etc. And let us not forget the old tried-and-tested argument: Western hostility only strengthens ties between Beijing and Moscow. So, from the outset, the Kremlin has knowingly banked on Western weakness and eagerly provided it with the whole arsenal of sophisms to justify future climb downs’.

Wavering West

Ukraine has apparently entered a difficult time as her resistance capacity is severely challenged in both the European Union and the United States. In the EU, a 50-billion aid package was blocked by the Moscow-friendly Hungarian government (supported, so far verbally, by the similar populist government of Slovakia).

In the US, the partisan bickering over a broad set of issues effectively blocked the envisioned 60-billion military aid for Ukraine. In both cases, the situation is not hopeless. The EU officials look for a way to legally overcome obstruction of two petit blackmailers within their ranks, while in the US the negotiations about a possible compromise are pending between the republicans and democrats. Neither camp, ironically, denies the need to support Ukraine, but none of them want to give any policy advantage to the rivals in the election year.

This forced the White House recently (the 17th of January) to summon the top congressional leaders for a private meeting and provide them a ‘classified time frame for when Ukraine’s key military resources will be significantly depleted’. The president security advisers did not predict an outright victory for Russia but emphasized, reportedly, that ‘Ukraine’s position would grow more difficult over the course of the year’ and that the country ‘will run low on various capabilities in the short-term’.[6]The gravest of all these prospects is Ukraine’s looming inability to protect civilians in big cities from the barrage of Russian drones and missiles. The president’s aides, remarkably, also reminded the lawmakers that ‘the lack of aid would affect far more than Ukraine and could prompt other countries that rely on the US, including Japan and South Korea, to rethink their alliances’.

Back to old patterns

Ukrainian officials remain confident that problems with aid will be solved and assert that in any case Ukraine will fight for as long as it takes. They might, however, be more nervous than they look, as Dmytro Kuleba’s (the Minister of Foreign Affairs) recent remark indicates: ‘If we run out of weapons, we will fight with shovels’. One may wonder if this is an expression of self-confidence or rather one of despair.

Domestic developments do not predict an optimistic scenario either. Even though the Ukrainian economy grew with 5% in 2023 (after a 29% decline in 2022), and Ukrainian air-defense has substantially improved, the overall mood slowly deteriorates and old social maladies like corruption, elite infighting, and popular cynicism gradually return.

Opinion surveys show mixed results. On the one hand, Ukrainians still express confidence in an ultimate victory and support resistance ‘for as long as it takes’, rejecting any compromises and concessions to the aggressor state. Yet, on the other hand, popular trust in national institutions has notably declined. The only exception are the Ukrainian armed forces and their commander-in-chief: they can still rely on an overwhelming support of the citizens (over ninety procent).

The looming question now is whether this exceptional trust and support for resistance will be gradually eroded by resurfacing cynicism and disappointment in all other developments and institutions. Or, vice versa: will the government turn the tide and enhance popular trust and spirit by proper communication and, crucially, by more decisive measures against corruption and opportunism in their own ranks?

War-monger Medvedev

Even though the nearest prospects for the Ukrainian struggle are not very bright, there are some positive signs and optimistic omens. Ironically, one of the encouraging signals came from an unexpected source: former president and prime minister of the Russian Federation Dmitri Medvedev. The prominent Russian war-monger and Ukraine-hater, and current deputy head of the National Security Council recently tweeted that independent Ukraine will never be a legitimate state regardless of who leads the government. He argues that the very presence of an independent Ukraine on what he calls ‘historical Russian territories’ is a ‘constant reason for the resumption of hostilities’ – either ten or fifty years from now, regardless of whether Ukraine (‘that artificial state’) joins the EU or even NATO. So, he concludes, Ukrainians will be terrorized by Moscow for as long as it takes – until they recognize that Ukraine’s very existence as an independent state is ‘mortally dangerous’ for them. They will be killed and tortured until ‘they understand that life [with Russia] in a large common state, which they do not want now, is better than death. Their deaths and the deaths of their loved ones. And the sooner Ukrainians realize this, the better’.

Most commentators focused on the genocidal essence of Medvedev’s message. That content was barely new because both Medvedev and all the Kremlin elite have been expressing the same ideas for at least the last two years: Ukrainians are Russians, and they can survive if they accept this. Those who refuse, are surely Nazis and should be exterminated. However, what surprisingly passed unnoticed was Medvedev's apparent uncertainty about the current ‘special military operation’. His assumption that the war in Ukraine may last for another ten or even fifty years, and that Ukraine still may become the EU and NATO member, does not indicate a firm confidence in the immediate victory that his boss firmly asserts. One may guess only whether deep feelings of other Kremlin inhabitants about the war prospects differ much from Medvedev’s.

In any case, Ukraine has a good chance to make the Kremlin's worst feelings come true. If only Ukraine's partners properly understood this chance.