Meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council at the level of Heads of State and Government, 12 July 2023 Meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council at the level of Heads of State and Government, 12 July 2023. Source: NATO - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND

War weariness is increasingly visible in the West, reports Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

As Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine approaches its second anniversary, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has been touring Western capitals to drum up support for the beleaguered country.

Zelensky looks and sounds worried. Last April 2022, faced with a Russian proposal to end the war in return for neutrality and territorial concessions, the Ukrainian leadership decided to fight on. Zelensky and others may be asking themselves if they made the right choice.

Their decision amounted to a bet on the West. In a recent interview, Davyd Arakhamia, the head of the Ukrainian delegation discussing terms with Russia in spring 2022, underscored this when he explained that Ukraine resisted signing Russia’s deal on neutrality because joining Nato was in the country’s constitution.

Moreover, he implied that the Ukrainian leadership sensed an opportunity to punish Russia by relying on Nato. The Russians seemed ill-prepared for their invasion, and, Arakhamia maintains, the Ukrainians believed that any peace deal would prove temporary, as the Russians would come back ‘even more prepared’.

Fortifying them in their resolve, the Western powers advised against a peace deal. The Ukrainian leadership appear to have felt emboldened by one visit in particular: ‘Boris Johnson came to Kyiv and said that we would not sign anything with them at all, and let’s just fight’. The Ukrainian leadership did just that.

Proxy war

Its pursuit of war was in tune with its militant desire to integrate Ukraine in Euro-Atlantic structures that had often run against the majority will of the population in the past. In December 2007, just before the Nato summit in Bucharest in April 2008 that ‘agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO’, only a fifth of Ukrainians wanted that membership.

Popular opinion only began to shift, slowly, after the Maidan events and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, but even then, Ukraine was split by region, with more people in the east and south preferring neutrality to Nato membership. The country was divided on the eve of the full Russian invasion of February 2022.

That division clearly did not bother the post-2014 establishment. From their perspective, the war provided a definitive opportunity to cement Ukraine’s position as an outpost of the West. Indeed, days before receiving Johnson in Ukraine, Zelensky announced he wanted Ukraine to become a ‘big Israel’, calling for speedy and massive Western aid.

Initially, that reliance on the West appeared to pay off as military, financial and logistical support flowed into the country and a spectacular counter-offensive ejected the Russian invaders from the Kharkiv region in the north and the strategically important town of Kherson in the south in the late autumn of 2022, after a difficult summer on the back foot.

The amounts of money and weaponry that Ukraine received are unparalleled by any twentieth century national-liberation movement against colonial oppression. The West broadly matched Russian spending on the war and, at the time of writing, has supplied 241.5 billion Euros in aid to Ukraine. The background costs of shoring up Western economies have also been significant.

None of this, of course, was motivated by Western commitment to the people of Ukraine. Rather, it was primarily an expression of the US ruling class’s desire to punish its inferior geopolitical competitor on terrain critical to its claim to great power status. And the US and the West were prepared to spend to allow Ukraine to fight to the last drop of Ukrainian blood.

Turning off the tap

Nevertheless, the war in 2023 has not favoured Kyiv or its Western backers. Though the war is undoubtedly costly for Russia, in economic, military and human terms, Moscow’s forces withstood the much-hyped, Western-backed Ukrainian counter-offensive during the summer and autumn of 2023.

That in turn has made it difficult to believe that Ukrainian hopes of re-capturing Crimea by military means – likely against the wish of most of the local population – were realistic without a major increase in Western spending on the war. The West indeed appeared unwilling to keep up that high a level of support indefinitely.

There has been a slow, but perceptible, reduction of aid to Ukraine since the summer. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s Ukraine Support Tracker, ‘Newly committed aid has reached a new low between August to October 2023—an almost 90 percent drop compared to the same period in 2022.’

The explanation in part must lie in the fact that Ukraine’s Western backers were becoming sceptical that the prolonged expenditure would prove worthwhile. Without a clear military victory on the horizon, and with rising food and energy insecurities, Western states fear the domestic and international fallout from the war would only get worse.

Persistent economic problems in Western countries, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, contributed to decreasing enthusiasm for continuing high levels of support. In the US, a recent poll suggested that more Americans now think that the US is spending too much on the war than think that the US is spending the right amount or not enough.

Even more worryingly for Zelensky, the elites in Washington are divided. The Republican right, in control of Congress, is playing a false, populist anti-war card, tying continuing aid to Ukraine to the tightening of unrelated border controls on immigration in the southern US.

Similarly, parties sceptical about continuing the war effort at current levels have come out on top in recent elections in several EU countries, including Slovakia and the Netherlands. Hours after the potentially headline-grabbing decision of the EU to open membership negotiations with Ukraine on 14 December, Hungarian president Victor Orban vetoed fifty billion Euros in EU aid to Ukraine.

Multiple fronts

Undoubtedly, a major factor affecting the West’s approach to Ukraine is the crisis in the Middle East. Following the events of 7 October, Israel’s ferocious war on the Palestinian people, centred on Gaza, put a strain on the US and its allies.

The US and EU both quickly signalled their full support for Israel, though it became clear that they worried about the economic, military and political costs of the potential fallout. The US immediately sent two aircraft carriers to shield Israel from potential regional retaliation and to support American troops stationed across the Middle East.

At one point in October, the US president Joe Biden was forced to deny that the US could not support Ukraine and Israel at the same time, responding: ‘We’re the United States of America for God’s sake, the most powerful nation in the history — not in the world, in the history of the world.’

But the Ukrainian leadership began to ask itself whether it would be forgotten. Ukraine’s chief of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, told Ukrainska Pravda that he thought that a prolonged war in the Middle East would cause ‘certain problems’.

In desperate attempts to show loyalty to the US, Ukrainian officials have repeatedly bent over backwards to support US positions on the Middle East conflict. Zelensky was quick to publicly back Israel after 7 October, likening Hamas to Russia. Ukraine abstained on the UN General Assembly vote calling for ‘humanitarian pause’ on 27 October.

Days later, it was alone in abstaining in a UN General Assembly vote calling for an end to the US embargo of Cuba, which only the US and Israel opposed. These actions on the world stage hardly make Ukraine look like anything else than a US puppet – not what ordinary Ukrainians have fought and died for in their tens and hundreds of thousands.

Moreover, the West’s double standards in how it approaches the Russo-Ukrainian war and the Israel-Palestine conflict has not escaped commentators worldwide. While they were prepared to condemn very real Russian war crimes, their readiness to support Israel as it conducted comparable acts of barbarism generated anger. One Western diplomat at the G7 admitted that ‘we have definitely lost the battle in the Global South.’

Mounting casualties

This all comes as winter sets in and Russian troops creep forward across the front line once again, especially around the strategic town of Avdiivka, near Donetsk city, having already captured Bakhmut in some of the bloodiest scenes of the war earlier in the year. As terrible Russian air strikes once again pummel the Ukrainian energy infrastructure, Russian president Vladimir Putin sounds bullish.

Putin is relishing the possibility of improved terms that Moscow can gain at the negotiating table, if the Russian army is able to inflict more military defeats on Ukrainian forces, who are increasingly struggling with manpower.

Betting on the West was always a dangerous gamble for Kyiv, as the US was interested more in fighting a proxy war against Russia than defending Ukrainian lives or territory. Even if some of the more dangerous threats of the escalation of the war in Ukraine do not come to pass, including the danger of nuclear war, the decision to continue the war in April 2022 now seems terrible from the Ukrainian perspective.

That is not to say that Russia’s war of aggression is somehow justified or that blame should not lie with Moscow. But a strategy of relying on the West, which was using Ukraine cynically for its own imperial ends, does raise questions for the Ukrainian leadership.

The mounting loss of life since April 2022 must make these questions very much existential. If the US Army Chief of Staff is to be believed, each side in the conflict had suffered around 100,000 casualties, dead and wounded, by November last year. By August this year, with the front having hardly shifted, that number had more than doubled, totalling 500,000 casualties.

According to official US estimates, there were more dead and wounded on the Russian side, by a ratio of 3:2. That is contested by some, but the bigger point is that the Russian population is more than three times the size of the Ukrainian, suggesting that Russia’s ability to sustain attritional warfare gives it a big potential long-term advantage.

Moreover, it can be assumed that the number of casualties has increased even more since August, and it is possible that deaths and injuries among the Ukrainians increased as they were the side on the offensive – an offensive which has ended with no obvious territorial gains whatsoever.

Divisions

It is no wonder then that the Ukrainian elites are increasingly openly divided. Zelensky has publicly disagreed with the commander-in-chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, who publicly admitted the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive and said the war could not be won without significantly more Western aid. Ukrainian officials are also briefing against Zelensky’s perceived over-optimism.

The Ukrainian state’s supposed belonging to the ‘free world’ is now more openly questioned. It was possible for a time to ignore the banning and persecution of allegedly pro-Russian parties or figures, and harsh anti-labour legislation, that pre-dated the full Russian invasion in February 2022. But it is harder to overlook the Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko’s attack on Zelensky as an autocrat who looks ever more like Putin, following his decision to delay regular elections, or the Ukraine security service bar on former president Petro Poroshenko leaving Ukraine for Hungary, Poland or the US.

Opinion polls, difficult to conduct under wartime circumstances, suggest that most Ukrainians remain steadfast in their desire to resist the Russian invasion. But war weariness has increased and support is growing for a negotiated solution, especially in the south and east. That is unsurprising given that the increasing costs of the war are greatest in those regions. As the situation worsens, more questions about the political elite continue to emerge, but the chances of a progressive left alternative developing are small, given deep political divisions and heavy repression.

Even if it remains difficult to predict where the war is going or how it will end, it must be clear that the Ukrainian people deserve better. They deserve better from their leaders, and they deserve the solidarity of anti-war movements in Russia and the West, who remain their best allies in the struggle for a more just and peaceful world. It is surely time to redouble efforts everywhere to bring the parties to the negotiating table before casualties mount again, and simultaneously to fight to bring about a socialist alternative to capitalist war and plunder.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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