‘War fatigue’ may cause West to lose interest in Ukraine support
Analysts suggest a long conflict could erode the West’s resolve to help Ukraine in its battle against Russia.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grinds into its fourth month, officials in Kyiv have expressed fears the specter of “war fatigue” could erode the West’s resolve to help the country push back Moscow’s aggression.
The US and its allies have given billions of dollars in weaponry to Ukraine. Europe has taken in millions of people displaced by the war. And there has been unprecedented unity in post-World-War-II Europe in imposing sanctions on President Vladimir Putin and his country.
But as the shock of the February 24 invasion subsides, analysts say the Kremlin could exploit a dragged-out, entrenched conflict and possible waning interest among Western powers that might lead to pressuring Ukraine into a settlement.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy already has chafed at Western suggestions he should accept some sort of compromise. Ukraine, he said, would decide its own terms for peace.
“The fatigue is growing, people want some kind of outcome [that is beneficial] for themselves, and we want [another] outcome for ourselves,” he said.
An Italian peace proposal was dismissed, and French President Emmanuel Macron was met with an angry backlash after he was quoted as saying although Putin’s invasion was a “historic error”, world powers should not “humiliate Russia, so when the fighting stops we can build a way out together via diplomatic paths”.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said such talk “can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it”.
‘Wear down the West’
Even a remark by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that Ukraine should consider territorial concessions drew a retort from Zelenskyy that it was tantamount to European powers in 1938 letting Nazi Germany claim parts of Czechoslovakia to curb Adolf Hitler’s aggression.
Kyiv wants to push Russia out of the newly captured areas in eastern and southern Ukraine, as well as retaking Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and parts of the Donbas region under control of Kremlin-backed separatists for the past eight years.
Every month of the war is costing Ukraine $5bn, said Volodymyr Fesenko, political analyst with the Penta Center think tank, and that “makes Kyiv dependent on the consolidated position of the Western countries”.
Ukraine will need even more advanced weaponry to secure victory, along with Western determination to keep up the economic pain on Russia to weaken Moscow.
“It is obvious that Russia is determined to wear down the West and is now building its strategy on the assumption that Western countries will get tired and gradually begin to change their militant rhetoric to a more accommodating one,” Fesenko said.
The war still gets prominent coverage in both the United States and Europe, which have been horrified by images of the deaths of Ukrainian civilians in the biggest fighting on the continent since World War II.
The US continues to help Ukraine with President Joe Biden saying last week that Washington will provide it with advanced rocket systems and munitions that will enable it to more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield.
In a New York Times essay on May 31, Biden said: “I will not pressure the Ukrainian government – in private or public – to make any territorial concessions.”
Germany, which faced criticism from Kyiv and elsewhere for perceived hesitancy, has pledged its most modern air defence systems yet.
“There has been nothing like it, even in the Cold War when the Soviet Union appeared most threatening,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
While he does not see a significant erosion in the “emphatic support for Ukraine”, Gould-Davies said “there are hints of different tensions over what the West’s goals should be. Those have not yet been clearly defined.”
‘Declining’ unity in Europe
Europe’s domestic concerns are nudging their way into the discourse, especially as energy prices and raw materials shortages start to take an economic toll on people facing higher electricity bills, fuel costs and grocery prices.
While European leaders hailed the decision to block 90 percent of Russian oil exports by the end of the year as “a complete success”, it took four weeks of negotiations and included a concession allowing Hungary, widely seen as the Kremlin’s closest EU ally, to continue imports. Weeks more of political fine-tuning are required.
“It shows that unity in Europe is declining a bit on the Russian invasion,’’ said Matteo Villa, an analyst with the ISPI think-tank in Milan.
“There is this kind of fatigue setting in among member states on finding new ways to sanction Russia, and clearly within the European Union there are some countries that are less and less willing to go on with sanctions.’’
Wary of the economic effect of further energy sanctions, the European Commission has signaled it will not rush to propose new restrictive measures targeting Russian gas. EU legislators are also appealing for financial aid for citizens hit by heating and fuel price hikes to ensure public support for Ukraine does not wane.
Italy’s right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, who has been seen as close to Moscow, told foreign journalists this week that Italians are ready to make sacrifices, and his League supports the sanctions against Russia.
But he indicated backing is not unlimited amid signs the trade balance under sanctions has shifted in Moscow’s favour, hurting small business owners in northern Italy who are part of his base.
“Italians are very available to make personal economic sacrifices to support Ukraine’s defence and arrive at a ceasefire,’’ Salvini said.
“What I would not like is to find us back here in September, after three months, with the conflict still ongoing. If that is the case, it will be a disaster for Italy. Beyond the deaths and saving lives, which is the priority, economically, for Italy, if the war goes on it will be a disaster,” he said.