Ukraine fatigue builds, but Western support for Kyiv unlikely to falter soon

Ukraine fatigue builds, but Western support for Kyiv unlikely to falter soon
The rising cost of the war in Ukraine is feeding a growing fatigue amongst some of Ukraine's supporters and the US has told Kyiv it should reconsider its hard line of no peace talks with Putin. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Peterborough November 8, 2022

“Ukraine fatigue” amongst Kyiv’s Western allies is building as the war drags on fuelling both a cost of living crisis and an energy crisis, but Western aid to the embattled country is still far from halting.

“Ukraine fatigue is a real thing for some of our partners,” one US official told the Washington Post.

The US also admitted that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy risks increasing Ukraine fatigue if he continues to reject proposals by the Russian side to start peace negotiations out of hand, The Guardian reports.

The Kremlin has recently been signalling that it is willing to resume talks that last broke up without result in March, although they came tantalisingly close to a deal.

More recently Ukraine has taken a hard line on talks with Russia. Last month Zelenskiy signed a law that forbids negotiations with President Vladimir Putin, saying that Bankova (the presidential seat) will “wait for another president” to start peace negotiations.

Western tensions and fatigue

Both trans-Atlantic tensions and those within the EU have been growing as problems caused by the war in Ukraine increasingly spill over the border.

East-West diplomatic relations have almost come to a halt since the invasion began at the end of February, but back channel conversations continue after President Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons in the conflict.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed that the White House has been in contact with the Kremlin in recent weeks, saying it is in the interest of the US to stay in touch with Russia, adding that the US is "clear-eyed about who we are dealing with," the BBC reported on November 7.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Sullivan had held secret discussions with Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and senior Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov in recent months.

China has also been approached by Western powers to “use its influence” on Russia to dissuade it from using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. The US has said that if the Kremlin resorts to a nuclear strike it would have “catastrophic consequences for Russia,” but has remained vague on the details. Analysts speculate that the US would not strike back with nuclear weapons, but would use conventional weapons to hit the Russian launch site and also could devastate Russian forces in and near to Ukraine with conventional missile strikes as well as possibly committing Nato troops to the conflict in Ukraine.

In parallel, the growing cost of the war is causing some to ask questions about both the sustainability of funding the war as well the distribution of the spending by the US and the EU.

With midterm elections in the US looming, some Republican senators have raised the possibility of cutting or reducing US funding for the war as well as suggesting that the EU should carry more of the burden.

Last month US Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested that a Republican-controlled Congress would not continue to write a "blank cheque" for Ukraine. Other Republicans have argued that it is “not in US interests to allow Europe to freeload” on the US efforts to support Ukraine. Notably only Republicans voted against the last $40bn US aid package for Ukraine.

Costs and profit

There is little chance of the West abandoning Ukraine, or even significantly downscaling its support, in the short term. Public opinion remains solidly behind Kyiv, even if that support is slipping somewhat in the polls.

A recent Reuters poll found that 73% of Americans were in favour of continued support of Ukraine, but a separate Pew poll in October found that 20% of respondents said the US was providing “too much help”, up from 12% in May and 7% in March, the BBC reported.

Another poll commissioned by the Wall Street Journal at the start of this year month found that the war in Ukraine is becoming a partisan issue, with a third of Republicans (30%) now saying the US is doing too much, up from just 6% in March shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Currently the bulk of the funding for both weapon supplies and the Ukrainian budget has been provided by the US. Ukraine’s economy has been wrecked by the conflict. Banks reported this week that they have made only 14% of the profits they made in the same period a year ago and the economy has largely come to a standstill. The official forecast for this year is for a 35% contraction of the economy, but after Russia targeted and destroyed some 40% of Ukraine’s utilities, that estimate is starting to look optimistic.

Ukraine’s government estimates that it will run a $38bn deficit next year as it tries to keep the economy running, and has been running a $5bn a month deficit since the war started. Ukraine had been running out of money, but in October both the US and EU committed to budget support of $18bn each that should be enough to tide Kyiv over next year. The US has provided over $40bn worth of aid in total, with the EU providing about a quarter of that and a much smaller share of military aid.

On the face of it the US has provided far more money and materiel to Kyiv than Europe, but the economic costs are vastly different. While Putin’s war has caused a global spike in inflation via the ramping up commodity prices, the impact of that on the US and EU economies has been very different.

The US economy has seen 30-year inflation highs, but the economy is still growing and as Europe cuts itself off from imports of Russian oil, gas and raw materials, the US has stepped into the breach, providing Europe with record amounts of LNG at record high prices, and it is now the world’s biggest exporter of oil.

While estimates of how much money the US has earned in the last eight months remain vague, just the value of the Russian gas imports to Europe were worth some $70bn in the first six months of this year, according to some estimates. Following the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in September that has reduced Russian deliveries of gas to the EU to a fraction of its former levels, the US has provided the majority of the missing gas and captured a large part of Russia’s gas market share in the process.

The most painful impact of the war on Europe has been the cost-of-living-crisis in Europe that has seen the price of energy and food soar. Average inflation in Europe is now over 9% and a dozen countries are suffering from double-digit inflation. Europe has responded with multi-billion euro aid and relief packages that amount to some €750bn so far, with Germany alone committing to a €200bn aid programme to reduce the pain of the crisis.  

And as bne IntelliNews has been reporting, the energy crisis is very likely to continue until at least the end of next year, as although the EU gas storage tanks are currently full, without the Nord Stream pipelines it will be extremely difficult to refill the tanks next year.

The sky-high prices in Europe have already led to protests that broke out first in Albania in the first months of the war, but have since spread to Czechia and most recently to a large protest in Dresden in Germany.

While these protests have been largely limited to Europe’s poorest countries or to fringe political groups in the more developed countries of Europe, discontent is slowly spreading into the political main stream.

Patchwork of peace deal proposals

There have been various attempts to start peace talks, but they have a patchwork and controversial history. A deal was reportedly done in March, but rejected by Putin. Peace talks in Belarus in April also came tantalisingly close to a conclusion, but collapsed reportedly after former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson flew to Kyiv and told Zelenskiy the West would not back a ceasefire.

Almost immediately after the war broke out, peace talks began and ran to three rounds on the border with Belarus, but broke up without a breakthrough. However, progress was made as Ukraine agreed to give up its Nato ambitions and also to put the issue of Crimea’s status for future talks.

Even after the face-to-face talks in Brest in Belarus ended, the teams continued to talk via video link and kept the process alive.

In September Reuters also exclusively reported that the Ukrainian-born senior presidential aide, Dmitry Kozak, had also brokered a deal that was accepted by Kyiv. Kozak recommended that Putin accept the deal, which would make the need for a large-scale war unnecessary, but Putin rejected it as his war goals had already expanded to the taking of all Ukraine.

Most controversially of all is that Zelenskiy said the day after the Bucha massacre on the outskirts of Kyiv at the start of April that Ukraine had “no other choice” but to consider a peace deal with Russia.

Zelenskiy added that those talks would be difficult to do, even “amid signs that Russian forces may have committed atrocities against civilians [in Bucha]”, which sparked widespread condemnation and calls for war crimes investigations.

However, a few days later UK PM Johnson arrived in Kyiv and told Zelenskiy that the West would not support any peace talks, the highly respected Ukrainska Pravda reported, Ukraine’s answer to Politico.

“According Ukrainska Pravda sources close to Zelenskiy, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson, who appeared in the capital almost without warning, brought two simple messages: the first is that Putin is a war criminal, he should be pressured, not negotiated with; and the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they are not,” Ukrainska Pravda journalists Iryna Balachuk and Roman Romaniuk reported.

Three days after Johnson left for Britain, Putin went public and said talks with Ukraine "had turned into a dead end".

These reports have been hotly contested by Ukraine’s supporters, who say Zelenskiy could never had sold a peace deal to Ukrainian voters, who overwhelmingly support continuing the struggle against Ukraine regardless of the cost.

Moreover, the Ukrainska Pravda journalists have since walked back their comments, saying that it was not clear that Johnson had scuppered a deal. However, US foreign policy advisor Fiona Hill added credence to the original report in an article she wrote for Foreign Affairs saying that a deal was indeed agreed, and suggested the deal was only dropped after Johnson’s visit to Kyiv.

“Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement,” wrote Fiona Hill and Angela Stent in Foreign Affairs. “Russia would withdraw to its position on February 23, when it controlled part of the Donbas region and all of Crimea, and in exchange, Ukraine would promise not to seek Nato membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.”

In this context the latest calls by the US for Zelenskiy to soften his hard line on no talks with Putin seems to be yet another flip-flop on trying to end the war using diplomatic means and an acknowledgement that fatigue with the conflict amongst the Western coalition is growing. However, almost no respectable observer of the war believes that a peace deal is close and the vast majority expect the war to continue all winter, or longer.