Two Years On: Can the West Maintain Support for Ukraine?

When Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022 he expected a short and swift victory. Two years on he remains embroiled in a conflict that has claimed the lives of 31,000 Ukrainians and inflicted over $150 billion worth of damage in Ukraine. The failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year has pushed them back onto the defensive, with both sides in urgent need of additional forces and resources but nonetheless unwavering in their commitment to the conflict. 

Against this backdrop, the outcome of the war now looks set to be determined more by actions off the field than on it. The future of Ukraine therefore lies as much with the actions of Ukraine’s Western allies as it does with the actions of Ukraine or Russia.

The elephant in the room then is the growing prospect of a second Trump Presidency in the United States. Inward-looking by nature, Trump has little interest in the Ukraine war, or indeed in European security in general, fed up with what he sees as Europe’s failure to contribute adequately to its own security. His priorities instead lie firmly with the domestic, not least with the Mexico border, and with the growing tensions between the US and China. Indeed, Trump claims he could end the war in Ukraine in a day. It is unclear quite how he expects to do that, but given his friendly relationship with Putin during his first term in office and his recent remarks about his unwillingness to protect NATO members from Russia, it is unlikely this would meet the demands or expectations of Ukraine, or the hopes of many European powers.

Of course, Trump has still yet to win the Republican nomination, let alone the Presidency. And some of Trump’s recent remarks will be boisterous electoral flair and are unlikely to translate into action if in office. But even with a Democrat President, US support for Ukraine is floundering. There have been months spent wrangling to get additional aid passed the Senate, only for it to face further delays in the House. And with war raging in the Middle East and growing hostility between the US and China, the US (like many others) finds its bandwidth increasingly constrained when it comes to foreign policy, leaving Ukraine to quickly fall down the priority list.

It is increasingly clear then that the burden of ongoing support for Ukraine will lie with Europe. And the European Union’s recent approval of $54 billion in financial assistance to Ukraine will go some way to helping meet Ukraine’s most immediate needs. However, there is still a long way to go. The EU has so far delivered just half the aid it has promised Ukraine, pledges of military aid are significantly below Ukraine’s needs and Europe would have to more than double its current pace and level of arms assistance to Ukraine to fully replace US arms in 2024.

And while, so far, the prospect of a more absent US has rallied Europe around increasing investment in Ukraine and in European security, this is not a given. Recent polling in twelve European countries found that more of those polled (41%) favoured Europe pushing for Ukraine to reach a peace settlement with Russia, than favoured Europe supporting Ukraine taking back the territories occupied by Russia (31%). And if the US withdraws support for Ukraine, the same poll found more support in Europe for following the US’ lead, limiting support for Ukraine and pushing for a peace settlement, than for attempting to fill the gaps in Ukrainian aid left by the United States. 

With European elections in June and many European national elections this year as well, public opinion is more important than ever, and there is a danger that Ukraine becomes a political football as electioneering enters full swing. With Hungary, Russia’s closest ally in the EU, also expected to take up the rotating EU Presidency in the Summer, maintaining support in Europe is set to become even harder at a time when it is needed most.

The reality of the divides in views on Ukraine can feel somewhat alien in the UK, where support for Ukraine has remained remarkably robust. And regardless of who wins the next election, it is clear that the UK will continue to lead from the front when it comes to support for Ukraine. Indeed, at this pivotal juncture, Ukraine has been top of the agenda in Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s recent conversations at the Munich Security Conference, the G20 and the UN. 

But the UK faces an increasingly challenging environment to advocate in. Away from our closest circle of friends, momentum is also proving increasingly hard to build. The West finds itself under growing criticism from the Global South for perceived hypocrisy in the West’s relative approaches to Ukraine and to the conflict in the Middle East. The King of Jordan, for example, has argued that international law means nothing when applied selectively, a charge also levied by UAE officials. The UK, and its allies, therefore find themselves at a particularly challenging juncture – trying to maintain interest at a time of proliferating global challenges, and where the legitimacy of their leadership, particularly on rights, values and international law are under growing scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Putin, while biding out his time before the Russian ‘election’ next month, is watching on with glee. The fractures in the Western alliance, and the West’s inability to maintain the Global South’s interest and support for Ukraine, provide an opportunity for Russia. While Russian resources are low, if Europe (and the US) fail to continue to stand with Ukraine, Russian capacity will vastly outstrip Ukraine’s. Of course, Putin faces his own challenges and we cannot assume that the Russian people will be willing to endure the human and financial cost of the war forever. But Putin will be confident that if the Western alliance falters, he can hold on long enough to seize the opportunity. The UK must do everything it can to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group