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How can support for Ukraine be maintained?

Since Russia escalated its offensive against Ukraine on 24th February 2022, military and rhetorical support for Kyiv has been strong and relatively consistent. Recently, however, it has wavered slightly:

  • Poland banned the transit of Ukrainian grain through the country in mid-September, leading to a diplomatic spat;
  • In late-September, Republican resistance for supporting Ukraine in the United States (US) Congress grew, seeing aid for Kyiv blocked; and,
  • It was confirmed on 1st October that Robert Fico won the Slovakian election, a former prime minister who pledged to end support for Ukraine if victorious.

To be sure, support for Kyiv still remains strong, something made clear by the unity on the issue at the European Political Community’s third meeting on 5th October, and the fact that some of the funding for Ukraine blocked by the US Congress was later passed. The United Kingdom (UK) also committed a further £100 million last week. But obstacles are growing. So, how can support for Ukraine be maintained? The Council on Geostrategy asked eight strategic experts in today’s Big Ask.

Horia Ciurtin, New Strategy Centre

One of the main factors in Central-Eastern-Europe (CEE) which is diverting attention away from supporting Ukraine is the impact of local election cycles on foreign policy. A common thread uniting almost all democracies in the region is their unhealthy appetite for exploiting crises abroad for expanding their own voter base by widening already existing political rifts.

Therefore, in order to ensure continued support for Ukraine, a fundamental objective is to sever the attachment between internal political turmoil and foreign policy. The CEE political class must put some distance between election rhetoric and what can and should be done for Ukraine. A multi-party consensus on supporting Ukraine would be an excellent starting point, insulating the topic from the chaotic tug-of-war which arises during every extended voting period.

With national, local, and European Union (EU) Parliament elections expected in 2023 and 2024 throughout the CEE region, it is crucial that things which are existential – such as the war against Ukraine – are not allowed to be exploited by party ‘wordmongers’ and public relations strategists. It is a recipe for foreign policy disaster, and also exposes people to other actor’s disinformation campaigns, impairing one’s own social fabric.

Amelia Hadfield, University of Surrey

In the 2022 Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, the EU named tackling ‘hybrid threats’, including coercion of its energy security, within the task of its new ‘Hybrid Toolbox’ which demands solidarity and mutual assistance across the bloc. Nowhere has energy security been more prevalent as a politicised, weaponised form of geopolitics than in the war against Ukraine. 

From the radical shift away from Russian gas and oil to the political solidarity inherent in the EU’s hybrid energy and foreign and security policy, as well as RePowerEU, the provision, pricing and transformations across Europe’s entire energy terrain have largely brought the EU and its Member States together in solidarity. 

Despite the cost, complexity, and outliers, energy solidarity in support of Ukraine is key. Pushing ahead on energy diversification ensures both the ongoing drawdown of Russian energy fosters much-needed renewable and energy efficiency initiatives. Upgrading the ‘hardware’ of energy security to guarantee diversification – from pipelines to LNG terminals and storage facilities to interconnectors – is an inherently cross-border task demanding collective support from all Europe’s states and energy companies alike. 

Europe’s energy future will be dominated by both Energy Partnerships Agreements in content, and enhanced regulatory frameworks in form. The EU must therefore retain solidarity in keeping energy front and centre in its approach to Russian sanctions. Energy solidarity in support of Ukraine should also be the DNA of its regional approach to ensuring both political and market-based cohesion across the EU as a whole, and a fundamental component of conflict and post-conflict resolution, whether that be in the short- or long-term.

Joshua Huminski, Mike Rogers Centre for Intelligence and Global Affairs

American support for Ukraine will come under political, and increasingly practical, pressure for two reasons, one domestic and one foreign. In the case of the former, intra-Republican Party turmoil, which nearly resulted in a government shutdown and precipitated the ousting of the Speaker of the House, will affect the viability of Congressional support for Kyiv. The populist and isolationist wing of the Republican Party is not numerous but is increasingly vocal and activist, drawing the centre of the party further to the right. Far-right Republicans will use the open-ended aid programme for Ukraine as a cudgel with which to beat their centrist counterparts in the primaries, and later the Democrats and Joe Biden ahead of the November 2024 general election. 

Internationally, Washington’s attention is increasingly strained. The conflict in Israel-Palestine is putting additional pressure on limited weapons stockpiles and will force the administration to balance competing policy priorities. Both will need supplemental funding which, with partisan fighting in the House, is not guaranteed; potentially bundling funding may make political disputes even more significant. 

The president will face a greater challenge in convincing the American people to continue to support Ukraine (which will last ‘as long as it takes’ in his words) at a time when other foreign and domestic challenges are rising in prominence. This is to say nothing of the risks of further instability, such as over Taiwan or elsewhere. America’s staying power is by no means certain.

Jenny Mathers, Aberystwyth University

Support for Ukraine can best be maintained by accelerating that support to bring this war to an end with a decisive defeat for Russia’s forces.

The gradual approach to providing Kyiv with weapons, especially the most advanced systems, has bought Russia’s forces much-needed time to harden their defences in occupied Ukraine and to develop their tactics. It has also given political opposition in some countries – especially the US – time to organise themselves and spread doubts about the wisdom of continuing to support Ukraine. 

The great concern in the West is Vladimir Putin’s response to losing the war, and whether that might cause him to expand its scope beyond Ukraine, or even to use nuclear weapons. But Russia gains much more from the deterrent power of such implicit threats than from their execution, which would risk a devastating response from NATO. Putin’s response to Western restraint has been greater risk-taking, while his reaction to the crossing of numerous ‘red lines’ by the West has been remarkably muted.

The Ukrainians have passed every test the West has set for them and have demonstrated that they can learn to use unfamiliar weapons systems in the field remarkably quickly and effectively. Now is the time to give them the tools which they need to finish the job.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

Helping Ukraine win is first and foremost about providing Kyiv with the military means to prevail. Free and open countries must be prepared to escalate by providing the Ukrainian Armed Forces with more training and better weapons to grind the Russians down. Ukraine is fighting a war of attrition. British and European arms production ought to be stepped up – dramatically. Ukraine is not getting enough.

But there is now another dimension to securing Russia’s defeat. Last weekend, Hamas, a terrorist organisation proscribed by His Majesty’s (HM) Government, broke loose and slaughtered over 1,300 Israelis – mostly civilians. As the world’s attention switched to the Levant, Ukraine fell off the radar – at least among the Anglophone press.

Right or wrong, countries in the ‘middle-ground’ – i.e., those neither aligned with the UK and other free and open countries or regimes such as Russia or the People’s Republic of China – often have different perspectives on Hamas’ war. As it provides assistance to Israel, HM Government ought to provide additional help for Ukraine by stepping up in the battle of narratives. Countries in the ‘middle-ground’ should not be allowed to switch their support to Russia in a snub to free and open nations over their support for Israel.

Mark Webber, University of Birmingham

High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), main battle tanks, air-launched cruise missiles, cluster bombs, and Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMs). All these weapons have arrived in Ukraine; all have had a decisive effect on the battlefield. 

Yet the delivery of all was delayed, as American and European suppliers dithered over the risk of escalation. Pouring arms into a hot war, of course, raises strategic questions, such as will these weapons make a difference? And how? 

Arms transfers also evoke ethical and political controversy;cluster bombs are banned under a 2008 convention, and Republicans in the US are increasingly questioning the billions of dollars of American military aid spent on Ukraine. Yet, having pitched up on Ukraine’s side of the war, the Western coalition centred around NATO allies has a lot to lose if it does not commit to victory. Ukraine has an overwhelming legal, ethical and political case for resisting Russian occupation. If arms to Ukraine simply prop up a frozen conflict, the huge geopolitical investment in Ukraine will come to be seen as wasted.

Richard G. Whitman, University of Kent

British support for Ukraine has been consistent – even with the vicissitudes of British politics including two changes of Prime Minister. The official opposition, the Labour Party, has supported HM Government’s position; this is of no small importance when its standing in the opinion polls suggests that it has a very strong chance of being in power after the upcoming General Election. Public support for assisting Ukraine has remained strong in the UK, as demonstrated in opinion polling

HM Government’s support for Ukraine against its Russian aggressor falls into three broad categories: diplomatic, financial and military (the latter including direct support in providing equipment, training, expert advice and intelligence). As Russia’s war against Ukraine has continued, these arrangements for supporting Ukraine have become swiftly but firmly embedded within Britain’s security and defence policies. 

The public and parliamentary intuition to strongly support Ukraine provides a solid base from which to make the case for what will need to be the ‘new normal’ in the UK’s future security posture: more money to defend against Russia. Only a commitment to significant and sustained increases in defence spending will allow the UK to continue to support Ukraine. Making the political case for supporting Ukraine is easy; sustaining this in debates on the level of public finances to spend on defence will require real grit.

Misha Zelinsky, Australian Financial Review

Democracies must think clearly about the lesson from Putin’s invasion. History will either record this as the moment democracies pushed back on authoritarian thugs. Or as the first sign of a growing darkness. Properly articulating the stakes raises Ukraine’s fight from a battle for Eastern European territory to one centred on the future of humanity. In doing so, democracies can overcome the rancour of ‘guns versus butter’ domestic politics and rally their citizens in the cause of global freedom. 

The ‘Dictators Club’ of Putin, Xi Jinping, Iran’s ayatollahs, and Kim Jong Un are working together via trade, technology, weapons and diplomatic cover. Their aim? Replacing a system of rules and order with one where might – theirs – is right. Using this framework, seemingly unrelated crises – Putin’s brutalising of Ukraine, Iran’s Middle Eastern destabilisation, and the CCP’s neighbourhood bullying and determination to destroy Taiwan’s democracy –  emerge as one bigger picture. 

But with his war no longer winnable, Putin stands at the abyss. And so does the authoritarian ecosystem.

Helping Ukrainians defeat Putinism without expending a single life at home is not charity. It is the deal of the century. But if Ukraine falls, bad actors everywhere will be freshly emboldened. By urgently escalating military aid, democracies can drive a stake through the beating heart of global evil. For the first time in decades, we have an opportunity to put the dictators on their heels. We should not miss it.

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