Follow us on social

Will Ukraine's effort go bankrupt gradually...then suddenly?

Will Ukraine's effort go bankrupt gradually...then suddenly?

A warning to those who want to shut off aid completely, or even demand a 'complete victory' — be careful what you wish for.

Analysis | Europe

How might Ukraine’s war effort go bankrupt? Developments over the past few weeks recall the words of Ernest Hemingway: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Should that prove true, it will spell bad news not only for those insisting on an unconditional Ukrainian victory, but also for those pressing for a diplomatic settlement of the conflict.

The gradual part is already well underway. The U.S. Congress’s decision to pass a “clean” stopgap spending bill over the weekend to fund our government for another 45 days — bowing to pressure from some GOP members to strip Ukraine aid from the bill — is the latest sign of how quickly the political tide has begun to turn. Such a vote would have been unthinkable last December, when Ukrainian President Zelensky addressed a televised joint session of Congress to fawning media reviews, and ceremoniously presented a flag signed by the determined defenders of the besieged city of Bakhmut.

Ten months later, Bakhmut has fallen. Ukraine’s counteroffensive has sputtered. A series of opinion polls has indicated that most Americans now oppose additional aid to Kyiv. When he arrived in Washington last month, Zelensky was treated more as an interloper than as an inspiring hero. House Speaker McCarthy blocked Zelensky from addressing a joint session of Congress, claiming that there was insufficient time.

Signs of “Ukraine fatigue” are appearing in Europe, too. Amid a row over Ukrainian agricultural exports that hurt EU farmers, Polish President Duda compared Ukraine to a drowning victim submerging its would-be rescuers. Hungarian President Orban has said his country will no longer provide any support to Ukraine. Slovakia was the first country to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, but in last weekend’s parliamentary elections, its voters opted for the party of ex-prime minister Robert Fico, who had campaigned on ending aid.

Meanwhile, the far-right Alternative for Deutschland party, long opposed to breaking with Russia over the Ukraine war, has climbed to second place in German polls.

These trends raise the prospect of a vicious circle of mutual intensification. Ukraine’s stagnation on the battlefield prompts more Americans to wonder whether billions in aid are being wasted on an unwinnable war. Growing skepticism in Europe reinforces concerns in Washington that our NATO partners will not share the burden of supporting Ukraine.

In Washington, the White House’s failure to articulate an exit strategy feeds fears of yet another American “forever war,” this time a proxy battle against a nuclear power. Worries over Western support undermine Ukraine’s military morale and political resolve, leading to further erosion of its position on the battlefield.

The combination could produce a tipping point at which the gradual erosion of Western support for Ukraine spills into an abrupt reduction or collapse. What might follow?

It is unlikely that this would result, as many claim, in Russia’s conquering all Ukrainian territory, incorporating it into the Russian Federation, and turning a resuscitated Russian military toward Poland and the Baltic States. The Kremlin almost certainly recognizes that attempting to conquer and govern the bulk of Ukraine, dominated by a well-armed and anti-Russian populace, would be a self-defeating ambition.

Moreover, Russia has demonstrated neither the capability nor the desire to fight a war of choice with the NATO alliance.

Rather, Moscow would be far more likely to turn Ukraine into a failed rump state. It would aim to capture the rest of the Donbass and perhaps the Ukrainian Black Sea coast. After creating an extended no-man’s land separating Russian forces from Ukraine-controlled territory, it would then declare a unilateral cease-fire and build extensive fortifications against new attacks.

Should Kyiv sue for peace under such duress, it could threaten Zelensky’s rule. Should it refuse, it could destroy the Ukrainian state. In either case, funding and governing what remains of Ukraine would become the West’s problem, not Russia’s.

Absent an agreed settlement of the war with Russia, few donors would contribute the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary for Ukraine’s reconstruction. Prospects for democracy and the rule of law in Ukraine would diminish. Refugee flows into Europe would intensify, fueling more divisions within NATO and the EU. Washington would be racked by debate over who lost Ukraine.

In these circumstances, Putin would have few incentives to seek compromise with either Ukraine or the West, leaving the broader East-West relationship in a dangerously unstable state of confrontation, lacking the arms control and conflict-management mechanisms that helped prevent the Cold War from turning hot.

Europe would have to contend not with a new Iron Curtain, but rather with a gaping, Libya-like wound that could infect the West for years to come. Russian military cooperation with China, Iran, and North Korea would advance.

All this is of course far from inevitable. But those tempted to believe that the United States could end the war by simply ending its aid to Ukraine should think hard about these possibilities. And those insisting that the West can simply double down on delivering aid to Ukraine should recognize that present trends bode ill for the Biden administration’s “as long as it takes” strategy, either for winning the war outright or for turning Ukraine into a thriving fortress state, capable of holding off the Russians for many years to come.

Avoiding such sobering possibilities will require compromise. The White House will have to compromise with domestic opponents of aid by making clear — at least behind closed doors — its plans for marrying military aid to a viable exit strategy. Opponents of aid will have to compromise with proponents to ensure that Ukraine does not collapse altogether, with all the attendant implications for the West and the world.

The West and Russia will each have to compromise – not necessarily over territory, but certainly over the broader architecture of European security and Ukraine’s place in it.

Compromise is seldom possible unless both sides have cards to play in negotiations. The United States should not remove cards from its hand by ending aid to Ukraine unilaterally or playing them prematurely. But unless it moves quickly to complement aid with diplomacy, it may find that the opportunity to play its cards has suddenly disappeared.

Analysis | Europe
Lindsey Graham: Israel-Saudi deal will fix Gaza

Senator Lindsey Graham speaking at the Doha Forum on Sunmdau, 12/10/23. (Vlahos)

Lindsey Graham: Israel-Saudi deal will fix Gaza


Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.

The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.

keep readingShow less
Biden needs to stop coddling Bibi
In half a century of public life, U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel. In this photo Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo

Biden needs to stop coddling Bibi

Middle East

Of all the foreign policy challenges President Joe Biden faces, most difficult is the war in Gaza. That is not because of the apparent geopolitical stakes; as Biden often says, China poses the most important long-term challenge and Russia is next. But while important, what happens between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been in the same league.

Yet because of the war in Gaza, with its linkage to overall Israeli-Palestinian relations and risks of escalation to other parts of the region, there may soon be an explosion dwarfing all other concerns facing Biden and his team.

keep readingShow less
Russia's Lavrov lays it on thick for Middle East audience

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)

Russia's Lavrov lays it on thick for Middle East audience


DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”

“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis