One of the many — and one of the most consequential — miscalculations that Russian President Vladimir Putin made before his invasion of Ukraine was underestimating just how much the rest of the world would care. Perhaps he saw the halfhearted reaction to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as a sign that Europeans would go only so far to push back against the country that supplies so much of their energy. Perhaps he saw last year’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan as evidence that the U.S. was exhausted by foreign entanglements and would have little appetite for involvement in a new proxy war. Perhaps Putin thought Russia’s nuclear arsenal would dissuade NATO from lifting a finger to support Ukraine.
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But the world did care. Within hours of the Russian assault, Ukrainian flags were flying on streets throughout the West. American news outlets that had spent decades scaling back international coverage went wall-to-wall on Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy turned into the unlikeliest of Churchillian figures, using skills honed over years as a TV performer to make Ukraine’s case to the world. A steady stream of Western dignitaries made pilgrimages to Kyiv to meet with him in person.
Beyond these symbolic gestures, there were shows of tangible support. After years spent trying to limit refugees from conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, European countries opened their arms to fleeing Ukrainians at unprecedented levels. Western countries slapped harsh and continually escalating sanctions on Russia’s financial system, technology sector and (belatedly) its fossil fuel industry, even at a time of inflation and high energy prices. A seemingly limitless flood of money and weapons flowed to the Ukrainian resistance.
Today, Ukrainian leaders are the first to admit that this resistance depends on the steady flow of money and weaponry, as well as continued economic and political pressure on Russia. The Ukrainians are also aware that the task is likely to get harder in the coming months, as the conflict drags on, other crises compete for international attention and foreign governments waver in support of a cause they never imagined would last this long.
“#StandWithUkraine” has been a rallying cry for dozens of governments and hundreds of millions of people. How long, in terms of that tangible support, will the world continue to stand with Ukraine?
Looking for an exit
French President Emmanuel Macron provoked the ire of Kyiv at the beginning of June when he told a group of reporters, “We must not humiliate Russia, so that the day the fighting stops, we can build a way out through diplomatic channels.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba shot back on Twitter: “Calls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it. Because it is Russia that humiliates itself.”
In May, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger was widely criticized for suggesting in remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome.” Kissinger also said the ideal outcome would be a return to the pre-February “status quo ante” and that pushing for Ukrainian victory beyond that would involve a “new war against Russia itself.” Zelenskyy responded: “It seems that Mr. Kissinger’s calendar is not 2022, but 1938,” referring to the Munich Agreement that ceded part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany.
Oleksii Movchan, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament representing Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party, told Grid that it’s too late to strike a bargain with the Russians. “They have killed too many people,” he said. “They have destroyed too many cities. They have raped too many women. If the war stops now and the world tries to accommodate Putin, then international law will have no meaning.” Movchan argued that accommodations that allowed Russia to hold onto Ukrainian territory after 2014 emboldened Putin to push further. “There have been so many promises. It’s not about negotiations. Everyone must respect the territory of another country,” he said.
Officially, the U.S. and most other governments backing Ukraine continue to insist that Kyiv must not be pressured into concessions. But cracks in the Western front are starting to emerge, with France and Germany seemingly more eager for a faster negotiated solution, while the U.S., Britain, Poland and the Baltic states continue to argue that Ukraine must be backed to the hilt until it achieves victory.
Liana Fix, program director for international affairs at the Körber-Stiftung, a German think tank, told Grid that one reason why Ukraine’s supporters don’t always appear to be on the same page is that “victory” hasn’t been clearly or consistently defined. At the outset of the assistance effort, “there was no strategic goal agreed upon among allies. So it is not clear what the aim of arming Ukraine was in the long term or what our ultimate goal was.”
In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, Fix and co-author Michael Kimmage described two scenarios: “winning small,” meaning pushing Russian forces back to the territory they controlled before Feb. 24 — the Crimean Peninsula and parts of the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk — and “winning big,” the full expulsion of Russian forces from internationally recognized Ukrainian territory. In the early weeks of the war, “winning small” would have seemed an unbelievable triumph for Ukraine. But after Russia’s offensive against Kyiv failed and its troops were pushed back from the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, Ukraine grew more confident. Kuleba said in early May that Ukraine’s “picture of victory” had changed and that the goal was now the full “liberation” of Ukrainian territory. “Winning big” is now the official Ukrainian goal, though most foreign governments haven’t made clear that they see it that way; their typical line is that “victory” is for Ukraine to define.
Most Ukrainians have an idea of what victory would mean. Eighty-two percent of them — at least those in territories under current Ukrainian control — are unwilling to surrender any territory, even if that means the war lasts longer. Zelenskyy has at times suggested that painful concessions may eventually have to be made, but he has also described a return to the pre-February status quo as a precondition for the start of peace talks with Russia, rather than the ultimate goal.
In any case, for now the point is moot. After several weeks of steady victories, Ukrainian forces are slowly losing ground in Donetsk and Luhansk. Just “winning small” is going to require a lot more fighting and a lot more international support. “Winning big” is a long way off. The exchanges with Macron and Kissinger, and some increasingly wary commentary from outlets including the New York Times, suggest that if the Ukrainians are serious about retaking the territory they lost in 2014, they may not enjoy the same level of Western support they’ve had thus far.
For journalists covering international affairs, the level of public interest in the war in Ukraine, and the staying power of that interest, have been remarkable. Back in April, Andrew Tyndall, a blogger who monitors the U.S. networks’ nightly newscasts, wrote that “news coverage of the War in Ukraine — specifically Zelensky’s leadership of the resistance against Russia’s invasion — has overturned all normal patterns of journalistic response.” Foreign wars almost never receive this level of coverage, particularly when no American lives are at risk.
Coming up on the four-month mark, the blue and yellow flags are still up — at least in this correspondent’s Washington, D.C., neighborhood — but there are signs that public fatigue is setting in. Data from the media monitoring service Newswhip show that global public interest — as measured in social media interactions with the term “Ukraine” — first spiked after the initial invasion in February, then peaked again on March 16 at more than 11 million, and has now fallen to around 629,000. Published news articles have fallen from a post-invasion peak of almost 77,000 a day in March to a little over 10,000 this week. It’s no longer surprising to see a New York Times front page with no Ukraine story above the fold.
In fairness to the public, there’s been a lot going on, far from Ukraine. In the U.S., the war has had to compete with major stories including the Supreme Court’s leaked Roe v. Wade decision; the Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, mass shootings; and the Jan. 6 congressional hearings. Some less serious stories have dented interest as well: Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who researches the use of social media in war, said that the first time he noticed a story pushing Ukraine out of the spotlight was when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars on March 27.
The changing nature of the war has played a role as well. The early stories of Kyiv under threat, Zelenskyy in his underground bunker and huge flows of refugees are gone; now the war is largely confined to areas of eastern Ukraine where these two countries have been fighting (and which the world has been largely ignoring) for the last eight years.
Media coverage is not a trivial issue. As Brooking told Grid, “This is a dangerous moment. Western attention will diminish, and as it diminishes, it’s possible that in the future, aid may be less forthcoming. The danger is that this just becomes the backdrop the way the war in Syria was for so many years.”
Making things worse for the Ukrainians, the global economic outlook in the coming months is likely to be grim, particularly for European countries dealing with both inflation and the struggle to belatedly wean themselves off Russian gas. In theory, European publics have shown themselves willing to absorb some pain in the name of pushing back against Russian aggression. A slim majority of Germans, for instance, favor boycotting Russian fossil fuels even if it means higher energy prices. But are politicians willing to bet that their voters will still feel that way in a few months, when the weather starts to turn cold?
In the U.S., meanwhile, support for Ukraine has been a rare source of bipartisan agreement. A $40 billion aid package passed the Senate by a vote of 86 to 11 in May. But if the economy doesn’t improve and victory in Ukraine appears a distant hope, future billions may be harder to come by.
The patience of Putin
The opening days of the war saw dramatic shifts, as territory changed hands rapidly and Russia’s strategic aims seemed to change by the day. Now, territorial gains are incremental, and rather than pitched battles, the fighting has become what one Ukrainian soldier described to the New Yorker as “artillery Ping-Pong.”
In the long run, this style of fighting benefits Russia, which is fighting closer to its own supply lines and which, even after billions of dollars in Western aid to Ukraine, has the advantage in terms of equipment and firepower. As Zelenskyy put it this week, stalemate is “not an option for us.”
Movchan told Grid, “Russia’s aim is to make the war longer. In the long term, it is much more difficult for Ukraine to defeat Russia.” As a member of the Parliament’s committee on economic development, he sees the economic war as the key metric. Though sanctions are hurting Russia’s economy, the war is having a far more devastating impact on Ukraine, which the World Bank projects will see a GDP contraction of 45 percent this year. Ukraine has lost access to steel and mining regions in the east and south of the country, Russia has been deliberately targeting economic infrastructure including fuel refineries, and the Black Sea blockade has left Ukraine unable to export commodities. “They are freezing our economy as much as possible,” said Movchan, “and Russia’s big idea is to make that work as long as possible.”
Fix said policymakers and the public in Western countries should keep in mind that “even if Ukraine manages to push Russia back and accomplish what we call a small victory, it will not mean that this is over. Ukraine will have to defend itself for the next few years, maybe for the next decade, because Russia is not going to accept this.” What this means is that if Western governments are serious about “standing with Ukraine,” they need to prepare their publics for the long haul.
For his part, Putin does not seem to be in a hurry. This week, as he is wont to do, the Russian president compared himself to Peter the Great, saying that the 18th century czar “waged the Great Northern War [against Sweden] for 21 years” in order to win back territory that was rightfully Russia’s.
Putin has also been leveraging the war’s devastating impact on the global economy to his own advantage, blaming the growing global food crisis on Western sanctions against Russia. The message may be resonating: After a meeting with Putin in Sochi this week, Senegalese President Macky Sall, chair of the African Union, called on “partners” to lift sanctions, saying that Putin had expressed willingness to facilitate grain exports through the Black Sea — even as his military has bombed and blockaded Black Sea ports.
Putin may have underestimated how much the world would care about Ukraine back in February, when he launched his invasion. But as the war drags on, it’s becoming a contest of wills. His new bet may be that the international partners on whom Ukraine depends for its defense will lose their patience and resolve before Russia does.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.