One year into Russia’s war against Ukraine, three optimistic propositions seem to have solidified within Western elite opinion. First, Western democracies have displayed an extraordinary degree of unity and determination to help Ukraine defeat Russia. Second, Germany and Europe’s Zeitenwende is real—there is no reverting to business-as-usual with Russia. Third, Ukraine has already chosen its future—a European, democratic one—and Russia will not be able to derail it from its path.
The danger of these three ideas is not so much that they would be mistaken. Arguably, they are more right than wrong. Yet, turning them into central elements of a new conventional wisdom carries the risk of complacency. Indeed, the more Western leaders see such claims as self-evident truths, the more likely they are to be proven wrong.
Let me explain. First of all, is the West helping Ukraine win this war? Certainly—and political leaders from both sides of the Atlantic who made their country’s equipment, munitions, and other military and non-military resources available to Ukraine deserve credit. However, Western military assistance in particular has followed a pattern that seeks to balance the imperative of helping Ukrainians to defend themselves against the perceived risks of Russian escalation. In the first days of the war, Ukrainians were supplied with Javelins, Stingers, and NLAWs; only later with light armor and Soviet-era tanks and air defense systems. There has been significant hesitation around providing them with artillery rocket systems like HIMARS or NATO-grade tanks—and now about U.S.-made fighter jets.
Whatever the merits of the gradualist approach, it is making the prospect of a decisive Ukrainian victory more distant. Combined with Ukrainians’ valor on the battlefield, this drip-drip-drip approach to arming the Ukrainians so far has seemed enough to stop further Russian advances, but it may not suffice to restore Ukraine to its legal borders—at least not in a quick enough timeframe.
The even larger risk is that such an approach to aid is politically self-defeating. The case for helping Ukraine rests on a sense of solidarity with, and admiration of, Ukrainians facing mindless Russian aggression. The better the Ukrainians perform on the battlefield, the more salient the political case for our assistance. If the conflict becomes a war of attrition along static lines in the mud of Donetsk and Luhansk, with no clear momentum behind Ukraine, the more it will start to resemble a “forever war” that the critics of U.S. and Western assistance say they want to avoid. And, unfortunately, barring a change in the mindset of the Biden administration and its Western European partners, that is where the conflict may be headed.
Second, just how much of a historical change has Russian aggression brought about in Europe’s—and particular Germany’s—approach to security? Clearly, the events of the past year have confirmed the worst fears long harbored by the Baltic states, Poland, or the Nordics—and their leaders are acting accordingly. Across Europe, the war has brought the question of energy security to the forefront, and countries including Germany have made meaningful strides to wean themselves off of Russian energy sources.
But is everyone able to walk the walk? Not quite. Again, all credit to Germany for stepping up its assistance to Ukraine, for leading on sanctions, and for announcing major new investment into its military. Yet the inaction, particularly in the latter area, notwithstanding the government’s earlier rhetoric, makes one wonder just how much of a historic turning point the invasion has been for particular countries. In fact, one wonders whether the implicit premise behind German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s February 27, 2022 speech was the expectation that Ukraine would end up being overrun by Russian forces, thus making NATO’s Eastern flank dramatically more vulnerable.
Initially, that would not have been an unreasonable assumption. Yet the fact that Ukrainians have been capable of stopping Russian advances, reversing them in many areas, and even inflicting crippling losses on the Russian military, may be seen as a signal to some in Berlin and other European capitals that Europe’s security environment has in fact not worsened as dramatically as it was looking in the last days of February 2022. If Ukrainians, with some Western aid, can keep Putin’s hordes at bay, then perhaps it is premature for Germany to rush into an extensive re-arming of itself or to make irreversible generational decisions about the country’s future energy supplies.
It may not be just a shadow of history and a fear of escalation that explain Germany’s reluctance on a number of Ukraine-related fronts. There may well be a constituency, particularly within the chancellor’s own party, that does want a return to some version of status quo ante. After all, we know for certain that such constituencies exist (and are effectively calling the shots) in both Hungary and in Austria, which have ruled out any military assistance to Ukraine.
It is plausible that such organized interests, in Germany and elsewhere, will only grow more powerful as the war drags on inconclusively—and particularly if it settles in a frozen equilibrium that deprives Ukrainians of a full control over their territory. Even if the return of Nordstream-like projects remains out of the question, just how determined will European governments be to sustain the existing sanctions, that are driving up energy bills for households and firms alike?
Third, there is no question that Ukrainians have made up their minds about the kind of nation that they want to be: democratic, free, and firmly embedded in Western alliances and integrations projects—most notably the EU. It is also true that the war has accelerated efforts within the EU to make membership a realistic option for Ukraine.
But the existing blueprint for EU enlargement remains woefully inadequate to accommodate a poor country of Ukraine’s size. Following the technocratic playbook means that, even under the best of conditions, Ukraine will spend many years (if not a decade or two) in a limbo of accession negotiations, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t.” Needless to say, those conditions can easily change for the worse. Prior to the conflict, Western European capitals displayed little enthusiasm about future EU enlargements, be it in the Balkans or elsewhere. Ukraine itself has fought the inertia over questions such as visa-free travel to the EU for years, in the wake of its Revolution of Dignity of 2014.
If the EU continues its current course once the war ends, Ukraine risks becoming disillusioned about its European prospects. Bringing it to the EU would significantly alter the power balance between the “old” and “new” Europe, and would serve as a break on the more ambitious projects of fiscal and political integration. Whatever the enthusiasm of individual EU Commission officials for Ukraine might be, can one rely on a succession of French governments not to slow down the process essentially to a halt in the next years?
There is another side to this, also playing against Ukraine’s European future: Ukraine’s economic woes. The war’s impact on Ukraine’s economy has been devastating. While the support from international financial institutions and Western donors has been important in maintaining financial stability and limiting the need for seigniorage—even though inflation reached 26.6 percent last year—there is a real possibility that Ukraine will not be able to honor its debt obligations. Piling more debt on top of the already existing will not help, as the economist Eoin Drea notes in a recent Politico column. EU countries must be ready to help Ukraine with non-repayable grants, rather than loan financing.
But such a degree of generosity—or rather of enlightened self-interest—may not be forthcoming. If the EU enters a recession or a prolonged slow-growth period, the usual actors might have recourse to their familiar toolbox, showcased in Greece during the Eurozone crisis. But forcing strict macroeconomic conditionalities on Ukraine, whose large debt will be simply a product of its war effort, could easily undo the immense enthusiasm that Ukrainians have for the EU and the West.
The United States and its allies must be clear-eyed, not self-congratulatory, about Ukraine’s prospects. Unless we step up in a significant way, both we and the Ukrainians might be in for a series of massive disappointments in the not-too-distant future.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC and a contributing editor with the American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.
Image: Members of a European Parliament delegation hold Ukrainian flags during a visit to the Donestsk region border. (European Parliament)
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