Ukraine must win big in 2023 to continue supporting the West

A dark cloud looms on the horizon for Ukraine and its allies in Europe.

Nervousness is mounting over next year’s US presidential election as leading Republicans prepare to run on a platform of skepticism about the need for continued military support for Kiev.

Many Republicans recognize that the war in Ukraine is much more than just a “territorial dispute”, as Ron DeSantis controversially called it.

But in statements on the war this week, DeSantis and Donald Trump appeared to dismiss notions of a US duty to help defeat Russia’s tyrannical designs on Ukraine.

Stranger still, in laying out their positions on the war, mainstream GOP figures have taken a hands-off stance that is otherwise popular among those who accuse the United States of prolonging the war in Ukraine to serve American interests.

With war raging on their doorstep, it’s no surprise that Ukraine’s European allies — especially the other Slavic nations on the eastern wing of the European Union — see the Republican stance ahead of the elections in next year with growing concern.

Senior EU politicians are privately expressing concern over the narrative that has captured large swathes of the Republican Party.

They are baffled by the suggestion that doing whatever it takes to prevent Russia’s capture of a huge European nation is not part of America’s “vital national interests,” as DeSantis claims.

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar shell at the front line near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region on March 16, 2023.
A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar shell at the front line near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region on March 16, 2023.
REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

They also hope that the more pro-Ukrainian elements of the GOP can reassert their influence in the internal party debate before the election campaign pushes the polarization on Ukraine even further.

But similar divisions within Europe show the persuasiveness of a “pro-peace” stance.

Besides the well-known position of the Hungarian government against military aid to Ukraine, countries like the Czech Republic and Germany also have strong vocal movements calling for an end to support for Ukraine (movements which, incidentally, also display strong anti-American sentiments).

Some countries, such as Austria and Slovakia, are seeing skeptical Ukrainian parties rise in the polls ahead of the election.

It is true that all over the West there has been an unfortunate tendency to demonize people calling for immediate peace in Ukraine. The problem with these moves is not so much their intent as their refusal to recognize the cost of too hasty a settlement with Russia.

Difficult conversations will no doubt become necessary in the future about the ultimate goals of the Western-funded Ukrainian war effort.

But by viewing a peace deal as an end in itself, rather than a means to securing Ukraine’s future security, either Trump or DeSantis would give Russian President Vladimir Putin the upper hand before talks even begin.

Passersby near a building destroyed by Russian shelling in Mariupol on March 16, 2023.
Passersby near a building destroyed by Russian shelling in Mariupol on March 16, 2023.
REUTERS/Alexander Ermoshenko

With future US support potentially hinged on one of these two candidates, Ukraine urgently needs to make major gains on the battlefield before the presidential campaign begins in earnest.

Above all, Ukraine must show its allies that their military support is hastening a positive end to the war, not just prolonging it, as the Biden administration seems to accept with its pessimistic mantra “as long as that it will be necessary”.

Ukraine can only hope to win the two heavyweights of the Republican Party by showing the American people that military support is not for nothing.

If, on the other hand, the war still looks the same a year from now as it does today, with more Western equipment and Ukrainian lives thrown into a maelstrom of attritional warfare in the Donbass, a change in the US approach would seem an even more enticing election promise.

The anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive in the coming months is therefore crucial. An ineffective attack would be catastrophic.

Above all, Ukraine cannot afford to waste the equipment it has already received from its allies; even the most hawkish European politicians describe an absolute necessity that Western equipment not be recklessly sent to become so much scrap lining the crumbling streets of eastern Ukraine.

Rather, tangible successes are needed to persuade Trump and DeSantis that backing Ukraine is a good investment, because the mere possibility of a more passive US approach gives European leaders the jitters.

The onus is on Ukraine to prove that continued US support is worth it. But if meaningful gains cannot be made on the battlefield this year, European leaders who have pulled out all the stops to support Ukraine – and Ukrainians fighting for their freedom – will go from unease over the presidential election. American to total panic.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague.

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