Andrew Potter: The West's slow betrayal of our inconvenient Ukrainian friends
For all the rhetoric out of NATO capitals over the past two years, the West has never really accepted Ukraine’s fight as its own.
By: Andrew Potter
Is Ukraine a real country? Vladimir Putin doesn’t think so — a position he reiterated at eyeball-glazing length in his interview, released on Thursday, with the comically obtuse MAGA village groveller Tucker Carlson.
But as the Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov makes clear in his outstanding new book about the war in Ukraine, Our Enemies Will Vanish, lots of Ukraine’s supposed allies don’t really think so either. At the very least, they didn’t think so right up until Russia’s attempt to take Kyiv in February 2022, with the beginning of Putin’s Special Military Operation to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. As Trofimov relates, pretty much everyone — the Americans, the British, and the Germans in particular — expected the Ukrainian state to collapse within hours, or maybe days. At best they thought maybe the Ukrainians might set up a government in exile somewhere, from which some sort of guerilla resistance might be coordinated. But the general expectation — and, to be blunt, the widespread hope — was that Kyiv would fall and fall quickly, so everyone could get on with the unpleasant but at least relatively bloodless business of dealing with Ukraine as a Russian puppet state.
Except the Ukrainians resisted. And not only did they resist, but over the course of the year they managed to chase the Russian army away from Kyiv, out of Kharkiv, and eventually out of Kherson. By this time last year, there was real reason for optimism, for thinking that with enough soldiers, with the right training, and the right equipment, the Ukrainians would be able to drive through Russian lines to the Black Sea, and force the enemy to withdraw.
It didn’t work out that way, and why it didn’t remains the subject of intense debate outside Ukraine and, increasingly, of recrimination within. That recrimination culminated this week with Ukrainian president Vlodymyr Zelenskyy dismissing General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who had served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine since July of 2021. It’s not clear what to make of this move: Zaluzhnyi is very popular in Ukraine, both within the army and the civilian population, but it’s never a good thing when generals become more popular than their civilian masters. And while there is no question the war isn’t going well, it is hard to tell how much of that is due to Zaluzhnyi’s decisions and how much is a result of exogenous factors, such as the dwindling supply of Western arms and the poor quality of NATO training.
Regardless, Zelenskyy has now taken full ownership of, and responsibility for, what happens next, and it comes at a very dark time for the Ukrainian effort. On the front lines in the East, the city of Avdiivka is on the verge of falling to the Russians, who have been trying to take it since last year. The Ukrainians had been resisting ably, until they effectively ran out of ammunition. That ammunition shortage — mostly in the form of artillery shells — is a direct consequence of two factors: NATO’s collective fecklessness, but more significantly, the Russian-aligned wing of the Republican party in the U.S., which has been blocking any further aid to Ukraine since last fall. It is pretty obvious now that there is no deal to be had to unlock that aid, and that the Democrats and the few remaining Republicans who aren’t in the pocket of the Trump/Putin alliance and who have been working for some sort of bargain have been simply wasting their time, and Ukrainian lives.
The news doesn’t get much better here in Canada. The House of Commons managed to pass, on third reading, a free trade deal with Ukraine, but it came yet again in the face of opposition from the Conservatives. Pierre Poilievre claims that his party’s opposition is entirely about some language in the deal about a carbon tax, but it is hard to square this with the fact that the carbon tax reference is completely innocuous and non-binding, and that Zelenskyy himself has asked the CPC to support the deal.
So what’s really going on? If a recent survey is any guide, it is that Conservative supporters have increasingly turned against Ukraine. In a report released last week, Angus Reid found that 25 per cent of Canadians think we are doing too much for Ukraine, almost double the 13 per cent who said the same in May 2022, while those who think we aren’t doing enough has halved from 38 per cent to 19 per cent. And the vast majority of that shift has come from Conservative voters, fully 43 per cent of whom now think Canada is doing too much for Ukraine.
The Liberals will attribute this to MAGA influences within the CPC, and there’s probably some of that. But the truth is, neither Justin Trudeau nor Pierre Poilievre have made any real effort to sell Canada’s (relatively meagre) support for Ukraine to their partisan supporters, nor to Canadians as a whole. Instead, Ukraine has become yet another Canadian partisan football, to be punted across the Commons as needed.
But in this, Canada isn’t much different from a lot of Ukraine’s allies. For all the rhetoric out of NATO capitals over the past two years, the West has never really accepted Ukraine’s fight as its own. Whether it’s been back-channel cosying up to Putin, knee-quaking fears of escalation, the slow-rolling of aid for whatever reasons, or just cheering for a Ukrainian victory while keeping open the possibility of normalizing relations with Moscow, lots of Western governments have been quite obviously playing both sides. And it goes back to the sneaking suspicion, present from the very start, that Ukraine isn’t a real country, that eventually Putin is going to be in charge there.
Except here’s the problem. Ukraine isn’t going to stop fighting the Russians, with or without the West’s help. Any possibility there could have been some sort of deal evaporated very early on, after Putin gave open license to his orc army of mercenaries, convicts, and low-lifes to rape Ukrainian women and girls, steal Ukrainian children, and torture and murder untold Ukrainian civilians. Putin knows the bridges to any stable peace have been long since burnt, which is why he continues to insist on his maximalist aims. He either destroys Ukraine outright, or he and his cronies spend the rest of their lives worrying about who will come for them in the night.
Is money real? Are melodies real? Are ideas real? These are all just things that live in the heads of men and women, but they are also the sorts of things that men and women live for, love for, and sometimes die for. Ukraine is something that lives in the heads of tens of millions of people, who have decided it is something worth fighting for. By that measure, Ukraine is as real as any country, and probably more real than most — certainly more real than Canada. If only we had understood that two years ago.
Andrew Potter is the author of the newsletter Nevermind: The Forgotten History of Generation X.
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