Andrew Potter: Ukraine, and the West, face a dark reckoning
The allies were already losing interest in Ukraine's faltering war effort on October 7, but the rapid abandonment of Ukraine only underscores the fecklessness of the West.
By: Andrew Potter
Well, you can’t say Volodymyr Zelenskyy didn’t try. With a new U.S. aid package for his country frozen by a Republican filibuster, the president of Ukraine made a last-ditch visit to Washington to plea, as he has done so often, for help against the Russian invasion. But unlike previous visits, he was treated more as yesterday’s annoyance than a global statesman fighting for the cause of freedom.
The wheels came off the bus of Western support for Ukraine gradually, then suddenly. The slow distancing from Ukraine has been underway since last summer, but it was finally pushed off the cliff in the wake of the barbarism of Hamas on October 7. Since then, the world’s attention, effort, and in important cases, arms, have been focused on the Middle East. But also, the intensely polarizing character of the Israel-Hamas war has hardened political divisions in almost every country, in a way that has largely destroyed what had been, in many countries, a cross-partisan consensus on Ukraine.
But for all its slow-motion inevitability, it is still shocking to see just how quickly support for Ukraine evaporated, how hollow the promises have been revealed to have been, how ugly the finger pointing has got, and how unprepared NATO, the EU, and the West as a whole are for the danger that is staring them in the face.
Let’s start with a basic fact: the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which began in early summer with so much dramatic hope, has failed. The goal was to drive to the Black Sea, split the Russian forces in half, and begin the work of retaking the sovereign Ukrainian territory that had been seized by Russia since 2014.
It didn’t happen, and it didn’t even come close. Why that is the case has been, and will be, the subject of intense scrutiny and analysis, but what seems clear is that the Russians were given too much time to dig in and lay minefields tens of kilometres deep across the front lines. In the absence of sufficient airpower to achieve air superiority over the battlefield, the attacking Ukrainian forces became sitting ducks to Russian artillery, helicopters, and drones.
So the fight is at a stalemate. The commander of the Ukrainian army, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said as much in an article he wrote for The Economist at the beginning of November. President Zelenskyy has admitted it as well, as has the head of the Ukraine war cabinet.
This failure need not have been a disaster. Success in battle is never guaranteed, the enemy always gets a vote, and there is nothing stopping the Ukrainians from tending their wounds, burying their dead, and trying again.
Nothing, that is, except the fecklessness, the division, and the bad faith of Ukraine’s partners in the West. Instead of sitting down to figure out what went wrong, adjusting and increasing their aid accordingly, and recommitting to the fight, the whole so-called alliance has degenerated into infighting, blame shifting, and ass-covering. The Washington Post recently had a whole series devoted to giving anonymous American “senior officials” plenty of acreage to underbus the Ukrainians, who were, allegedly, too slow to start the counteroffensive, too cowardly when it finally began, too incompetent in their execution, and too stubborn to listen to the Americans advising them.
This all may be true. But something else is also true: The West, for all its promises to back Ukraine to the hilt, to stand by it through thick and thin, to do whatever it takes as long as it takes, has not done any of this. Support, in the form of arms deliveries, training, aid, ammunition, what have you, has been slow, grudging, performative, and inadequate to the task.
This has been the case since the full invasion started in February 2022. Around this time last year it was possible — just barely — to attribute the slow-rolling of aid to fears of escalation. Putin did a great job of pretending to be an insane, genocidal madman, threatening to nuke Ukraine, to destroy a nuclear plant, to scorch whatever earth had to be scorched, in order to get his way. He succeeded magnificently, to the point where the West was terrified; so terrified in fact, that when Putin actually did do insane, genocidal, madman-like things — the blowing of the Kakhovka dam, the mining of a nuclear power plant, the daily murder of random civilians — the West felt relatively comforted. At least he didn’t nuke anyone, so we could call that a policy success.
It’s no longer possible to take this seriously as an explanation. It’s been clear, since the summer anyway, that the consequences of Ukraine winning have been a bigger worry for the West than anything Putin might do to Ukraine. The Americans and Germans in particular have denied Ukraine the sorts of arms — German Taurus missiles, American ATACMS, NATO’s huge fleet of F-16s — that would have enabled Ukraine to take the fight to the Russians, on Russian soil. The upshot is that Ukraine failed at an impossible task, and for their failures, they are being abandoned.
Earlier this year, the EU pledged to provide Ukraine with a million artillery shells by March. They won’t come anywhere close to that. Meanwhile, North Korea — with a per capita GDP of about $1,000 — has provided more shells to Russia this fall than the EU has to Ukraine over the entire war. Iran continues to ship drones by the thousands to Russia. The Western sanctions regime on Russia is Swiss-cheesed with loopholes and corruption. Russia continues to earn billions in hard currency through its oil and gas exports.
All of this against the backdrop of relentless political sabotage within the political and security institutions of the Western alliance. In the United States, MAGA Republicans, fattened on a diet of endless Russian propaganda (and in some cases, likely rubles) have blocked further aid to Ukraine under the flimsy pretext of demanding changes to President Biden’s border and immigration policies. In Canada, the opposition Conservatives inexplicably continue to vote against aid to Ukraine, and against a Canada-Ukraine trade agreement that Zelenskyy himself has begged them to support.
In the EU, Hungary has come out as a direct friend to Putin and enemy of Ukraine, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban vowing to veto any attempt at Ukraine beginning accession talks. And within NATO, Turkey, led by the very pro-Putin president Recep Erdoğan, has been working against the alliance for years, and is now blocking Sweden’s NATO membership while systematically undermining the sanctions regime against Putin and his cronies.
In February of this year, the Americans went all-in on Ukraine, at least rhetorically. Biden took a 10-hour train trip from Poland to Kyiv, where he walked the streets with Zelenskyy, then gave a speech at Mariinsky Palace where he declared: “Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you.”
These words, it turns out, were as empty as Europe’s arsenals. While many European countries — the Baltics and the Nordics in particular, along with Poland — are doing what they can, and pleading with the U.S. and the allies to stay the course, the Americans are clearly preparing to cast Ukraine loose, much to the delight of Russia, and the pro-Putin factions in the West.
It is folly, but this is the context in which a desperate Ukraine now finds itself. Zelenskyy, to whose bunker door Western leaders once beat a path, is now a supplicant, flying around the world begging for help from increasingly skeptical audiences. Even the people back home seem unconvinced.
Ukraine faces a dark winter, and a dark reckoning. As the lights go out in Kyiv and Kherson and Odesa and Kharkiv in the face of yet another long night of Russian bombardment, they might well wonder where many of their so-called friends went.
But things are no less bleak for the West. For starters, this is NATO’s second major strategic defeat this decade. While the Afghanistan fiasco can be chalked up to a failure to understand the fundamental character of the country, and the difficulties of counterinsurgency fighting more generally, the Ukraine conflict is exactly what NATO was created to deal with. The problem is not just that our leaders seem genuinely unaware that the democracies face an alliance of hostile authoritarian states devoted to, if not their destruction, at least their disruption. Nor is it simply that we have allowed our militaries and to wither and our production capacities to vanish.
The problem is much deeper, and it is about the moral rot that has sunk deep into the foundations of the West. What is so frightening is not that the barbarians are at the gates; it is that so many of us appear anxious to let them in.
Andrew Potter lives in Montreal. Follow him at his newsletter Nevermind: The Forgotten History of Generation X.
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