Ukraine must win big in 2023 to keep Western support coming

Ukraine must win big in 2023 to keep Western support coming

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

Nervousness is building 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 Kyiv.

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

But in statements on the war this week, both DeSantis and Donald Trump appeared to reject notions of an American duty to help defeat Russia’s tyrannical designs on Ukraine.

Stranger still, in outlining their positions on the war, the GOP’s dominant personalities adopted a noninterventionist stance that, elsewhere, is 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 Ukraine’s European allies — especially other Slavic nations in the European Union’s eastern wing — view the Republican stance ahead of next year’s election with growing trepidation.

Senior EU politicians privately voice concern about the narrative that has captured large sections of the Republican Party.

They are nonplussed by the suggestion that doing all it takes to stop a Russian capture of a massive European nation is not among America’s “vital national interests,” as DeSantis claims.

A Ukrainian soldier firing a mortar shell on the frontlines near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region on March 16, 2023.REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

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

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

Aside from the Hungarian government’s well-known position against military aid for Ukraine, countries like the Czech Republic and Germany also have large, vocal movements calling for a halt to Ukraine support (movements that, by the way, also exhibit strong anti-American sentiments).

Some countries, such as Austria and Slovakia, see Ukraine-skeptical parties surging in the polls as elections draw nearer.

It is true that throughout the West, there has been an unfortunate tendency to demonize people calling for immediate peace in Ukraine. The problem with these movements is not so much their intent as their refusal to acknowledge the price of a too-hasty settlement with Russia. 

Difficult conversations will doubtless become necessary in the future about the ultimate aims of the Ukrainian war effort being funded by the West.

But by seeing a peace deal as an end in itself, rather than a means of ensuring Ukraine’s future security, Trump or DeSantis would give Russian President Vladimir Putin the upper hand before talks even began. 

People walking near an apartment building destroyed by Russian shelling in Mariupol on March 16, 2023.REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

With future US support potentially depending on one of these two candidates, Ukraine urgently needs to make major battlefield gains before presidential campaigning starts in earnest.

Above all, Ukraine needs to show allies that their military support is hastening a positive end to the war, not merely prolonging it, as the Biden administration appears to accept with its downbeat “as long as it takes” mantra.

Ukraine can only hope to win over the Republican Party’s two heavyweights 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 being hurled into a maelstrom of grinding attrition warfare in the Donbas, a change in the American approach would seem an even more tempting election promise.

Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive in the coming months is therefore crucial. An ineffective attack would be catastrophic.

Most of all, Ukraine cannot afford to be wasteful with the equipment it has already received from its allies; even the most hawkish EU politicians describe an absolute necessity that Western equipment is not recklessly sent to become so much scrap metal lining the ruined streets of eastern Ukraine.

Tangible successes are needed instead to persuade Trump and DeSantis that supporting Ukraine is a good investment, as the mere possibility of a more hands-off American approach gives European leaders the jitters.

The onus is on Ukraine to prove that continued US support is worth it. But if meaningful gains can’t be achieved on the battlefield this year, European leaders who have put their all into supporting Ukraine — and the Ukrainians fighting for their freedom — will go from uneasiness about the US presidential election to full-blown panic. 

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague.  » …
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