Western Support for Ukraine Has Peaked

The honeymoon that Ukraine’s leaders have enjoyed with the West will not last.

A Ukrainian soldier stands on the wreckage of a Russian tank
Sergey Bobok / AFP / Getty

About the author: Andrew Exum is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. From 2015 to 2017, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy.

We’ve likely reached the high-water mark of the grand alliance to defeat Russia in Ukraine. In the coming months, relations between the Ukrainian leadership and its external supporters will grow strained, and the culprit will be economic pain exacerbated by the war.

When our children and grandchildren study this conflict, they will marvel at the speed and audacity with which the Western powers—Europe and the United States, primarily—mobilized to arm the Ukrainian people in the face of Russia’s onslaught. In stark contrast to the Winter War of 1939–40, when Russia invaded Finland and various Western powers hemmed and hawed before providing only token assistance to the plucky Finns, Europeans have fallen over themselves to provide lethal aid to the Ukrainians.

And it really is lethal aid, which amazes me: I had the misfortune of helping deconflict allied and Russian operations over Syria from 2015 through 2017, when we went to extraordinary lengths to avoid killing any Russians, for fear of starting World War III.

Today, meanwhile, we are sending some of our most advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons systems to the Ukrainians with the express purpose of killing as many Russians as possible. Not only the United States but the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Sweden—Sweden!—were quick to provide anti-tank weapons. Sweden and Finland, meanwhile, seem likely to join NATO at the first available opportunity (and once Turkey’s demands on arms sales and the Kurds are met).

The remarkable Western response confirms the extent of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculation, but it also stands in stark contrast to the way the West handled previous Russian military offensives in Georgia, in 2008, and Ukraine, in 2014. In each of those conflicts, the European states dragged their feet before imposing any costs on Russia. That reluctance to take any action almost certainly informed Russian calculations prior to this latest offensive.

The war has now dragged on for months, though, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. As the British strategist Lawrence Freedman observed, you could detect the outlines of what Russia might settle for in Putin’s May 9 speech to commemorate the Allied victory in World War II: protection of Crimea; nothing that could be characterized as Ukrainian aggression in the Donbas region; and a guarantee that Ukraine will not host nuclear weapons on its soil.

But Ukraine is unlikely, in the extreme, to settle for any territorial concessions. The Ukrainians must also sense, recent losses notwithstanding, that they can still win this war.

So Ukraine continues to press its Western allies for more support. What it wants now, however, is the kind of support that it would need to not only resist Russian advances but also win back territory and duel with Russia’s powerful artillery. The Biden administration is more reluctant to provide this aid, and it is hard to see other countries getting much further out ahead than the Americans.

One big reason for this reluctance is that the economic costs of the war are starting to seriously concern American and other Western policy makers. Eurozone inflation is up to 8.1 percent for the year, while in the United States, inflation is at a four-decade high. Leading economists worry about a recession next year, while business leaders with whom I speak fret that one may arrive sooner.

Putin’s war on Ukraine didn’t cause all of this pain in the global economy, but it certainly doesn’t help, and it has played an outsize role in the pain we are about to feel in the global supply of food.

All of that pain makes this a really crummy time to be a democratically elected incumbent almost anywhere in the world—and a very good time to be a populist. Recent elections in Colombia, France, Australia, and Germany have illustrated the headwinds facing both incumbents and mainstream parties.

The twin pressures of an ailing economy and surging populism will be on the minds of Western decision makers as they wrestle with a war that will continue to take a toll on the world’s leading economies.

For that reason, the conversations between Ukraine and its supporters abroad are likely to grow harder, not easier, as the year progresses. Ukraine will come under more pressure, and not just from Henry Kissinger, to concede some territory and allow Russia to save face.

Even a hasty termination of the conflict, however, seems unlikely to arrest the world’s slide into greater economic pain. Putin’s war, of course, has little to do with China’s zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy or the efficiency of West Coast ports. Yet the war—like all wars—captivates the imagination of onlookers in a way that port operations never seem to do. The grumbling from Western capitals about the duration of this conflict will continue, and the honeymoon that Ukraine’s leaders have enjoyed with the West will end soon.

Russia will note and be delighted by increasing fissures between Ukraine and its supporters. But Putin should not take too much comfort in what he sees. The sanctions his country faces are uniquely sticky: They’re not likely to quickly go away, regardless of whether the United States sends long-range missiles or just shorter-range rockets to Ukraine. And losses in the junior ranks of Russia’s officer corps alone tell the story of an army flirting with combat ineffectiveness. Russia is capable of absorbing immense pain on the battlefield, but despite minor territorial gains, its strategic situation has not improved.

Ukraine, for its part, may decide that although an uneasy truce by the early fall might not be an acceptable final settlement, it would nevertheless allow it to stiffen its defenses in the east, where the terrain favors Russian armor and artillery, and refit its own exhausted combat units. Such a truce would also give the brutal sanctions on Russia more time to weigh on the minds of Russian leaders. And an armistice, even if temporary, would no doubt be quietly welcomed in Western capitals.