Will ‘war fatigue’ undermine the West’s support for Ukraine?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

With the war in Ukraine continuing into its third month and no resolution in sight, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be preparing for a “prolonged conflict” that could drag on for months or even years, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines told Congress last month.

A key element guiding Putin’s new strategy, according to Haines, is his belief that the West will gradually lose interest in supporting Ukraine’s resistance as the war continues to grind on indefinitely. “[Putin is] probably counting on U.S. and EU resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation and energy prices get worse,” she said.

When Russian forces first invaded in late February, Western nations banded together to swiftly send billions of dollars in military equipment and direct funding while providing significant logistical support to Ukrainian forces. They also levied tough sanctions on the Russian economy that reduced Russia’s ability to sell its fossil fuel exports and severed its ties to the global financial system.

That support has continued as the contours of the conflict have changed, with Russia shifting away its effort to swiftly overwhelm major Ukrainian cities and instead focusing on making incremental progress in eastern regions of the country. Last month, Congress approved an additional $40 billion in military funds, bringing the total U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s war effort to roughly $54 billion. Sanctions against Russia have also contributed increased costs on a range of consumer goods, particularly gas and food prices.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of observers like former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, there is a real danger that “war fatigue” will slowly erode the West’s support for Ukraine as the months pass and the costs of that support continue to mount. They note that depictions of brave Ukrainian resistance, which dominated news coverage and social media in the early days of the war, have been pushed out by other stories. There’s also concern citizens in the U.S. and Europe may not be willing to tolerate higher energy and food prices for months on end. This belief has led some experts, including the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, to encourage the West to to “do more now to hasten the end of the war” before fatigue sets in.

But others believe the West is well positioned to maintain its support for Ukraine for the long haul. “If [Putin] expects that we will waver or fracture in the months to come, he is equally mistaken,” President Biden wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times late last month. Some experts argue that the costs of backing Ukraine now would be dwarfed by the protracted expense of containing Russia if it successfully conquers the country. There are also those who believe that Russia itself may struggle to keep up its war effort amid the sanctions and significant losses of military lives and equipment.

What’s next

Experts tracking the course of the war see signs that Russia’s new strategy of slow, brutal assaults on individual cities may be working. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense last week said Russian forces are “achieving tactical success” in the eastern Donbas and Luhansk regions and may gain complete control of one or booth regions in a matter of weeks.

Perspectives

Optimists

Citizens in the U.S. and Europe won’t allow their leaders to abandon Ukraine

“I’m wagering that the hope and heroism Ukrainians have demonstrated will overwhelm the complacency that has weakened global democracies for much of the past three decades. I’m betting that the resolve to help the Ukrainians win will expand and outlast signs of fatigue as Russia makes gains in eastern Ukraine.” — Frederick Kempe, CNBC

For all the concerns about “war fatigue,” Western nations remain committed to the fight

“No doubt one reason Russian President Vladimir Putin has persisted in his war after his early setbacks is his assumption that the ever-fractious West will not be able to sustain a united front against him. And yet, the international pro-Ukraine coalition is still essentially holding.” — Editorial, Washington Post

Russia is too battered to sustain a drawn-out war of attrition

“Don’t expect Moscow’s position to improve. Its offensive in eastern Ukraine is proceeding lethargically. Ukraine is getting better-armed as the war goes on, while Russia has badly depleted its stocks of weapons and been reduced to throwing already weakened units back into the line. Putin hoped to break the Ukrainian state; he may break his own army instead.” — Hal Brands, Bloomberg

Supporting Ukraine is far less costly than the alternative

“It’d be nice if Ukraine had, on its own, the materiel to beat back its much larger invader, but it doesn’t. That said, it is completely committed to the fight and is waging it without any soldiers from the West having to put themselves directly in harm’s way. Supplying Ukraine with the Javelins and other arms and support it needs to prevail is a bargain given the strategic defeat it may inflict on an adversary of the United States.” — Editorial, National Review

Pessimists

The U.S. can’t keep writing blank checks to Ukraine

“Given the state of the war right now, the more likely near-future scenario is one where Russian collapse remains a pleasant fancy, the conflict becomes stalemated and frozen, and we have to put our Ukrainian policy on a sustainable footing without removing Putin’s regime or dismantling the Russian empire. In that scenario, our plan cannot be to keep writing countless checks while tiptoeing modestly around the Ukrainians and letting them dictate the ends to which our guns and weaponry are used.” — Ross Douthat, New York Times

Western citizens won’t be willing to tolerate higher prices forever

“As the conflict drags on and the boomerang effects of the sanctions deepen the cost-of-living crisis, the divides in the Western camp will widen and ‘Ukraine fatigue’ will set in.” — Brahma Chellaney, The Hill

Public solidarity that defined the early days of the war has all but evaporated

“It has not taken years, but only 100 days for compassion fatigue to begin, I sense, to creep into how people outside Ukraine feel about what is still happening to people inside Ukraine. You may have sensed this as well. The outrage and gloom that once were so acute have dulled into resignation. A war that once seemed so close has become, in many ways, distant. The once enthusiastic expressions of solidarity have evaporated in favour of the routine, often mundane, aspects of life.” — Andrew Mitrovica, Al Jazeera

Putin has a long track record of successfully waiting out his adversaries

“The West’s attention is focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine, but this Western attention is not a constant nor a given. Putin has achieved some of his advances over the past 20 years simply by outlasting the West in the information space.” — Nataliya Bugayova, Foreign Policy

Putin will face far less domestic pressure than his Western rivals as the conflict drags on

“Buoyed by oil and gas revenues, the Russian economy is experiencing a much less severe recession than Ukraine. Unconcerned by public opinion, the Russian army seems not to care how many of its soldiers die. For all of those reasons, Putin may well believe that a long-term war of attrition is his to win, not just in southern and eastern Ukraine but eventually in Kyiv and beyond.” — Anne Applebaum, Atlantic

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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