West Worries About Fraying Consensus Over Ukraine

Do NATO countries have the stomach for a long war?

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A soldier of the Ukrainian troops stands at the frontline outside the town of Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine, on February 19, 2022.
A soldier of the Ukrainian troops stands at the frontline outside the town of Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine, on February 19, 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier stands at the front line outside the town of Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 19. Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden and top White House aides tried to make things as clear as they could this week at the NATO Summit in Madrid: The United States would keep helping Ukraine as long as it takes, despite the economic damage and the toll for the U.S. public at the gas pump.

But with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine falling off the front pages—even as U.S., European, and NATO officials insist that they will continue providing military aid to Kyiv until the end of the war—some in the West are worried about consensus beginning to fray. Instead of Ukraine’s dramatic victories over Russia in the early days of the war, such as stalling a 40-mile Russian convoy by blowing up bridges or busting tanks with Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, the war has settled into an attritional slugfest of dueling artillery pieces, relegating the conflict to the back pages. 

And the United States’ NATO allies watching warily from across the Atlantic are starting to doubt whether the Biden administration and U.S. Congress will be able to provide Ukraine with another eye-popping military aid package, after agreeing to provide $40 billion through September. 

U.S. President Joe Biden and top White House aides tried to make things as clear as they could this week at the NATO Summit in Madrid: The United States would keep helping Ukraine as long as it takes, despite the economic damage and the toll for the U.S. public at the gas pump.

But with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine falling off the front pages—even as U.S., European, and NATO officials insist that they will continue providing military aid to Kyiv until the end of the war—some in the West are worried about consensus beginning to fray. Instead of Ukraine’s dramatic victories over Russia in the early days of the war, such as stalling a 40-mile Russian convoy by blowing up bridges or busting tanks with Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, the war has settled into an attritional slugfest of dueling artillery pieces, relegating the conflict to the back pages. 

And the United States’ NATO allies watching warily from across the Atlantic are starting to doubt whether the Biden administration and U.S. Congress will be able to provide Ukraine with another eye-popping military aid package, after agreeing to provide $40 billion through September. 

Even in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe, fears of rising inflation and increasing cost of living are eating away at the public’s appetite for support of the war, or even war coverage; in the United States, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn abortion rights and the congressional investigation of the pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol have reopened festering political wounds. 

“I think it’s already clear that there is that sort of very strong consensus—just at the edges, there’s a bit of fraying,” one European official said before the NATO Summit this week. “And over time, I think we’ll see that political pressure [on] the $40 billion drawdown figure. Whether that would be repeated in the fall, I think that would be a big challenge.”

That’s why U.S. and European officials have begun to think of Ukrainian victory—even as they struggle to define it in territorial terms—on a much longer time frame. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky insists that Kyiv could end the war today, if only the country got all of the weapons it has been asking for. 

“How do you build up the capacity for Ukraine to actually essentially build a strategic reserve to get on the front foot over time?” the European official added. The goal is, by the spring of 2023, to get Ukraine’s military ready to “to move into the counteroffensive stage and take the initiative,” the official said.  

Yet U.S. and Western officials are still debating what is practical for Ukraine to take back in such a situation. Crimea, held by Russia since 2014 and fortified with military and naval bases, is almost certainly considered lost. And on both sides of the Atlantic, officials are trying to figure out how to pick up Ukraine’s reconstruction bills that could amount to more than $1 trillion. Ukrainian officials have proposed using frozen Russian assets to pay the tab—and members of the U.S. Congress are moving ahead with legislation to do just that. 

And some officials are worried whether Ukraine will have the weapons and ammo to get there. Despite the backslapping in public and the proliferation of Ukrainian flags in Western capitals, and on the lapels of delegates at the NATO Summit, the fight over the speed, volume, and sticker price of weapons requests has continued, even after Biden approved the sale of multiple-launch rocket systems to Kyiv. And top U.S. intelligence officials insist that Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t rolled back his goals in Ukraine.

The Biden administration has insisted both in private and public that just because it isn’t answering every Ukrainian call for weapons, that doesn’t mean the United States or Ukraine’s Western partners are stepping back. But the ongoing negotiations come as Western stocks of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition, which once formed the backbone of the Ukrainian military and can’t be replaced by the United States and NATO allies, are dwindling. Meanwhile, the body count in the Donbas region continues to increase. In every meeting for weeks, Ukrainian officials have hammered home the point that they are running out of time.

“For them, it is always going to be too little and too late, for natural reasons,” said Oscar Jonsson, a researcher at the Swedish Defence University. “However, sending things without training and logistics is a sure way they’ll have no longevity.” 

For instance, senior U.S. defense officials insist that the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) that have been provided to Ukraine have rockets capable of striking Russian targets more than 40 miles away. But that’s far less than the Army Tactical Missile System, which can hit targets up to 186 miles away and which Ukraine has been asking U.S. officials for. The Americans insist that’s enough range to keep Ukrainian troops and artillery pieces out of range of Russian counterstrikes; the Ukrainians respectfully disagree. 

While the system has been provided in a trickle—the Biden administration sent only four HIMARS and 48 rockets in the first batch of deliveries—U.S. and European officials said they have put the system in slowly to gauge how the Ukrainians are using them in the field. “We all hear the drumbeat of faster, faster, faster,” one senior U.S. defense official said. “But with this system, faster, faster, faster would not be good, because the Ukrainians needed to have the training to be able to effectively use these systems.”

What’s more, both U.S. and British officials who have been overseeing the deliveries of weapons to Ukraine from a secure conference room in Stuttgart, Germany, the headquarters of U.S. forces in Europe, have insisted that if Ukrainian troops get too much, too soon, or weapons that are out of their scope, they will break.

And if Ukraine is demanding capabilities more quickly, that further increases the risk of something falling apart, officials said. “There’s more risk if they need it now,” one British official said. Bigger capabilities such as howitzers and multiple-rocket launchers are also harder to move. Western officials are also getting wary of Russian long-range strikes against supplies of weapons for Ukraine. A second senior U.S. defense official indicated that a Russian missile strike into Kyiv last weekend was aimed at weapons production facilities. 

But Ukrainian officials have said that beyond training for the HIMARS and Western artillery, military training for their troops has dipped in recent weeks, leaving them unable to operate more advanced systems. Ukrainians also complain that some pieces needed to fire the systems haven’t come at all: For instance, the United States did not provide fire control systems to help direct artillery fire. (Ukraine has also pressed for more Western drones to help with artillery spotting.) 

And Western officials, who have pushed to get Ukraine ready with NATO-grade kit from artillery to multiple-launch rockets, are unclear what system they can provide next to Kyiv. It could take months to train the Ukrainians to fly F-15 and F-16 jets, even though Ukrainian military officials insist that many of their pilots are currently sidelined without enough planes to fly, giving them the ability to leave the country for training. 

Behind the scenes in Ukraine, the grumbling is growing louder about the pace of aid. “They were too slow,” one Ukrainian military official lamented. “They are too slow.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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