The Ukraine war is at a crossroads – it’s time Europe stands up

The Ukraine war is at a crossroads – it’s time Europe stands up

Originally posted in The Australian


The war in Ukraine has reached a tipping point. Despite recent tactical gains and successful drone strikes on Russia’s energy infrastructure Kyiv’s prospects look increasingly bleak, not for want of courage or commitment by the undermanned and underarmed Ukrainian armed forces.

Unless the US congress passes the stalled $US60bn ($91.5bn) aid package to Ukraine or Europe ramps up military assistance, the poorly led but numerically superior Russian army could grind its way to an unlikely victory.

This seemed improbable 18 months ago when Ukraine’s forces succeeded in pushing back Russia’s armoured columns, raising hopes that Kyiv eventually could retake Crimea and expel Vladimir Putin’s legions from Ukraine altogether.

Optimism has given way to a dourer mood reflecting the grim reality that Ukraine cannot prevail without a continuation of substantial Western aid and weaponry.

In recent testimony to the US Senate Intelligence Committee, CIA director William Burns said “the war is at a crossroads” and US aid was vital to the outcome. “The Ukrainians are not running out of courage and tenacity,” Burns said. “They’re running out of ammunition. And we’re running out of time to help them.”

The cascading consequences of a Putin triumph would be universally bad news, not only for Western democracies but also for all countries invested in protecting their people and independence from predatory neighbours.

If Putin can successfully invade a sovereign country with impunity, the law of the jungle will prevail over the rule of law and autocrats everywhere will be emboldened, including in Asia. China, North Korea and Iran are watching closely to see if Putin is proved right – that Russia will win because the West lacks staying power.

Western nations leapt to Ukraine’s defence in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, showing uncustomary resolve.

Two years on that resolve is faltering as war fatigue sets in and public support wanes in Europe, Ukraine and the US. A recent Elabe poll in France recorded an 11 per cent fall in public support for economic and financial aid to Ukraine.

Only 14 per cent endorsed increased military aid. More Ukrainians want to trade land for an uncertain peace, doubling from 10 to 19 per cent since the war began, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology says.

A greater concern is dwindling public support for Ukraine in the US as the Republican Party’s isolationist wing rejects spending more money on “foreign wars” and Ukraine becomes entangled in US domestic politics. Partisan differences have widened as Donald Trump appeals to the parochial instincts of his MAGA base by prioritising spending on border security over Ukraine.

According to the latest Pew survey, in the first weeks of the war Republicans were four percentage points likelier than Democrats to say the US was providing too much aid to Ukraine (9 per cent versus 5 per cent). Today, Republicans are 32 points more likely to say this.

The US presidential election is shaping to be the defining moment for Kyiv. If Trump wins in November there is every likelihood he will cut off military assistance to Ukraine. Following his recent meeting with the Republican presidential nominee, Hungary’s self-declared illiberal Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, declared Trump would not “give a single penny” to Ukraine. Orban says since the Europeans won’t be able to fund the war on their own it will be over.

Orban may be right. But it raises the question of why the EU’s 450 million citizens with a gross domestic product of $US16.7 trillion cannot adequately support Ukraine against Russia, which has one-third the population and a GDP of $US1.86 trillion.

Lack of political will, not capacity, is the answer. Europe has underinvested in defence since the end of the Cold War, free-riding off the US. Leading French strategist Francois Heisbourg calls these decades “les trente paresseuses” – the 30 lazy years in which European leaders sought an illusory peace dividend only to find Putin had done the opposite, preparing his military for war.

Even now, many European countries hedge their commitments to Ukraine, failing to deliver on their promises of military support. How is it that North Korea, with a minuscule GDP of $US48.3bn, can provide three million 155mm artillery shells to Russia in six months when the EU could produce only one-third of the one million shells promised during the past year?

There is too much hand-wringing about not provoking Russia. Europe needs to provide weapons that help Ukraine to defend itself by targeting Russia’s war-enabling infrastructure. While Russia indiscriminately strikes Ukrainian civilian infrastructure daily, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz refuses to supply Kyiv with medium-range Taurus cruise missiles. These missiles would allow Ukraine to strike military installations inside Russia, particularly the refineries that generate most of the revenue that pays for Putin’s war.

The point is that a Europe fully committed to supporting Ukraine could arrest Russia’s momentum.

Even without US support, if every member of the EU were to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP and sustain it for a decade Putin would be deterred from further adventurism, Ukraine’s independence would be preserved and Europe’s security would be guaranteed. Russia’s strategic position is much weaker than Putin would have the world believe.

His armed forces have taken a hammering. US intelligence estimates they have sustained 315,000 casualties since the start of the conflict. One-third of the Black Sea fleet and difficult to replace aircraft have been lost to Ukrainian drones and missiles. But Putin’s achilles heel is the economy. Western sanctions are steadily eroding Russia’s industrial production. The drain on skilled labour has been exacerbated by the exodus of thousands of tech-savvy younger Russians.

Mobilising more of the working population into the military would make things even worse. Prevaricating Europeans need to get serious about their own security by emulating Poland, which has doubled its armed forces and plans to build an inventory of 1600 modern tanks, more than Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined. And they should confiscate all the $US323bn in Russian assets unwisely left in overseas banks, not just the windfall profits, and send the money to Kyiv. There would be sublime justice in using Russian money to end Putin’s war.


Areas of expertise: Political and strategic developments in East Asia; transnational security issues; intelligence; Australian national security and defence