As Long As It Takes

Every month, TEPSA publishes a newsletter editorial on the news of the day, the future of Europe, and the work of the TEPSA network. To receive every upcoming editorial direct to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE to the TEPSA Newsletter here.

Ukraine stands on the brink of a possible counter offensive, an attempt to liberate some of the territories that Russia seized in 2022 and 2014. However, it is not clear whether such a counter-offensive will succeed, or even whether Ukrainian leadership will be in a position to launch it, because it is not certain that Ukraine is sufficiently armed.

After initial hesitation, European and American support for Ukraine’s self-defence has become more steadfast – and has been promised for as long as it takes. Policy-makers have learned to complement this formula by expressing faith that “as long as it takes” will be “as short as possible”, because the war’s impact on human lives is immense.

It would be indeed dangerous to normalise the notion of a long war in Ukraine, not only for moral reasons (continued suffering of Ukrainians) but also because a long war is Putin’s preferred scenario. For Ukraine, a long war would be doubly bad: it would prolong and increase its sacrifice, while worsening the prospect of winning.

Many in the world realise that Ukraine is playing a crucial role in defending a rules-based international order and core values of the UN Charter. But this duty is being left mostly to Ukraine, seemingly as long as it takes. In this division of tasks, supporters provide military supplies and financing, but all other damage and suffering is borne by the attacked country. Ukraine cannot afford to lose motivation, because it depends on external support not only for mounting a successful counteroffensive, but even for maintaining defence along the current frontier.

Overall, it is clear that the war was single-handedly started by Moscow, but it is also clear that no country is directly joining in Ukraine’s defence. The war remains to be fought by Ukrainians (with a handful of foreign volunteers), on Ukraine’s soil.

Neither Ukraine’s supporters nor any other world power had been able to deter Russia from annexing parts of Ukraine in 2014 and launching a full-fledged war in 2022. Russia’s war is both imperial and genocidal in its purpose and conduct. Ukraine is fighting a fight that it did not provoke or choose – other than by choosing to exist.

G7 and EU financial and military support for Ukraine since January 2022 can be quantified at over EUR 140 billion of commitments. These same donors have also been attentive from the outset to the needs of other countries impacted by the war, including in terms of food insecurity.

Unfortunately, it cannot be said that Western military support to Ukraine has been particularly fast. Decisions on jets and tanks were delayed for many months, and actual deliveries also take long. Ammunition supply is insufficient. NATO countries have decided not to close Ukraine’s skies, leaving it possible for Russia to strike critical infrastructure and other civilian targets any time.

Views on the war are mixed inside Europe, inside the US, and across the world. Many governments’ support for Ukraine is lukewarm because the war is being associated (however wrongly) with earlier wrongdoings of Western powers (colonialism, war in Iraq). Some even see a rules-based international order as a tool of American hegemony after World War II. Finally, some are able to draw benefit from reduced prices of Russian energy, or from opportunities to step into Russian market gaps created by Western sanctions.

President Zelensky recently held his first call with President Xi since the beginning of the war, but it is not clear whether any hopes should be attached to it. China’s support for Russia has been measured so far, but Beijing does not have an interest in Russia losing the war. Beijing will want to keep a weakened Russian authoritarian regime in place, increasingly dependent on China.  

Within the US, strategic views differ on the preferable extent of support to Ukraine and the war in Ukraine has become a matter of domestic contestation: some ardently favour decisive support for Kyiv’s victory (i.e., liberation of occupied territories), while others do not see this as a conflict worth engaging in. 

Europeans have become aware of the need to support Ukraine actively, because the Russian menace affects the entire continent. But we seem to be limited in our resources and ability to do what it takes.  

After the failure of the quick “special operation,” Russia’s best remaining bet is on a “long war”, stretching the moral resolve, political unity and financial resources of Ukraine and its supporters. Europe and the US should do their utmost to avoid this scenario. Not only would it be difficult for Ukraine to fight alone for many years: it would also be a recipe for an increasingly bitter relationship between Ukraine and its Western friends. Moreover, the longer the war becomes, the more divisive it will be as an electoral topic, in the US, inside the EU and in Ukraine itself.

From the perspective of strategic competition with China, both the US and the EU face an important test of strength. The more the West is able to support Ukraine in fending off the aggression, the less will the overall outcome depend on China’s influence. Conversely, the less support the West provides to Ukraine, the greater concessions it will have to make towards China in order to secure an acceptable outcome. China will not countenance a full-fledged defeat for Moscow, but as explained by Fix and Kimmage, “Europeans will have to make clear to China that any [potential] military support for Russia will incur a severe and united response from Europe [and] will not decrease Western support for Ukraine.”

Among Europeans, nobody sane wanted this war to happen, and a solid majority wants it to end as soon as possible, with a Ukrainian victory. Most analysts realise, however, that a stable situation is unlikely to be reached as long as Crimea remains under Russia’s control, because it represents a staging ground from which renewed attacks on Ukraine’s mainland can be launched any time. The more vulnerable Ukraine will remain at the end of the war, the bigger need it will have for credible security guarantees, such as membership in NATO.

From all these angles, the logical conclusion is that both the US and the EU have a deep interest in maintaining a strong transatlantic alliance and doing jointly as much as it takes to help Ukraine to retake and defend its territories, the sooner the better. If the West fails to rise to the challenge, its weakness will be exploited not only by Russia but also by other players. 

In the meantime, Ukraine is enduring violent occupation, and doing what it can to defend the free world. Its heroism deserves not only glory and admiration. It deserves that the free world supports fully – and urgently – its quest for the liberation of the unlawfully annexed territories.

Mariam Khotenashvili, TEPSA Executive Director