Two facts about the Ukraine war can never be repeated too often. First, Ukrainians are fighting and dying not only for their own freedom. The imperialist, destructive mindset in the Kremlin threatens Europe and the world. The only safe answer to it is Russia’s speedy and catastrophic military defeat.
Second, Ukrainians are being maimed and killed, and their country is devastated, because Western help has been so hesitant. From tanks to long-range missiles, anti-aircraft systems, and F-16s: again and again, Western countries dither and dally before they feel brave enough to act. The price is paid in Ukrainian blood and tears.
Neither of these facts is properly and widely understood. If they were, Western politicians and commentators would be grateful and shamefaced. Instead, some of them complain impatiently that the Ukraine counter-offensive is proceeding too sluggishly (in effect: “Hurry up, we’re getting bored”). In truth, Ukraine’s forces are perhaps two weeks behind schedule, somewhat hampered by equipment shortages (and who’s to blame for that?). Meanwhile, Russia’s reserves are exhausted, and its command structure is in disarray. This is not a bad outcome.
Even more galling are the calls for Ukraine to be more grateful. The US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan snapped at a Ukrainian questioner at the NATO summit in Vilnius, “I think the American people do deserve a degree of gratitude.” Britain’s defense secretary Ben Wallace caught flak for a similar remark, “Whether we like it or not, people want to see a bit of gratitude.”
In fact, Ukraine has repeatedly and sincerely thanked its Western helpers. The implied rebuke is infuriating. But behind it does lie a serious point. Ukraine and its close friends must convince not only their supporters in the US and Europe but also skeptics and critics. That means, for example, Republicans who associate Ukraine only with the Biden administration or dislike multilateral security on principle. It means left-wing Democrats who think the war is cooked up by imperialist warmongers. It means large slices of the French political spectrum on both the left and the right. It means Germans who are uncomfortable with the realities of geopolitics. It means voters everywhere who are worried about their immediate economic circumstances and think that tax revenues would be better spent at home. We may not like these people. But in a democracy, they matter. “We have to get the language right for the people who don’t agree,” a senior NATO politician tells me.
Ukraine is right to press its case hard. Those who worked in the Clinton White House still remember the intense, sharp-elbowed lobbying by politicians such as Poland’s Lech Wałęsa and the Czechs’ Václav Havel during discussions about NATO enlargement in the 1990s. They used every practical, moral, and political lever. Tempers flare, but bruises fade, and the deal remains: that’s diplomacy.
What counts though is not the vigor with which a case is pressed, but the outcome. Ukraine’s struggle has gained huge sympathy. But nobody would complain about even greater political effectiveness. To take one example, Ukraine’s embassies and ambassadors could be more innovative and dynamic. Another issue is military training. Victory depends not just on the quantity and quality of weapons but the skill of the men and women who use them. Allies such as Wallace rightly stressed this earlier in the war. It is paying dividends now.
These are niggles compared to the political responsibility among Western decision-makers and opinion-formers. We could do far more to punish Russia, to help Ukraine, and to state bluntly that victory is the goal. Ukrainians are fighting for us too. And our delays are costing lives and limbs. Repeat it.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.