October 17, 2023

IntelBrief: No End in Sight, Hard Questions Ahead for Ukraine and Allies

AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The disappointments of a slow, grinding counteroffensive are just one factor threatening the long-term prospects for Ukraine’s Western support.
  • Even at its most active positions, the counteroffensive has only pushed a handful of kilometers through the frontlines after more than four months.
  • While it is unlikely that the loss of support from any single European state – whose support is currently at risk as war fatigue sets in – would dramatically change prospects for the Ukrainian military, U.S. political divisions and dysfunction could strongly diminish the durability of the pro-Ukraine coalition.
  • Partnered with a rudderless U.S. House of Representatives, the Biden administration is attempting to push more aid for Ukraine by bundling it with a weapons deal supporting Israel’s war against Hamas.

Four months into Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the battle lines have hardly budged, offering evidence the war could become a protracted conflict that Ukraine’s allies may not have the appetite to support. If this proves to be true, the West must figure out how to square early pledges to support Ukraine’s armed forces ‘for as long as it takes’ to reclaim every last inch of Ukrainian soil with growing political pressure at home to end the war, or at least their military support of it. Across the coalition, some signs are emerging that maintaining the reliable support Ukraine has counted on since February 2022 will be an uphill battle in the year ahead.

In Eastern Europe – perhaps the continent’s strongest enclave of support for Ukraine – recent national elections have revealed some troubling trends for the future of that backing. In Slovakia, the public’s support for Ukrainian refugees in the country is waning, and polling shows that Slovakian citizens are increasingly blaming Ukraine and the West for starting the war. The country was once one of the largest European donors to Ukraine’s war effort in terms of share of its gross domestic product. The far-left populist party that won last month’s national parliamentary elections had campaigned on a pledge to cut off military aid to Ukraine altogether. By contrast, after Poland’s current prime minister announced his country would no longer supply Ukraine with any new arms beyond what it had already agreed to furnish, his far-right Law and Justice party appears poised to lose its parliamentary majority. The pushback on Ukraine aid was seen as a move to secure nationalist vote shares – a tactic in other European contexts that has politically unified the far-left and far-right – at a time when Polish farmers have been complaining about the distortion of Eastern European grain prices by an influx of cheap Ukrainian agricultural products.

Although the cost-of-living crisis – which has been in ways directly linked to European voter’s fatigue and dissatisfaction with aid to Ukraine – as well as migration have become seminal issues for voters in several elections, the outcomes of these elections cannot merely be seen as referendums on the war. The issue does not appear to be a major undercurrent for the Netherlands' November elections, for example. In August, the Dutch defense minister expressed confidence that there remained a national consensus to support Ukraine support even after its recent government collapse. The Netherlands has been another important European partner to Ukraine, helping spearhead a training program for Ukrainian fighter pilots and being among the first countries to express willingness to donate F-16s to the cause. Last month, the defense minister said the first batch of Dutch fighter jets would arrive in Ukraine sometime next year. The severity of the winter will also test Europe’s resolve for sanctioning Russian energy. While it is unlikely that losing support from any single European state currently on the fence would dramatically change short-term forecasts for Ukraine, a four-year, $21.3 billion weapons financing plan for Ukraine is contingent on an agreement being reached by all 27 members of the European Union. The outcome of upcoming European parliamentary elections in 2024 could see long-term support shift, if far-left and far-right parties demanding an end to aid in Ukraine either win more seats in the European Parliament or are able to pull more centrist parties further over on the issue, as seen on the issue of migration.

Perhaps the gravest threat, however, lies with the political dysfunction of Ukraine’s greatest supporter, the United States, whose contributions are unparalleled amongst Ukraine’s allies. Two weeks ago, members of the U.S. Congress’ lower House of Representatives elected to vacate their Speaker from office for the first time in history, while the legislature has been kicking a government budget deal down the road for months with temporary stopgap measures. With the next government funding deadline coming up in November, this lack of legislative coordination is an especially glaring vulnerability. If a new agreement to fund the government is not reached, the United States will not be able to approve any new aid beyond what has already been agreed upon until the stalemate is resolved.

However, some lawmakers are working with the Biden administration to pass Ukraine appropriations by combining it with support for Israel’s war against Hamas. Military aid for both countries is reportedly being tied together into a $2 billion aid package that could be presented to Congress as early as this week. Nonetheless, anti-Ukraine sentiments are becoming increasingly prominent among Congressional Republicans, while some pro-Ukraine advocates have called for increasing support, perhaps by increasing the number of U.S. military advisors on the ground in Ukraine. With one year left until the U.S. presidential election, where Donald Trump is widely expected to claim the Republican nomination, whichever party takes the presidency will undoubtedly seize major influence over Ukraine policy.

To keep allies on board, Ukraine must not only prove it is making good use of Western aid by delivering significant battlefield victories and demonstrating how Ukraine’s success is essential for Western interests but also contend with legitimate corruption concerns. Earlier this month, Politico reported that a confidential report by the U.S. Department of State called out “high-level corruption” in Ukraine as a serious liability for allied support. Over the past year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has fired over a dozen officials, including his defense minister, for various reasons related to corruption.

Despite slow progress in the southern oblasts where it has focused its counteroffensive, Ukraine did achieve some tactical victories this summer, particularly around Crimea. This included blowing up a section of the Kerch Bridge which connects Russia to Crimea, though this has reportedly since been repaired. Yet, Ukrainians have only made a small dent in Russia’s defenses after spending months trying to cut off their supply lines into Crimea, a mission the U.S. intelligence community assessed this summer would fail. Where Ukraine has managed to penetrate Russian defenses, its forces have not been able to exploit these breakthroughs to re-take territory more than ten kilometers beyond the frontline, according to mapping by the Institute for the Study of War. One of the first major strategic targets along this axis, a transportation hub in the city of Tokmak, still lies some 20 kilometers away from Ukraine’s forwardmost positions. Meanwhile, the distance from the frontline to the Sea of Azov – the furthest the military would have to travel to cut off this land bridge – is at least one hundred kilometers. These gains do, however, place many logistical corridors within range of Ukrainian artillery, making the Russian positions in and around Crimea more vulnerable.