Ukraine’s Dark Clouds – and a Silver Lining?

By the end of last year, international news on Ukraine began increasingly to look like obituaries. “Kyiv on edge,” “Ukraine’s grim prospects,” “Ukraine braces for political disaster,” “Ukraine’s nightmare scenario is now a reality”: these are just a few headlines theby reputable Western media. For some analysts it was merely a way to draw public attention to the “perils of abandoning Ukraine”: irrepairable damage to international law, to the reputation of Western democracies and their institutions, and ultimately to European and global security. But for others, it was one more suitable opportunity to call for peace talks and “reasonable compromises,” proving that “Ukraine can’t win” and that “Russia’s plan B is working” (the plan being the West’s fatigue and Ukraine’s exhaustion). In any case, the cumulative effect of these media headlines is that they tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Since the failure of Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive in 2023, two buzzwords have become especially popular to describe the situation: “stalemate” and “fatigue”. Yale Professor Timothy Snyder spoke out angrily against the both terms, arguing that they not only obscure the reality but also distort adequate policies: “How we speak drives how we think, and how we think drives what we do, or choose not to do”. Stalemate is a metaphor borrowed from thchess that reflects a peculiar situation when the pieces are deadlocked: they cannot move because of some curiosities of the rules. But war is not a chess game, since the number of players/resources on this “chessboard” can be changed. In other words, Ukraine can get – and needs to get – more weapon to its strategic advantage. Because so far, as another observer sarcastically remarked, “Ukraine is fighting a war against Russian aggression with one hand tied behind its back”.

Snyder reacts to the term “fatigue” even more emotionally: “I have been in Ukraine three times since the war began. I have been in the capital and in the provinces. I have seen almost no Americans, fatigued or otherwise, in the country. And that is for the simple reason that we are not in Ukraine. How can we be fatigued by a war we are not fighting, when we are not even present? This makes no sense. It causes no fatigue to give money to the right cause, which is all that we are doing. It feels good to help other people help themselves for a good cause”.

Human parsimony might be a problem but certainly not the only – and probably not the main – one. As long as we operate with the percentage of GDP that the Western states spend on Ukraine (all forms of aid) the figures are miniscule: from 0.9 % endorsed by Germany to 0.5% by France and Italy, 0.4 by the UK and 0.3 by the US and Canada. A far cry from what the small Nordic states are giving to Ukraine: 1.8% of GDP by Lithuania and Estonia, and 1.6% by Norway, Denmark, and Latvia. But in gross (nominal) terms these modest figures turn into millions and billions of dollars that the citizens of any state would be happy to appropriate domestically for various social programs rather than give them abroad for some uncertain and sometimes unclear purpose. In other words, we encounter a communication problem – the ability (will and skill) of governments, experts, public figures and media workers to explain comprehensively what the whole story is about and how many Ukrainian lives can be spared with each percentile of sacrificed GDP.

And here we come back to the “fatigue” problem that is largely induced by the media and exacerbates many other problems. Sorbonne Professor Francoise Thom expresses a rather grim view of her fellow citizens, who have not the “slightest notion of what is at stake in the conflict” (and this view is probably applicable probably not only to the French): “Subjected to the daily bombardment of news, they have acquired a flickering perception of the world, where one sensational news item drives out another, where the same irrational affects pour out on successive objects, one event eclipsing and erasing the previous one, while only the torrent of emotions remains permanent… The passions aroused by the Middle East conflict have diverted attention from the Russian-Ukrainian war, and obscured in our minds what is at stake: the freedom of European nations”.

Ukraine has apparently entered a difficult time as her resistance capacity is severely challenged in both the European Union and the United States. In the EU, a five-billion aid package was blocked by the Moscow-friendly Hungarian government (supported, so far verbally, by the similarly populist government of Slovakia). In the US, the partisan bickering over a broad set of issues effectively blocked the envisioned 60-billion military aid for Ukraine. In both cases, the situation is not hopeless. EU officials look for a way to legally overcome obstruction of two petty blackmailers within their ranks, while in the US the negotiations about a possible compromise are pending between republicans and democrats. Neither camp, ironically, denies the need to support Ukraine, but none wants to give any policy advantage to the rivals in an election year.

This made the White House recently (on Jan. 17) summon the top congressional leaders for a private meeting and provide them with a “classified time frame for when Ukraine’s key military resources will be significantly depleted”. The president’s security advisers did not predict an outright victory for Russia but emphasized, reportedly, that “Ukraine’s position will grow more difficult over the course of the year” and that the country “will run low on various capabilities in the short term”. The gravest of all these prospects is Ukraine’s looming inability to protect civilians in big cities from the barrage of Russian drones and missiles. The president’s aides, remarkably, also reminded the lawmakers that “the lack of aid would affect many more countries in addition to Ukraine and could prompt other countries that rely on the US, including Japan and South Korea, to rethink their alliances”.

Ukrainian officials are still confident that problems with aid will be solved and assert that in any case Ukraine will fight as long as it takes. They might be, however, more nervous than they claim to be – as Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s recent remark indicates: “If we run out of weapons, we will fight with shovels”. One may wonder if this is an expression of self-confidence or, rather, despair.

Ironically, one may find an encouragement coming from a different, absolutely unexpected corner. A prominent Russian warmonger and Ukraine-hater, the former president and prime minister of the Russian Federation and current deputy head of the National Security Council, Dmitri Medvedev, wrote recently in a Telegram post that an independent Ukraine will never be a legitimate state regardless of who leads the government because the very presence of an independent Ukrainian state on what he calls “historical Russian territories” is a “constant reason for the resumption of hostilities” – either from 10 or 50 years from now, regardless of whether Ukraine (“that artificial state”) joins the EU or even NATO. So, he concludes, Ukrainians will be terrorized by Moscow as long as it takes – until they recognize that Ukraine’s very existence as an independent state is “mortally dangerous” for them. They will be killed and tortured until “they understand that life [with Russia] in a large common state, which they do not want very much now, is better than death. Their deaths and the deaths of their loved ones. And the sooner Ukrainians realize this, the better”.

Most commentators focused on the genocidal essence of Medvedev’s message but it was barely new because Medvedev and the entire Kremlin elite have been expressing the same ideas afor the past two years at least: Ukrainians are Russians and they can survive if they accept this. But those who refuse, are surely Nazis and should be exterminated. What surprisingly passed unnoticed, however, in Medvedev’s statement, was his apparent uncertainty about the current “special military operation”. His assumption that the war with Ukraine may last for 10 or even 50 years, and that Ukraine still may become anthe EU and NATO member does not indicate total confidence in immediate victory unlike his boss. One may only guess only whether the deep feelings of others in the Kremlin about the war prospects differ much from Medvedev’s.

In any case, Ukraine has a good chance of making their worst fears come true. If only Ukraine’s partners properly understand this chance.

Mykola Ryabchuk is a research director at the Institute of Political and Nationality Studies of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and a lecturer at the University of Warsaw. He has written extensively on civil society, nation-state building, national identity, and post-communist transition. One of his books has been translated into French: De la 'Petite-Russie' à l'Ukraine, published in Paris by L'Harmattan in 2003.

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