The delay in the U.S. Congressional vote on a new tranche of aid to Ukraine is taking a heavy toll in Ukraine and on the international stage. As the delay has allowed Russia to strengthen its hand, the war will continue to be long and costly. Costly in military and economic aid for the West, costly in human lives for Ukrainians. And in the meantime, the siren song of negotiation will have to be resisted.

It took seven months for the U.S. Congress to vote on the new $61bn aid package for Ukraine. Seven months during which an unelected man, Donald Trump, opposed the will of the majority of Congress men and women, through the intermediary of the speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, who blocked the bill’s agenda. Seven months that allowed the Russian aggressor to regain the initiative on the ground. Seven months that left Ukrainians short of the artillery shells they needed to break up Russian ground offensives, short of the air defenses they needed to protect their cities, their energy and logistical infrastructures, and their lines of defense, while the Russian air force was able to operate at lower risk and make use of its fearsome gliding bombs, which do considerable damage at relatively little cost.

We can, of course, welcome the American decision, which will begin to redress the balance of power on the ground. But we also need to be clear about the damage caused by this delay. Ukrainians are paying a considerable price. The opportunity offered by this long “air gap” in Western aid has not escaped Moscow, which has made a considerable effort on the ground and can still count on many weeks before the full effect of the American decision is felt, even if the first deliveries will not be long in coming. Until then, and until the arrival of the first F-16 aircraft, so sorely lacking in Ukraine, which requested them at the start of the war over two years ago, the Kremlin can still hope to make a difference. It has the opportunity to inflict very significant, if not irreparable, losses on Ukrainians, to force Kyiv to negotiate at the end of this year or the beginning of next, from a position of weakness, especially if Donald Trump wins in November. But make no mistake about it: when it comes to negotiations, Vladimir Putin and his clan expect nothing less than a Ukrainian capitulation, and they will do everything they can to achieve it.

A delay with far-reaching consequences

The consequences of this seven-month delay are clear for all to see: Russian advances that are no longer counted in tens or hundreds of meters, but in kilometers; the locality of Chassiv Yar, which plays the role of a lock protecting the strategic cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, highly threatened with capture; incessant bombardment of Kharkiv and the country’s vital infrastructure; and other towns still under Russian fire. Volodymyr Zelensky has made no secret of just how problematic the situation has become, and contrary to his constant declarations since the start of the war, he has spoken of the possibility of defeat.

Admittedly, the Ukrainian president may have deliberately exaggerated the situation to convince the American Republicans who were blocking the aid vote in the House of Representatives, and to push Europeans to further intensify their support and efforts to significantly increase their arms production. Ukraine is not exactly on the brink of collapse. However, this admission of weakness is itself having serious negative effects on Ukrainian morale, particularly at a time when mobilization must be stepped up to put enough soldiers on the ground to stop the Russian offensive.

The demoralization of Ukrainian society remains one of the Kremlin’s objectives. The bombs raining down on Kharkiv, but also on Odessa, bear witness to this. Moscow never forgets that these two largely Russian-speaking cities voted massively for independence in 1991, that in 2014 they resisted Russian attempts to trigger uprisings comparable to those in Donetsk and Luhansk and, finally, that in February 2022 they seemed within reach, but are still free and Ukrainian today, after the Russian offensive was repulsed in Kharkiv and kept at bay in Odessa by the heroic resistance of Mykolaïv. Consequently, one of Russia’s objectives now is to make life unbearable for the inhabitants of these two cities, in the hope that they will eventually be emptied of their population. On the one hand, if Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is to be believed, toppling Ukraine’s second city like a ripe fruit would create a “security zone” that could put the Belgorod and Bryansk regions beyond the reach of Ukrainian artillery and incursions by Russian groups rebelling against Moscow. However, the damage caused by Ukrainian drones to refineries, energy structures and military bases in Russia shows the limits of this “security zone.” On the other hand, stifling the port of Odessa would mean suffocating part of the Ukrainian economy. What the Kremlin’s navy, thwarted by Ukrainian naval drones and missiles, was unable to do, Russian bombs could do, given the current shortage of Ukrainian ground-air defenses. To counter this strategy, we will have to wait for the arrival of new anti-aircraft protection systems and new munitions.

Everyone knows that Russian aggression cannot be stopped without American help. The European build-up is certainly not negligible, but it will take many months – more than a year, no doubt – before it reaches a level sufficient to dissuade Moscow from going any further. Ukrainians and their supporters are therefore enraged at having had to wait for Donald Trump to stop blocking the vote on American aid. While this delay has put Ukraine in a weak position, it has also given Moscow not only a “window of opportunity” to go back on the offensive, but time to redeploy its defense industrial and technological base. Moreover, it has provided grist for the geopolitical mill for Russia and China to unite the “Global South” in their opposition to “American hegemony”. The interconnectedness of current conflicts is obvious, and signs of Western weakness in Ukraine are inevitably interpreted on the various battlefields as encouragement for our adversaries, and as a cause for concern and sometimes mistrust for our partners. Conversely, signs of firmness, as we have just seen in the face of the salvo of drones and missiles fired a few days ago by Iran in the direction of Israel, are likely to limit the destabilizing ambitions of those who profit from chaos.

At a meeting of the Ramstein group // Account X of Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov

Fear of catastrophe

If it comes late, too late, this decision was predictable and inevitable. The United States cannot afford to see Ukraine fall into Moscow’s hands. Its international credibility would be deeply damaged, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, which is crucial to the Americans. China would be considerably strengthened, and Taiwan’s future would be just as dark.

As a candidate for the presidency of the United States, Trump would have no chance of winning if he appeared responsible for such a fiasco. Prolonging the imbalance against Kyiv was not a risk he could take. Some Republicans would not have forgiven him. But the American presidential election is decided by a handful of votes in a few states that can swing from one camp to the other. Trump knows perfectly well that he will not be able to return to the White House if a fringe of the Grand Old Party defects to him. Mike Johnson, who was once one of his loyalists, gave a significant indication of this threat when he presented his decision to finally put aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan to the vote, not as an act of loyalty to the former occupant of the White House – for which he received a lukewarm endorsement – but as a gesture that he was inscribing in line with Ronald Reagan’s vision – “America is back” – in other words, in a Republican tradition quite different from that of the conspiracy and isolationism of the MAGA [Editor’s note: Make America Great Again,].

Could it be that some of the Republicans – the part that disavowed the assault on the Capitol before siding with Trump, for fear of being marginalized by his vindictiveness – are beginning to understand the collapse he and his followers can lead them to? Could it be that they are now more afraid of going down with them than running the risk of an internal political battle to get rid of them and pave the way for America’s return to sanity? That would be good news, but it is far from confirmed. Indeed, thanks to his MAGA base in public opinion, fired up by his incendiary speeches and “alternative truths”, Trump retains a serious power of nuisance against Republicans who would like to oppose him.

In any case, it was the prospect of catastrophe in Ukraine that won the day. However, this tragic possibility has not convinced German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Bundestag deputies of the need to deliver to Kyiv the Taurus missiles that would put the Kerch Bridge out of action for a long time to come. Perhaps American commitment will prompt Berlin to reconsider its “cautious” position. However, it was this prospect, and the prospect of the conflict spreading to the Baltic States and Poland (NATO members) or Moldavia, that prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to say a few weeks ago – shocking our European partners – that nothing should be ruled out, not even the dispatch of “ground troops”. It was the same prospect that convinced Europeans to change course on military budgets and the arms industry. It is also the reason behind British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s announcement in Warsaw of a further £500m in aid, and an increase in his country’s military spending to 2.5% of GDP. It is still a long way from the creation of a genuine European defense system, but a first step has been taken. Above all, the page has been turned away from the old idea that trade alone is enough to guarantee peace, with economic reason supposed to soften warlike passions. This is no longer a time for “soft trade,” but rather for recognition of the need to take account of the balance of power.

Further efforts required

We can only approve of this realization, but since the beginning of the conflict, we have always come back to the same leitmotiv: “Too little, too late”. This delay is taking a heavy toll in Ukrainian lives. But tomorrow it will be paid for by prolonging the conflict for far too long: as long as those in power in Moscow are not convinced that defeat is the only way out of the war launched by Putin, the conflict will continue. More will have to be paid to reverse the current situation once and for all.

As time goes by, Russia is increasing its war effort, and even if it is approaching breaking point of the “bearability” of this effort by its economy and society, it still has some room for manoeuvre. This means that, as long as the logic of a war of attrition persists, the West will have to mobilize new resources and Ukrainians will continue to die on the front line or under the bombs in cities. In the meantime, the siren song of negotiation will have to be resisted. Once again, we hear their voices raised in the direction of those who still do not want to believe that the worst is possible, and who dream of living with the devil, as long as he dons the costume of an altar boy. Joe Biden has just contradicted this prospect by signing the Ukraine aid bill: Ukrainians, he said, are fighting to win. Let’s add: they are not just fighting to limit Russian advances on their territory. Let’s not be less ambitious and courageous than they are.

Jean-François Bouthors is a journalist and essayist, contributing to the magazine Esprit and serving as an editorialist for Ouest-France. He is the author of several books, including Comment Poutine change le monde published by Editions Nouvelles François Bourin in 2016.

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