Why has Western support for Ukraine been so resilient?

Why has Western support for Ukraine been so resilient? Chris Miller on the strength of the pro-Kyiv coalition, the weakness in Moscow’s understanding of it, and the prospects for world order after the war.
Ahmed Zalabany
(Originally published 2023 | 01.12)

After Russian military forces invaded Ukraine last year, support for the embattled republic swept across the West, as did condemnation of Putin’s aggression—and the threat it represented to the whole idea of democracy sovereignty. Ukraine’s resilience since has won global admiration, and been a source of global inspiration, but that resilience hasn’t come without cost in the West: The protracted war that’s resulted has driven energy and fuel prices dramatically higher—and inflation to levels unseen since the 1980s. And the spike in energy costs, in particular, has provoked public protests in a number of European countries. Yet support among strong majorities in the European Union, the United States, and other democratic countries remains firm. Why is that?

Chris Miller is an assistant professor of international history at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the author of the new book Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology. To Miller, there’s a confluence of reasons: Ukraine’s battlefield success has won the confidence of global publics; Kyiv’s careful management of its allies has won the confidence of Western leaders; and Russia’s own leadership has meanwhile made so many mistakes, and suffered so many setbacks, that it no longer looks like the overwhelming imperial menace it appeared to be a year ago. All of which has supported a powerful moral consensus throughout the West. Russian elites, meanwhile, remain confused by this consensus, expecting it to have collapsed by now. The biggest question, to Miller, is how Moscow will adapt to a global reality it didn’t anticipate—through the end of the war and in its eventual aftermath.

Eve Valentine: Why do you think we haven’t seen any real signs of fatigue in Western support for Ukraine?

Chris Miller: It’s a pivotal question. A year ago—or even nine months ago—there were many, many predictions that the West would get tired of supporting Ukraine, and you’re right, that hasn’t really happened to any appreciable degree—in the U.S. or in Europe.

I think there are a few reasons why. First, the Ukrainians are, by all metrics, winning. They’ve steadily taken back territory from the Russians since Spring 2022. And on the back of those victories, it’s been very straightforward for supporters in the West to point out the very tangible benefits that supporting Ukraine has had on the battlefield.

Second, I think the Ukrainians have overall been very responsive and responsible about escalation risks. And because of that, it’s clear that U.S. President Biden and many European leaders aren’t concerned about the war spiraling beyond its boundaries. Although the Ukrainians have certainly wanted to push back against the Russians and hit them everywhere they can, they’ve also been mindful of the escalation risks that are certainly on the minds of Biden and other Western leaders. And so, while there are certainly disagreements, this has enabled a surprisingly smooth relationship, given all the complexities involved—between the U.S. and Ukraine, as well as European countries and Ukraine.

And then third, a lot of the ominous predictions about ways that Russia might try to expand the war beyond its current framework haven’t happened. In the early stages of the war, we were seeing forecasts of Russian cyber attacks in the West, of Russian nuclear attacks, and all sorts of other escalations that haven’t happened. Now, this doesn’t mean they can’t happen in the future. But the fact that they haven’t happened, so far, has provided a lot of of space for Ukraine’s supporters to say that not only are the benefits of support real in terms of battlefield success, but the costs are limited in relation to some of the catastrophic predictions people were making in the earlier stages of the war.

Valentine: There’s clearly a strong moral component in all of this—a view of Moscow as the authoritarian Goliath and Kyiv as the democratic David. How much do you think the overarching ethical sense of right and wrong is contributing to this enduring support for Ukraine?

Miller: There’s no doubt, the fact that Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine has been defending itself has shaped the way people in every Western country are looking at the situation.

It’s striking, because there are many instances in international politics where moral dynamics aren’t matched by action—and where there are catastrophes that unfold or aggressions that go unpunished. What’s notable about this case is that it’s not only been that Western publics recognize that Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine is the victim; it’s that they’ve taken real steps to do something about it. More often, that’s not the case.

Valentine: Thinking about those real steps, the U.S. and other Western countries are spending considerable taxpayer money to support the war—or rather, Ukraine’s defense. Overall, the costs are still relatively low, and Western soldiers aren’t directly fighting; but on the other hand, we see energy costs rising by 500 percent in some European countries. How are people across the West perceiving the cost of the war for themselves?

Miller: The answer to that question has changed somewhat. In the U.S., the primary impact was on gasoline prices, which spiked last year but have since fallen back to more normal levels. And where it comes to the direct transfer of funds or military aid, the overall dollar value is still small relative to the rest of U.S. government spending. So the typical American isn’t really feeling any direct impact on his or her life.

In Europe, it’s very different, because there’s been a major impact, not just on oil markets, but on natural-gas markets—where you’re seeing prices spike dramatically. And that’s driving inflation higher across much of Central and Eastern Europe.

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More from Chris Miller at The Signal:

I think we hear a lot more talk than is warranted, honestly, about the chances that the U.S. government will reduce its support for Ukraine. If you look at the votes in Congress, they’ve been overwhelmingly in favor of both economic and military aid. And if you look at the number of Republicans in the House that have voiced real skepticism, it’s really a small number. … I’m quite skeptical that we’re going to see any meaningful change in U.S. policy driven by Congress over the next couple of months, if ever.”

Over the last decade, the Russian elite has repeatedly overestimated the extent of division in the West—and now they’ve overestimated its unity and resolve in Ukraine. If you look at what this elite has been saying, and how that’s been refracted in Russian media, and then you compare it with actual debates in Europe, what you’ll find is that the Russians regularly interpret very standard differences of opinion as representing a fundamental crisis—when in reality, it’s just the push and pull of democratic politics.”

There’s little doubt in my mind that this war—unlike the annexation of Crimea in 2014 or the war in Georgia six years earlier—is going to have longer and more significant repercussions for Russian-Western relations beyond the end of the war. But I’m not inclined to think that this is going to blind Western leaders to the realities of international politics or Russian politics. And if by some mechanism, we end up seeing a change in Russia’s leadership, or a significant change in Russian politics, years down the road, I don’t think this war will necessarily make it impossible to improve relations.”

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Categories: Geopolitics

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