Ukraine as a mirror: should we pay an insurance premium?

Flag of Ukraine waving on a bridge over the Irpin river, next to Hostomel, on the outskirts of Kyiv
Ukrainian flag waving on a bridge over the Irpin river, next to Hostomel, on the outskirts of Kyiv. Photo: Joel Carrillet / Getty Images

War-weariness is becoming a problem but there is a need for continuity in the support for Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine is entering its third year. Ukraine has become a mirror that reflects a number of images: the breakdown of Europe’s security and defence architecture; Russia’s revisionist and revanchist policies; the heroism of the Ukrainian people; Ukraine’s dependency on western and, in particular, US aid; the unity of the 27 EU Member States in supporting its neighbour; and the differing perceptions of citizens in Europe and across the world of the nature of the threat the conflict represents.

Although support for Ukraine remains solid, particularly among the European public, there are signs of war-weariness and defeatism in public opinion in western countries. Following the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in 2023, Ukraine’s survival in 2024 will depend on the success of its ‘active defence’ strategy, on ongoing western political, economic and military support, on the military industrial capacity to produce the arms that Ukraine needs and, above all, on political will and the belief, on the part of political leaders and citizens, that investing in Ukraine’s defence is a deterrent. The belief, in other words, that paying this insurance premium to prevent a continent-wide war with Russia will be far cheaper than actually fighting a war with Russia.

Although the Ukrainians are committed to repelling the invaders, the future of Ukraine will be decided not only on the battlefield but also in Washington and Brussels.


Introduction: the current situation of the three levels of the war in Ukraine –political, strategic, tactical–

The political objectives of both Russia and Ukraine remain unchanged. Russia seeks to turn Ukraine into a failed state, with a puppet government controlled by Moscow, and to cut it adrift from its western allies. Ukraine aspires to maintain its territorial integrity and its sovereignty, and to become a member of the EU and NATO.

The strategic level is marked by the failed hope of the Ukrainian counter-offensive of 2023. The Ukrainian armed forces’ success in resisting the initial Russian invasion of February 2022, and its subsequent progress in the regions of Kharkiv and Kherson, fed such hopes. The massive effort by Ukraine’s allies and partners to rearm and retrain its armed forces was designed to achieve a strategic advance in the south, threatening Russia’s control over Crimea and forcing Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate with Ukraine under conditions that are favourable to the latter. Although summer brought some Ukrainian successes (particularly against Russian warships in the Black Sea) there was no advance on land.

While the Russian offensive of 2022 failed due to poor preparation and low morale, the country’s armed forces have gradually adapted, establishing a deep defence of the territories they occupy. As Mick Ryan has explained, Russia has acquired an advantage in strategic adaptation –the capacity to systematise its learning throughout the army, and to use its defence industry to manufacture the arms it requires– while the Ukrainian armed forces, although they have an innovative military culture, lack the capacity to translate adaptation into a strategic initiative, let alone to build a stronger link between tactical learning and industrial production.

During 2023 neither of the two participants made significant advances in the (re)conquest of territory. While the Ukrainian armed forces prepared a counter-offensive, the Russian armed forces constructed solid, deep defences in the conquered territory. There is no end to the war in sight.

What will the war in Ukraine be like in 2024?

The ‘magic prognosis’ of the western powers, whose conclusions were based on mistaken premises, was that the Russian economy would collapse after 11 rounds of economic sanctions, a palace coup would lead to regime change in Moscow and Ukraine would achieve victory on the battlefield. This has not come to pass. On the second anniversary of the war, the Russian armed forces have advanced in four regions of south-eastern Ukraine. The US Senate (where the Democratic Party holds the majority) has approved an aid package worth US$90 billion for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, which is pending approval by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. And the EU has released an economic aid package worth €50 billion, but has only supplied 600,000 of the one million missiles it had promised to deliver to Ukraine by March 2024. The war in Gaza and the Red Sea is dominating public opinion, dividing the US effort to defend its allies. Ukraine is running out of arms and munition to protect its cities. And political divisions in Kyiv are becoming increasingly visible. The dismissal of General Valerii Zaluzhnyi by President Zelenskyy, at the start of February 2024, does not mean that Ukraine faces immediate military disaster, but it does reflect the President’s desperation in his need to reinvent himself, to forge a new strategy for the war and also to identify a scapegoat on whom to blame the failure of the counter-offensive. However, the impression is that Zelenskyy is more or less openly placing his personal interests above those of the state, given that Zaluzhnyi is the only leader whose popularity (around 88%) is greater than Zelenskyy’s (around 62%). Some 72% of Ukrainians do not agree with the decision to dismiss Zaluzhnyi.

As Russia’s political objectives have not changed, and it has superior military capacities (human capital, defence industry and economic situation), Ukraine has no choice but to adopt a strategy of ‘active defence’, not just for 2024 but for the long term. The objective of liberating all occupied territory remains, but with the balance of forces decidedly in Russia’s favour, it is unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future. Much of what is required for the new defensive strategy was already being done, including the construction of defensive structure along the line of contact, the installation of air defences, and counter-measures to protect troops, cities and towns and basic infrastructure, the reconstitution and recycling of active defence units, and the acquisition of long-range precision attack capacities. The West’s hope for 2024 is that Ukraine will be able to prevent the loss of more territory than the fifth of the country already occupied by Russia. However, Russia is prepared for a long war.

The underlying logic of ‘active defence’ is to create a margin for the Ukrainian armed forces to prepare to resume large-scale offensive operations in 2025, with the aim of liberating the territories occupied by Russia. However, this will be just another ‘magic prognosis’ without continuing and increased military, economic and political support from the West. ‘Without it, simply put, everything the Ukrainians have achieved and what we helped them achieve will be in jeopardy’, argues Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State. Diplomats and officials admit that, without the US, Europe would be unable to sustain the war effort.

The West faces a vital choice at this moment: support Ukraine so that its leaders can defend their territory and prepare for an offensive in 2025 or cede an irretrievable advantage to Russia? At the same time, a longer war will have consequences for the post-war situation Ukraine. Western resources are not unlimited. And while the Kremlin claims it is prepared to negotiate a peace agreement with Ukraine, Moscow is hoping that Donald Trump wins the upcoming US presidential elections and is counting on the gradual effect of time and war-weariness to shift public opinion in western countries to exert pressure on governments to stop providing aid to Ukraine.

European perceptions of the war in Ukraine

According to the Eurobarometer of December 2023, support for actions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains very high. Almost nine out of every 10 (89%) European citizens agree with providing humanitarian support to the people affected by the war, and more than eight in 10 (84%) agree with welcoming into the EU people fleeing the war. Up to 72% agree with providing financial support to Ukraine. The same proportion (72%) supports economic sanctions on the Russian government, companies and individuals. Around six in 10 approve of the EU granting candidate status to Ukraine (61%) and of the EU financing the purchase and supply of military equipment to Ukraine (60%).

However, a survey by the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR) in September-October 2023 reveals different responses to more specific questions about the military aspect of the war. The key question, one that reflects the true level of European public support for the Kyiv government, is whether we should help Ukraine to regain all of its territory, including Crimea, or accept a ‘territory for peace’ agreement with Russia. The results of this survey suggest that Europeans’ support for Ukraine’s fight has begun to fall. The change so far has not been large, but there is no doubt about its direction. According to the previous ECFR poll, conducted in January 2023 in 10 European countries, on average 38% of respondents wanted Ukraine to regain all its territory. In the December survey, this number had fallen to 34%. The percentage of people who think the conflict between Russia and Ukraine needs to end as soon as possible, even if that means Ukraine losing some territory to Russia, has essentially remained stable at 28% to 29%.

Support for Ukraine is particularly high in countries that could be future targets of Russian expansionism. There are countries where the preference for Ukraine to regain all its territory prevails over the desire for the war to end as soon as possible: by 63% to 13% in Estonia, by 46% to 24% in Denmark, by 43% to 22% in Poland and by 41% to 19% in the UK. By contrast, in Italy 46% believe the war should end as soon as possible and only 14% are in favour of supporting Ukraine until it regains all its territory; in Germany the corresponding figures are 40% and 28%, and in Romania 38% and 16%. The French are equally divided between the two options, each supported by 28% of respondents. But in all of these countries, the option of supporting Ukraine until it regains all its territory has fallen since January: from 52% to 43% in Poland, from 35% to 28% in France, and from 26% to 14% in Italy. In eastern European countries that are closer to the conflict region, support for Ukraine is generally strong. But even in these countries there are signs that people are becoming tired of the war and its consequences, as shown by the data from Poland, which has been one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters since the start of the invasion.

The ECFR survey does not provide data on the opinions of Spaniards. However, a poll conducted by Sigma Dos in May 2023 offers the following results: Spaniards approve of continued military support, but while 31% are in favour of Kyiv regaining all its territory, 35% of respondents are in favour of negotiating ‘peace for territory’, while those who wish to completely end the supply of arms to Ukraine are 20%.

The US perceptions of the war in Ukraine

In the case of the US, the Gallup poll of November 2023 found that the majority of US voters still believe that the US should support Ukraine in recovering its territory, even if this means a prolonged conflict. But the number has also fallen: from 66% in August 2022 to 54% in November 2023. Some 43% are in favour of the US trying to help negotiate a rapid end to the war, even if that means Ukraine ceding territory to Russia, in comparison with a figure of 31% supporting that option in August 2022.

And 61% of US voters believe that support for Ukraine should have limits (irrespective of their party affiliation), while 37% believe the US should maintain financial support as long as Kyiv requests it.

Perceptions of the war in Ukraine in the rest of the world

The ECFR survey of October 2023 shows that, with the exception of South Korea, countries that are not part of the transatlantic relationship do not perceive the war in Ukraine as an existential question (in contrast with the countries of eastern Europe) and do not see Ukraine as defending the principles of the international order led by the West. In those countries, around 50% of respondents believe the war should end as soon as possible, even if this means that Ukraine will not recover all of its territory. The division that has been evident since the start of the war in Ukraine with respect to economic sanctions on Russia remains very clear, with the countries imposing sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine accounting for just 16.1% of the global population, although they generate 61.2% of global GDP.

Figure 1. Which of the following best reflects your view? (%)

Source: Living in an à la carte world: What European policymakers should learn from global public opinion,  European Council on Foreign Relations, 2023.

Conclusions: why do we have to pay insurance premiums?

As Figure 2 shows, the West has provided a huge amount of humanitarian, financial and military aid over recent years. However, political leaders have not prepared public opinion to accept that the war in Ukraine would be long and very costly, or that there needs to be a new policy to contain Russia that includes diplomatic, political and economic instruments, and deterrence through the Atlantic Alliance.

Ukraine needs much more help, because 2024 will be critical to its survival as a sovereign state. Russian victory would not only represent the end of Ukraine as a sovereign, democratic, independent state, but would also strike a major blow to the liberal international order. The change to Ukraine’s borders by force could serve as a model for other authoritarian leaders throughout the world.

A long war in Ukraine favours Russia, which has more resources and is not dependent on foreign aid. Russia currently enjoys a 5 to 1 firepower advantage, as its manufacture and acquisition of missiles has increased while western supplies have dwindled. Support for Ukraine has been and will remain very costly for the West. However, a Russian victory in Ukraine would be even more costly, particularly for Europe, as Moscow would perpetuate its threat in the neighbourhood.

We are paying very heavily now for failing to face the insurance premiums essential for security of an Empire!’ wrote General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, during the Second World War, in his diary of February 1942, referring to the UK’s insufficient preparation to resist Nazi Germany. History must not be allowed to repeat itself. If the West and in particular Europe (given the likelihood of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections) wants to conserve the liberal international order, it must start by investing in its own security, increasing military spending and aid to Ukraine. Because our values are our interests.