Putin trying to wait out Western support

Maximilian Hess

A year into Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine stands steadfast. The Ukrainians have displayed remarkable resilience and courage in defending their country. They have managed to stop the blitzkrieg Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped would bring him a quick victory and have carried out a successful counter-offensive in the east and south.
As a result, Russia does not control a significant portion of the territory whose annexation it proclaimed last September in violation of international law, and it is suffering mounting losses. Despite the less than stellar performance of the Russian army, Putin is showing no signs of abandoning the conflict. In his February 21 State of the Nation speech, he openly labelled the conflict a war, dropping the “special military operation” narrative he used earlier, and vowed to continue going “further” into Ukrainian territory to push the “threat away from our borders”.
The West has so far demonstrated that it stands by Ukraine. On February 20, US President Joe Biden made an unannounced visit to Kyiv, where he met with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy and pledged that Washington will back Ukraine “for as long as it takes”. The following day, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni also travelled to Kyiv to meet with the Ukrainian president. She affirmed Italian support for Ukraine and said that her government intends to supply Spada and Skyguard air defence systems to the Ukrainian army, in addition to the SAMP-T/Mamba, which it had already decided to deliver together with France.
A few days earlier, at this year’s Munich Security Conference, other European leaders pledged their support for Ukraine and even recognised they had been too slow to provide it with the weaponry needed to push Russia further back towards the pre-February 24 lines of control. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for the West to deliver as many tanks to Ukraine “now” despite his own months of dithering on the decision to do so. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak endorsed allies sending combat aircraft to Ukraine and providing training to Ukrainian pilots on the most advanced jets.
The West has also shown unwavering commitment to economic sanctions on Russia aimed at weakening the Kremlin, decreasing its war chest, and constraining its ability to invest in its war-making capabilities. The latest major sanction – a ban on Russian refined oil products – came into effect on February 5. US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has said that the G7, the group of leading world economies, is discussing plans for new sanctions which could be announced during the bloc’s February 24 virtual summit.
But Western support for Ukraine has also been lacking in certain respects. The West has not endorsed writing off Ukrainian debt, while proposals that assets seized from the Russian central bank and blacklisted Russian oligarchs be given to Kyiv as compensation have yet to progress. It has also faced bottlenecks in terms of production and struggled with getting third countries to approve transfers, which threaten its ability to supply Kyiv with sufficient ammunition. Western policy is effectively too reactionary and piecemeal. While it is crucial that support remains adaptive in response to evolving threats and potential new attacks, it is important to ensure it is maintained over the long term.
Over this horizon, the lack of a formal alliance between the West and Ukraine is a risk that needs to be addressed. As the conflict has transformed into a war of attrition, Putin is now clearly hoping to wait out the West on its support for Ukraine and thus secure a victory on the battlefield in the long term. While Western cohesion in the aftermath of the initial invasion has been among the few positive surprises, Putin recognises that the longer his war goes on, the more costly it will be for the West to finance Ukrainian defence and reconstruction efforts. He sees the war’s economic costs as potentially helping to bring to power more pliable Western leaders in the years to come.
Foremost among these is former US President Donald Trump, comfortably the odds-on favourite to be the Republican nominee again in the 2024 presidential race. He has increasingly criticised Western support for Kyiv and said that he believes he can secure a peace agreement with Putin if re-elected. Meanwhile, a former associate of his advisor Rudy Giuliani has admitted that their efforts in Ukraine sought to undermine its ability to defend itself from Russia. Europe, too, still has its own prominent politicians who are sympathetic to Putin’s arguments. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has maintained his pro-Kremlin rhetoric, though his budgetary dependence on EU funding has reined in his urge to veto sanctions against Russia.
Other examples include Meloni’s coalition partner, Silvio Berlusconi, who is a longstanding friend of Putin’s, having visited him in Crimea after its 2014 annexation. France’s perennial far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is also known for her soft approach to Russia. Jordan Bardella, her successor as leader of the National Rally party, has in recent weeks called for lifting energy sanctions on the Kremlin. With France’s next general election not due until 2027, the risk of a pro-Russian president coming to power may not be so pressing, but Putin sees openings elsewhere. For example, in Slovakia, the parliament approved a snap election for September 30 after the government lost a no-confidence vote. Former Prime Minister Robert Fico, who is critical of EU sanctions on Russia and opposes sending weapons to Ukraine, stands a chance of winning the vote with his Smer-SD party and heading a coalition that may be more sympathetic to Moscow than the current one. To preclude the risk of support for Ukraine wavering due to disunity, the West must begin to consider the long game in its own strategy. One crucial step is to conclude a formal alliance with Ukraine. If the US, the EU and UK were able to agree on such a move, it would demonstrate to Putin not only the failure of his current war strategy but also underpin long-term support.
Ukraine’s NATO and EU aspirations are, of course, in part aimed at securing just such an alliance. But while Russian forces still occupy large swaths of Ukrainian territory, membership in NATO is not a realistic prospect. Despite the approval of its EU candidacy last year, Kyiv is also a long way from joining the bloc. As Turkey and several Balkan states can attest, EU membership candidacy can be a decades-long waiting house. That is why a separate formal alliance between the West and Ukraine is needed – one that would not inhibit the country’s EU and NATO aspirations. It does not have to offer formal security guarantees mandating Western intervention either. But it should provide a legal and enduring basis to solidify the current reality that Ukraine and the West are each other’s foremost allies.
Such an alliance could build on the precedent of the declarations on defence and security cooperation signed between the UK and Sweden and Finland last May, which preceded their NATO applications. These agreements pledge support when a member comes under attack but do not mandate direct intervention. The past year has shown that Putin cannot win this war, but Ukraine could lose it if it is abandoned by the West. Guaranteeing enduring Western support is the only hope of forcing the Russian president to the negotiating table. Failing that, it would ensure he loses on the battlefield.