What Happens If Ukraine Fatigue Sets In?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, under serious political fire at home, has been using Ukraine to play the glorious warrior-leader. Newly returned from a visit to Kyiv, he warned against "Ukraine fatigue."

Explained the Winston Churchill wannabe: "When Ukraine fatigue is setting in, it is very important to show that we are with them for the long haul and we are giving them the strategic resilience that they need. The Russians are grinding forward inch by inch and it is vital for us to show what we know to be true, which is that Ukraine can win and will win."

High-flying rhetoric, but who is "us"? Shortly before Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi made the same pilgrimage. All were seen as a bit soft on Russia, so their visit was meant to signal united European support for Kyiv.

However, the German publication Die Welt reported that they urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to return to negotiations with Moscow. His spokesman issued a heated denial: "On the contrary, at yesterday’s meeting [it was] stated that Ukraine alone can determine when and under what conditions to sit down at the negotiating table with Russia." However, there is no contradiction between formally acknowledging that the decision is Kyiv’s and strongly pushing Ukraine to negotiate.

Indeed, last week Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolzak complained that the West showed no urgency in addressing Ukraine’s serious disadvantage in long-range weapons. Podolzak singled out France and Germany for "hiding from the war." Just tell us if you want us to lose, he chided Western states.

However, verbal legerdemain cannot disguise the fact that Ukrainians naturally care more about their nation’s fate than anyone else. Which means they will spend and risk more to maintain Ukraine’s independence. In contrast, Podolzak no doubt is less interested in the fates of France, Germany, and Italy than are their respective political leaders.

European governments continue to favor Ukraine, but "fatigue" is a good description, especially for their peoples. Russia’s unjust invasion of Ukraine spurred a burst of popular fervor behind Kyiv, but four months later other concerns now are crowding in. For instance, Americans are focused on raging inflation, product shortages, political divisions, and future uncertainties.

The Biden administration remains committed to the war, even talking about supporting Ukraine over the long-term, but the president has attempted to moderate expectations. He speaks of preserving an independent Ukraine, not defeating Russia, and concern over the dangers of escalation has increased after some careless rhetoric from his officials. Although the administration continues to make Ukraine a priority, opposition to ever increasing aid is emerging among Republicans. As the mid-term elections approach, the administration will have to focus even more on domestic issues and might begin to see advantages in relaxing anti-Russian sanctions that are hurting Americans.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in Europe. In varying degrees France, Germany, Hungary, and Italy all have governments inclined toward ending the war sooner rather than later. Many others have made no practical contribution to Kyiv. Even NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, who attempts to be all things to all members, implicitly admitted that victory was not likely for Ukraine. Peace is possible, he noted: "The only question is what price are you willing to pay for peace? How much territory, how much independence, how much sovereignty… are you willing to sacrifice for peace?"

The ultimate objective greatly affects current policy. Noted the Financial Times: "The difference between those who call for Ukrainian victory and those who restrict themselves to saying that Russia must not win is much more than a matter of nuance. It dictates crucial decisions about the kind of weaponry to be provided for Ukraine – and whether and when to push for a peace settlement."

These divisions are likely to increase. A survey of ten countries offered a warning to their leaders. Reported the Guardian: "The survey found that despite strong support across Europe for Ukraine’s bid to join the EU and the West’s policy of severing ties with Moscow, many voters in Europe want the war to end as soon as possible – even if that means Ukraine losing territory." The divisions between countries are great, with pro-peace sentiment generally increasing as one moves westward. This will increase pressure states to push diplomatic options.

Although governments often pursue foreign policies that lack public support, indeed, that sometimes face public opposition, doing so requires relatively quiescent populations. To the extent people increasingly blame the war for their economic travails, the political winds may shift. Public sentiment for Ukraine burgeoned in the early days as allied governments, driven by Europe’s easternmost members, aggressively backed Kyiv, providing it with weapons and imposing sanctions on Russia. Now the shift of public sentiment toward "peace" and away from "justice," as the positions were labeled, may force a policy reversal. Explained the pollsters, "in the next phase countries such as Poland could find themselves marginalized if the ‘peace’ camp broadens its appeal among the other member states."

And that seems likely for several reasons. Although there is good reason to favor Ukraine, its status is not a vital or even an important security interest for America and most European states. In fact, that is why neither the US nor European NATO members supported bringing Kyiv into the transatlantic alliance, despite 14 years of whispering sweet nothings in Ukrainians’ ears. No one wanted to fight for Ukraine because it was not a vital concern to any of them.

Protecting America remains Washington’s highest priority, and that interest is best served by seeking to end rather than prolong the war. Sanctions obviously have hurt Russia and the impact might increase in coming years, especially on access to semiconductor chips and other important technologies. However, the West is paying a high price as well, and taking desperate, even embarrassing, measures in search of relief, such as placating oil-rich dictatorships United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the allies discovered, apparently to their surprise, that most Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American countries are unwilling to join the anti-Moscow campaign. Such is the price paid by Western nations, especially America, for past hypocrisy, arrogance, and cruelty, epitomized by the disastrous experience of Washington’s last two decades of promiscuous war-making. The dissenters are providing a new market for Russian exports, such as oil. Although few countries will challenge allied sanctions directly, opportunities for Russian evasion will increase over the long-term.

The longer the Russo-Ukraine war continues the greater the opportunity for escalation. Kyiv, with some support from the West, understandably hopes to regain territory lost to Russia even in 2014, including Crimea. Members of the War Party in the US and Europe (who actually expect America, not Europe, to fight any conflict that might result) dismiss the likelihood of Russian escalation.

However, Ukraine is a vital security interest to Moscow, even if Washington and Brussels claim not to understand why. From Russia’s viewpoint, as US hawks are apt to say, defeat is not an option. The Putin government is likely to be as determined as any American administration to do whatever is necessary to achieve victory. Toward that end Moscow could fully mobilize and/or turn to WMDs, chemical and even nuclear weapons. Doing so would be risky, but Russian President Vladimir Putin might consider defeat to be even more dangerous.

An ongoing war in Europe will almost inevitably have unpredictable impacts on international relations and economic development, few of which are positive. One of the most serious is interfering with Ukraine exporting grain and planting the next crop. Proposals for NATO to break Russia’s Black Sea blockade are impractical at best and dangerous at worst, further dividing allied sentiment. Making Moscow more dependent on an increasingly repressive and potentially aggressive China is another, which could have significant implications for the Asia-Pacific. Similar is increasing reliance on the Saudis and Emiratis, who have killed far more Yemeni civilians than Russians have killed Ukrainian civilians – makes a mockery of Washington’s claimed human rights principles. The longer the war, the greater the dangers.

Finally, the conflict is devastating Ukraine. Casualties have been heavy, millions have been displaced, cities have been reduced to rubble, and the economy has crashed. "Victory" would require more, much more, of the same, inviting even more severe destruction if Moscow escalated. Only Ukrainians can decide their own fate, but they deserve an honest assessment of allied sentiment, which seems unlikely to carry them through to the sort of victory desired. And as economic problems mount around the world, Americans and Europeans are going to grow less enthused about treating Kyiv as a well-nigh permanent financial dependent. Instead of being shocked, shocked that the allies see their cause as less than urgent, Ukrainians should adjust their expectations and objectives to match that predictable reality.

The conditions for "Ukraine fatigue" were evident even before Russia launched its invasion. NATO members pretended to welcome Kyiv’s prospective inclusion while refusing to advance its bid – for 14 years. The allies preferred to provide rhetorical than practical support. Although today the Baltic States and a few other governments such as Poland generously back war measures that only the US could enforce, elsewhere support for peace grows. The conflict is a crime and a tragedy, but its speedy end would be the best resolution possible.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.