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The author is an FT editor, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a fellow at the IWM Vienna
“No one believes in our victory like I do,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a recent interview with Time Magazine. And he’s right.
Faced with the grim reality of a stalled counteroffensive, and in the wake of Hamas’s bloody attack on Israel and its overwhelming response, many observers are wondering whether the West still has a viable strategy for dealing with Russia’s war in Europe.
Who realistically believes that Kiev will be able to regain territories annexed by Russia in the next year or two, when even General Valery Zaluzhny, the popular chief of staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, has made it clear that “most likely there will be no deep breakthrough.” ? And who but the biggest Panglossists among us thinks that President Vladimir Putin is open to meaningful negotiations a year before the American presidential election, when his preferred candidate Donald Trump is leading in the polls?
In fact, both the hawks and the doves seem dangerously far from reality when it comes to Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, the public mood is darkening – both in Ukraine and in the West. And given Republican opposition to additional U.S. funding for Kiev’s war effort and a refocusing of attention on the Middle East, Western support for Ukraine cannot be taken for granted.
Europeans are currently facing two very different but interrelated wars that threaten not only the security of Europe, but also the political identity of European societies. Both wars involve nuclear powers and both are of great symbolic importance.
The war between Israel and Hamas has not only focused public attention on the Middle East and created competition for resources, but has also weakened the idea that the nature of Russian aggression is exceptional. When Russia cut off energy supplies to cities in Ukraine, it was accused of war crimes. Israel has deprived Gaza of energy and water supplies. Are Ukraine and the West ready to denounce these war crimes?
A Recent study The study of the “geopolitics of emotions” conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations shortly before the war in Gaza reveals a disturbing, if unsurprising, trend. Public opinion in major non-Western countries is more interested When The war will end as in How it will end.
The public sees the West and Ukraine, not Russia, as the biggest obstacle to peace. Most in the so-called Global South expect Moscow to win in the next five years and see the conflict as a proxy for the US-Russia confrontation.
So the question is: Can the West triumph if its own people don’t believe it should be at war while most others do?
In the early months of the conflict, there was a false belief in the Kremlin that its “special military operation” would be completed in a few weeks and that Russian troops would be welcomed into Ukraine as liberators. But the war of aggression that Putin started in 2022 is not the one being waged now.
Many commentators fail to realize that Putin now sees the conflict in Ukraine as part of a kind of “perpetual war” with the West. His goal is no longer to create a pro-Russian Ukraine, but to show that a pro-Western Ukraine would be little more than a failed state and that Western support for Ukraine will definitely disappear at some point.
In this new environment, the challenge facing the West is strikingly similar to that faced by the United States in West Germany (particularly West Berlin) in the early years of the Cold War.
The West must prove that Ukraine is a place where investors are willing to put their money – protected, of course, by batteries of Patriot missiles – before the war is over. It must also be a country to which the large number of Ukrainians currently living outside their homeland are willing to return. And finally, Ukraine’s accession negotiations with the EU must be able to begin, even if the war continues to rage.
However, the most striking finding of the ECFR survey is that many in non-Western countries who believe in a Russian victory in Ukraine also believe that the EU will no longer exist in 20 years. This should make European leaders aware that this is not just about Ukrainian sovereignty.