The strategy of providing Ukraine with everything it needs to confront Russia on the battlefield for as long as it takes is meeting growing resistance among the Western expert community and decision-makers.

That trend is dangerous for Ukraine which is critically dependent on supplies of weapons and financial assistance.

Although Ukraine has never so far been provided with “everything it needs,” the risk of a growing hesitation is that over time it can put under question the whole issue of supporting Ukraine and suggest a different strategy of negotiating with Russia, albeit at the sake of Ukraine’s interests.

While messaging about the drawbacks of such an option to the Western audience is crucial, it is also important for Ukraine to understand the reasons why such shifts are taking place.

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The initial Western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine was reflex: sanctioning Russia and providing Kyiv with some assistance with a view to buy time and improve the West’s own position and enhance the West’s own security.

As it became apparent that Ukraine is capable of sustainable resistance, a window has opened for a much more massive volume of weapons supplies, diplomatic activity, and institutional cooperation – possibly even to drive Russia away from most occupied territories. The period 2022-2023 was the era of optimism: while Ukraine’s chances of winning the war, no matter what could have been defined as a win, were perceived as high, the West seemed firm in its desire to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.

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But two and a half years of war have taught several lessons. Asymmetric tactics do provide the weaker side with good chances of survival; but in the long run, Russia’s advantages started to show. Moscow’s power superiority and a high level of resolve are playing against Ukraine – and against the West. After a year of successful counter-offensives, Ukraine is back to strategic defense and is losing more territory. The diplomatic and economic pressure of the West has proved so far unable to either isolate Russia or make the costs of war intolerable for Moscow.

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As the Russo-Ukrainian war has turned into a long-term standoff with global geopolitical implications, Western countries are reassessing their strategies.

Not all of them are ready to provide Ukraine with massive assistance for an indefinite period. Some of them are becoming more concerned about their own security. There are also raising voices for putting an end to the war by persuading Ukraine into concessions. These hesitations result in a lack of not only the Western strategy but in a deficit of strategic vision in a number of separate Western countries. And they have good reasons to hesitate.

The fundamental one is a desire to avoid risks of escalation. Moscow’s rhetoric before and after the invasion was resolute, but even more so were the Kremlin’s decisions to annex Crimea in 2014 and to invade in 2022.

The decisions showed the level of determination. Not only the West, but the whole world had to take Russia’s threats seriously. The Russo-Ukrainian War is an asymmetric conflict on several levels simultaneously: Ukraine compensates its lack of economic and military power by resolve and asymmetry of goals; but that’s also what Russia is doing in its standoff with the West.

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If raising bets goes out of control, risks for the West could become unacceptable.

And, not to forget, no one is ready for a nuclear escalation.

Given that Russia has proved it can survive sanctions and a long-term war, many in the West see no point in continuing the current strategy, arguing that it leads to no other results than prolonged and multiplied sufferings of Ukrainians.

Outperforming Moscow in the long run can be an unrealistic task: the doubling of Russia’s defense budget is a sign of reserves many would consider unlimited. More assistance to Ukraine would be countered by more defense production in Russia. When options of providing Ukraine with security commitments/protection or sending troops in are closed, there is no way to outperform Moscow in a long war.

Supporting Ukraine, thus, would help it resist, which would prolong the war, but hardly win it. Resuming the war, however, has a price attached not only for Russia.

Disruption of global supply chains and logistics, shortages of food supplies, radical changes at the global energy market make many Western countries vulnerable and put their economic perspectives under risk.

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The EU, and most notably Germany, is suffering due to disruption in energy resources supplies from Russia, high inflation and other negative economic consequences of the war.

That is happening against the backdrop of Asian giants, China and India, seizing the moment to supply their industries with cheap oil and gas from Russia.

Many in the West are feeling there is something wrong with this trajectory.

There is also a lack of vision of victory. Modern wars tend to end without formal agreements, and sometimes even without clearly defined winners, losers or outcomes.

Interstate wars are generally rare, and they often end up with gradual de-escalation and freezing. Nuclear weapons make things more complicated, since imagining an overwhelming defeat of a nuclear superpower is not easy at all.

That is why there is still an open question about the strategic goal: whether it is defeating Russia or helping Ukraine survive. These different goals imply different strategies, require different amounts of resources, and generate different levels of risks.

Considerations at the global level of geopolitics also come into play. Russia is an important actor in several critical areas, e.g. nuclear non-proliferation regime, armaments control or climate change. Besides, it matters in an emerging balance of power between the West and a Global South. There is a long-term planning approach in the West, which stresses the importance of a balanced approach to Moscow, allowing future negotiations and freezing the war.

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Hesitations over what to do about the Russo-Ukrainian war, so noticeable in the West in recent months, are likely to remain or even grow. They are for good reasons. The war is a strategic dilemma which has no cheap solutions. It is critical for the audience in Ukraine to understand those difficulties in order to improve the dialogue with its Western partners.

This text is a part of the project ‘Pragmatic Dialogue with the West: Why It Is Worth Supporting Ukraine’, undertaken with the support of the International Renaissance Foundation. It presents the views of the author and not necessarily reflects the position of the International Renaissance Foundation, nor of Kyiv Post.

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