As Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion Enters Its Third Year, Optimism for Ukraine Sinks

As Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion Enters Its Third Year, Optimism for Ukraine Sinks

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, support for Kyiv has remained relatively durable across Europe and the U.S. But as the full-scale war enters its third year—and as fears about the adverse effect of flagging American support and a potential second Trump presidency on the Ukrainian war effort—pessimism about the chances of Ukraine successfully repelling Russia from its territory have grown.

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Even in Europe, where support for Ukraine is widely seen as less divisive than it is across the Atlantic, an average of 10% of Europeans believe that Ukraine will win the war, according to a recent pan-European study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, while twice as many expect a Russian victory. The prevailing view (37% on average) anticipates that the war will most likely end in some kind of settlement. 

“On this question of what you expect to happen, there is quite a lot of unity across Europe,” says Pawel Zerka, a Paris-based senior policy fellow at ECFR, noting that even in countries considered among Kyiv’s staunchest supporters, such as Poland and Sweden, only 17% believe a Ukrainian victory is possible. It’s only when the study—which is based on a survey of 17,023 people across 12 E.U. countries—asks about preference that you begin to see a divergence.

Indeed, nearly a third of all respondents said that Europe should support Ukraine until it regains all of its territory (a position that was most strongly backed by respondents in Sweden, Portugal, and Poland). More (41%) would prefer Europe to push Kyiv towards negotiating a peace deal with Moscow (a position that is most popular among respondents in Hungary, Greece, and Italy).

This shrinking optimism in Europe coincides with growing doubts over the reliability of the U.S., where support for Ukraine appears to be dwindling both in Congress (where Republicans continue to stall billions of dollars in vital military aid earmarked for Ukraine) and the wider public. Roughly a third of Americans now believe that the U.S. is providing too much support for Ukraine, according to a December poll by the Pew Research Center, up from 26% a year ago. Meanwhile, only a third of Americans consider Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to be a major threat to U.S. interests, down from half who thought so when the war began.

While the majority of Americans continue to believe that the U.S. should continue to support Ukraine until it reclaims its territory (54%, down from 66% in 2022), according to a November poll by Gallup, a growing number (43%, up from 31%) favor the U.S. trying to end the war as quickly as possible, even if it results in Ukraine ceding some of its territory.

U.S. and European leaders continue to stress the importance of supporting Ukraine, framing the war—as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has done—as a fight not just for Ukrainian sovereignty, but for the security of the wider West. But even their sense of optimism appears to have taken a hit. This was most acutely observed at this year’s Munich Security Conference, where efforts to shore up support for Ukraine was overshadowed by reports of Russia’s capture of the critical eastern city of Avdiivka as well as the shocking news of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death.

Read More: ‘Nobody Believes in Our Victory Like I Do.’ Inside Volodymyr Zelensky’s Struggle to Keep Ukraine in the Fight

With both Europe and the U.S. facing key elections this year, public opinion on Ukraine could prove decisive. In the U.S., restoring American isolationism has become one of the hallmarks of former President and current Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s campaign—which, if successful, would almost certainly result in Washington turning its back on Ukraine (he has repeatedly criticized U.S. involvement in the war, which he said he could resolve within a day) and the wider NATO alliance (he recently invited Moscow “to do whatever they hell they want” with NATO allies that fail to spend 2% of their GDP on defense).

Dissonance between expectations and preferences notwithstanding, the ECFR study finds that Europeans are not necessarily inclined to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially if Trump secures another presidential term in November. In the event that the U.S. were to rollback support for Ukraine, 41% said that Europe should maintain or increase its support for Kyiv (21% and 20%, respectively), compared to a third who say that Europe should follow Washington’s lead in withdrawing support.

Zerka says that the threat of a seachange is less likely in Brussels, noting that even if parties opposed to supporting Ukraine make inroads in the European elections, “I don’t expect them to get a sufficiently strong result in order to use the European Parliament as a platform to question the European position on the war in Ukraine.” Still, he adds, a strong showing of parties that are antagonistic to Ukraine could prompt the continent’s leaders to “feel more restraint in continuing their support,” especially if those parties’ try to frame themselves as the parties of peace.

If Western leaders wish to shore up their public’s willingness to back Ukraine, as well as their optimism in Kyiv’s ability to succeed, it will require “a paradigm shift,” says Orysia Lutsevych, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Programme and head of the Ukraine Forum at the London-based Chatham House think tank—one in which in supporting Ukraine is tantamount to protecting oneself.

“We are in the difficult period of this war where we are at a crossroads,” she says. “Either the current strategy of just denying Putin a victory in Ukraine prevails and actually we will have some indecisive outcome—possibly a ceasefire and then more war after that—or the other path, [which] is to actually mobilize more resources to prepare for a much more intensive campaign in 2025 and to defeat Russian troops on Ukrainian territory.”

Read More: Russia’s ‘Space-Based Weapon’ Raises Fresh Fears About an Old Threat

As Lutsevych sees it, growing support for pushing Ukraine to the negotiating table presents a false promise of peace. Quite aside from the fact that Putin would be unlikely to want to negotiate with Kyiv ahead of the U.S. election (in anticipation that he would get a better deal under a Trump administration), she says that it also presents a misreading of Putin’s own track record.

“Putin has invaded Abkhazia, he has invaded Ossetia, he has invaded Georgia, he has invaded Crimea, he has invaded Ukraine—this is a consistent pattern,” she says. “If he is not defeated in Ukraine, if there is some kind of truce or a ceasefire, it means that his campaign to a degree succeeded because he enlarged Russian territory, he annexed more land, he caused huge destruction to Ukraine, and he’s allowed to consolidate that.”

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