The Korea Herald


[Daniel DePetris] Europe will prove more crucial in Ukraine war

By Korea Herald

Published : Oct. 9, 2023 - 05:30

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After weeks of finger-pointing, rhetorical gamesmanship and intra-Republican high jinks, Congress managed to avoid a federal government shutdown over the weekend by passing a 45-day stopgap funding package. US President Joe Biden wasted no time signing it into law.

For supporters of additional military aid to Ukraine, the continuing resolution was a bitter pill to swallow. Despite last-minute lobbying from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the law doesn’t include more aid for Kyiv’s war effort against Russia. With limited time available, Congress was forced to choose between keeping the government operating and haggling over more money for Ukraine. The fact that lawmakers opted for the former was seen by some in the commentariat as a betrayal of Ukraine. Biden, who requested $24 billion in supplemental appropriations for Ukraine, immediately took to the podium to press for another tranche of aid: “We cannot under any circumstance allow America’s support for Ukraine to be interrupted.”

There is a tendency for us humans to extrapolate from a single event. Just because Washington punted Ukraine aid for another day doesn’t mean Congress won’t debate the matter again before the year is out. It wouldn’t be surprising if staffers in the inner confines of Capitol Hill already have draft language worked up.

Even so, it’s indisputable that war fatigue is setting in. If Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive was making noticeable advances, then perhaps this fatigue wouldn’t be as big of a problem as it is today. But the reality is that Russia’s defensive lines, consisting of minefields that are as much as 10 miles deep in some places along the front, have done an effective enough job holding off the Ukrainian assault. According to The New York Times, Russia has actually gained more territory this year -- 490 square kilometers, an area roughly 80 percent the size of Chicago -- than Ukraine has. While it’s impossible to pinpoint Ukrainian casualties with a high degree of accuracy, the latest US assessment is that about 70,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed since the war began (the Russians have lost even more men). Those numbers have obviously gone up, perhaps considerably, in the previous two months.

Many want to wish the war fatigue away or pretend it doesn’t exist. But it’s there, whether they like it or not. Public opinion surveys help tell the story. A poll that CNN published in August found that 55 percent of Americans said Congress shouldn’t authorize additional funding to support Ukraine. A CBS News poll last month paints a more optimistic picture for proponents of additional US aid, yet the trend lines aren’t exactly encouraging. Republican support for US weapons shipments to Ukraine declined by 10 percentage points over the last six months. More than half of the House Republican conference voted against resourcing the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a program tasked with building out the capabilities of the Ukrainian army over the long term.

All of this sounds pretty dismal for the White House and for Biden personally, who has repeated ad nauseam over the last year that the US will stand with Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” Yet the president is finding that it’s far easier to recite one-liners than it is to sustain predictable funding levels for the Ukrainians, who are highly dependent on Western military support to keep their current positions and will need Washington firmly in its corner if it has any chance (however remote) to achieve its military objectives. Even then, winning the war militarily may prove to be a stretch.

Europe will therefore be even more crucial in the months to come.

The war in Ukraine was a culture shock for European leaders, many of whom couldn’t possibly fathom that war on European soil was still a possibility. The European Union, a gargantuan institution with an oftentimes unwieldy, slow bureaucracy, has had to adapt to its newfound circumstances on the fly. In some respects, the EU has passed the challenge with flying colors. There was a time not so long ago when EU countries such as Germany were at the mercy of Russian natural gas, and powers outside the bloc, such as the United Kingdom, were perfectly content with allowing Russian oligarchs to park millions of dollars in their banks. Not anymore: EU imports of Russian gas have declined from 40 percent to slightly under 9 percent. A huge chunk of Russia’s foreign reserves -- $300 billion -- remains locked in Western accounts, and some European leaders want to use the money to assist Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction. On energy and economics, the EU has acted with remarkable speed.

But one can’t say the same on the military front. Compared with the US, Europe’s military contributions to Ukraine have lagged. US military aid to Ukraine thus far has reached $44 billion, more than the European Union, Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway and Poland combined. European officials recognize the disparity and are trying to beef up their own military industrial complex to keep up with Ukraine’s needs on the battlefield. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell proposed a $21 billion fund over the next four years that would reimburse individual EU nations that donate military hardware to the Ukrainians. And a $2.1 billion fund designed to cajole member states to deliver much-needed ammunition to the Ukrainian army is already in effect.

All of these programs, however, will need to be accelerated in scale and scope if the Europeans truly believe Ukraine’s success is as vital to the Continent’s security as they say it is.

US officials often talk about burden-shifting, the notion that Europe needs to take primary ownership of its own security neighborhood. This will be an interesting test to see if the Continent is up to the task.

Daniel DePetris

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)