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Is Volodymyr Zelensky losing the support of the West?

The Ukrainian president's response to the Poland missile incident highlighted tensions with some Western leaders at a time when the risk of war fatigue is growing.

By Katie Stallard

The first reports of the suspected missile strike in eastern Poland on 15 November were distinctly ominous. There had been an explosion in the village of Przewodów near the border with Ukraine. Two people had been killed. Russia was thought to be responsible. The Associated Press cited a senior US intelligence official as saying that Russian missiles had crossed into Polish territory. Poland’s government ministers rushed into an emergency meeting of the national security council in Warsaw. Polish military units were ordered to a heightened state of combat readiness. If the strike was found to be deliberate, it would mean that Russia had attacked a Nato member, which could then decide to invoke Article Five of the alliance’s treaty, according to which an attack against one member is considered to be an attack against them all.

On the other side of the world, the US president, Joe Biden, who was attending the G20 summit in Bali, was woken by his aides. In the early hours of the morning, wearing a T-shirt and looking distinctly sleep-deprived, he spoke by phone with Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda. Soon afterwards, Biden and the leaders of the other Nato countries at the summit, including the British prime minister Rishi Sunak, German chancellor Olaf Scholz, and French president Emmanuel Macron, gathered. A photograph of the meeting showed the leaders huddled together, their facial expressions uniformly tense.

From the outset, Biden urged caution, pointing to preliminary information about the missile’s trajectory and questioning whether it could really have been fired from Russia. The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, also warned against jumping to conclusions. “I am calling on all Poles to ­remain calm in the face of this tragedy,” he said in a late-night press conference. “We must exercise restraint.”

Within hours, it was clear that the early reports were wrong and that there had been no Russian attack. Investigators concluded that the missile was likely a Soviet-era S-300 rocket fired by Ukrainian anti-aircraft defences in response to the Russian air strikes that had pummelled the country throughout the day. “This is not Ukraine’s fault,” stressed Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, who is interviewed on page 24. “Russia bears ultimate responsibility.”

[See also: Letter from Kherson: The war of the villages]

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Yet the incident laid bare the usually subterranean tensions between the Ukrainian government and its Western backers. Speaking on television on 16 November, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, insisted that “it was not our missile” that struck Poland. He said that he had been personally briefed on the issue by his military leadership, and that he had “no grounds to doubt them”. When asked about Zelensky’s comments on his return to the White House the following morning, Biden responded curtly: “That’s not the evidence.”

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“This is getting ridiculous,” an unnamed diplomat from a Nato country told the Financial Times in Kyiv. “The Ukrainians are destroying [our] confidence in them. Nobody is blaming Ukraine and they are openly lying. This is more destructive than the missile.” Zelensky subsequently adopted a more equivocal approach, sending investigators to Poland and conceding that he did not know “100 per cent” what had happened. A Ukrainian air force spokesman acknowledged on 18 November that it was possible that at least some of the missile fragments had come from Ukraine as he described an intense battle to defend the country against the Russian bombardment.

The narrowly averted crisis also focused attention on the danger that the conflict could escalate beyond Ukraine, drawing Nato members into the fighting and leading to a direct confrontation between nuclear powers. This is not a new concern. Since the start of the war on 24 February, the US and its European allies have weighed how to enable Ukraine to defend itself without risking a wider war.

This calculation played into Nato’s decision to turn down Ukrainian pleas to “close the sky” by enforcing a no-fly zone over the country during the early weeks of the war. When Poland offered to send fighter jets to Ukraine in March, the US similarly shut down the idea, concerned that a Russian attack on the planes during their transfer – or on the US air force facility in Germany where they are based – could drag Nato into the war.

Washington has also taken a cautious approach to the supply of long-range weaponry to Kyiv, such as the Army Tactical Missile System, which it has refused to send (although it has provided Himars and other powerful rocket systems), wary of facilitating strikes deep into Russia that could be viewed by the Kremlin as crossing a red line. As Biden has reportedly reminded his aides at regular intervals: “We’re trying to avoid World War Three.”

Vladimir Putin has deliberately exploited these fears to deter greater Western involvement. Three days into the conflict, on 27 February, the Russian president was shown on television ordering the country’s nuclear forces to be placed on a “special regime of combat duty”. The order itself appeared to have no practical effect, but it achieved the desired result of sending chills through European capitals and focusing minds on Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Putin has returned to his nuclear threats on several occasions since: invoking the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which he said had “created a precedent”; and when he announced the “annexation” of four new regions of Ukraine in September, promising to use “all available means” to defend the territory.

In addition to this nuclear sabre-rattling, the suspected Russian sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September seemed designed to highlight the vulnerability of Europe’s energy infrastructure if the Kremlin decided to extend the scope of the war. Russia has also threatened to pull out of a United Nations-brokered deal to allow Ukrainian grain and other agricultural goods to be shipped from the country’s Black Sea ports, ending a months-long naval blockade that had exacerbated a global food crisis. “People cannot be fed with printed dollars and euros,” Putin warned in his annexation ceremony speech. “And you can’t heat anyone’s home with… inflated capitalisations – you need energy.”

In other words, he has continually sought to stoke fears of how the conflict could expand beyond Ukraine, and how many others in Europe and around the world could be made to suffer, if he is pushed too far.

This strategy has proved effective. Comparing the threat to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Biden warned of the prospect of “Armageddon” during a speech in October. “We are trying to figure out: what is Putin’s off-ramp?” he said. “Where does he find a way out?” Each new Ukrainian victory has been followed by hand-wringing among international observers as to how much further it should attempt to go. Putin’s decision to begin mobilising Russian citizens and signs that his forces are digging in along more defensible lines in southern and eastern Ukraine – where they have been installing concrete fortifications known as “dragon’s teeth” – have also raised questions as to how long the West will be able to sustain the current level of support.

[See also: Can the Ukraine war now end only with Russia’s defeat?]

Those concerns have only intensified as Russia has systematically targeted Ukraine’s power and water plants, damaging or destroying an estimated 40 per cent of the country’s critical energy infrastructure as winter sets in, with no end to the bombardments in sight.

Renewed shelling at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on 20 November, which Kyiv and Moscow blamed on each other, has also increased fears of an accidental catastrophe. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, warned that whoever was behind the attack was “playing with fire” and that if the plant’s cooling systems lost power, it could cause a major nuclear disaster.

While publicly vowing to support Kyiv for “as long as it takes”, US officials have also privately urged the Zelensky administration to show that it is open to negotiations with Russia to head off growing “Ukraine fatigue” as the conflict enters its tenth month. There has been little domestic political cost for Western governments supporting Ukraine so far. Boris Johnson’s repeated visits to Kyiv and public backing for Zelensky during the early months of the war arguably helped him to cling on as prime minister into the summer before he was finally consumed by a tide of scandals and incompetence.

Even Giorgia Meloni, the new far-right prime minister of Italy, has vowed to continue the country’s support for Ukraine, although some Italian commentators have suggested that she faces opposition from within her own party. A relatively mild European autumn has seen gas prices fall and fears of imminent power shortages recede, but Putin will undoubtedly be hoping for a long, cold winter and surging inflation to erode popular support for Ukraine.

In the US, which has provided the bulk of military and financial support to Ukraine, Biden has asked Congress to approve another $37bn in emergency aid before the Republican Party assumes control of the House of Representatives in January. But a group of Republicans led by the Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has already unveiled a resolution calling for an audit of all aid to Ukraine.

Polling carried out by the Wall Street Journal in October found that while a majority of Americans still supported sending aid to Ukraine, 48 per cent of Republicans surveyed said the US was doing too much to help, up from just 6 per cent in March. Donald Trump Jr responded to the missile incident by asking his 9.2 million Twitter followers: “Since it was Ukraine’s missile that hit our Nato ally Poland, can we at least stop spending billions to arm them now?”

Yet the problem with the entirely rational focus on how long the West can sustain its support for Ukraine is that it overshadows the much more important question: what will happen if it doesn’t? Russia’s aggression against Ukraine didn’t start in February. Even before the first Russian tanks crossed the border earlier this year, more than 14,000 Ukrainians had already died in the war that started in the country’s east in 2014.

I reported extensively from both sides of the front line during the conflict, and I was in the south-eastern Ukrainian city of ­Mariupol (currently occupied by Russia) in September 2014 when the first Minsk ­agreement was signed. The 12-point ceasefire deal, named after the Belarusian capital where it was agreed, was meant to halt the fighting and lead to the withdrawal of heavy weaponry, but on the ground little changed. The shelling continued around us. If anything, it ­intensified.

None of the Ukrainian soldiers I spoke to expected the “ceasefire” to last, if it even took effect. “If there is a ceasefire, it will only be from our side, so it’s meaningless,” a Ukrainian volunteer sitting on top of an armoured personnel carrier on the outskirts of the city told me. “Putin can’t be trusted,” said a journalist-turned-soldier named Tatyana, whose husband had been killed in the fighting three weeks earlier. “We have experience with that.”

She was right. The first Minsk deal soon broke down, as did the second, which was signed in February 2015. Ukraine had also signed an agreement with Russia, along with the US and the UK, in 1994, known as the Budapest Memorandum, which was supposed to assure the country’s security and protect Ukraine from the threat or use of force in return for giving up its nuclear weapons. Even if Moscow was showing any real interest in negotiations, which it is not, why would Kyiv view this as anything other than an attempt to pause the fighting to allow the Russian forces to regroup and rearm before resuming their offensive?

[See also: Russia has forgotten history’s lessons about waging war in winter]

Ukraine’s reluctance to pursue a new ceasefire deal without “removing the root causes of the problem” is based on “our experience with the Minsk I and II agreements in 2014-15”, Mykola Bielieskov, a defence analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, told me. “These agreements brought a false sense of normalcy at the expense of Ukrainian citizens and territories and allowed Russia to continue modernising the army and launch a new round of aggression.” Rather than asking why Ukraine was not more focused on achieving a truce, he said many of the people he spoke to in Kyiv were “perplexed that Western governments don’t want to learn the lessons of dealing with Russia, like the fate of Minsk I and II”.

It is not only Russia that will be closely studying the West’s actions in the coming months. If domestic political divisions prevail and Ukraine’s backers falter, other revisionist powers such as China – with its military modernisation almost complete and its sights firmly on Taiwan – will learn that Western resolve is liable to crumble in the face of any real cost. Beijing will be reassured that its assessment of the West as divided and decadent turned out to be true. Do we really want to send the message to authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea, that neighbouring countries can be invaded and their borders changed by force as long as you possess a suitably powerful nuclear arsenal?

Inherent in the idea that it is possible to offer Putin a tempting “off-ramp” and a truce deal that will restore lasting peace to Europe in the near term is a desire to time-travel; to go back to an earlier period – perhaps the late 1990s or the early 2000s – when the post-Cold War order seemed assured and the prospect of large-scale conflict between states appeared to be receding. Russia was instituting democratic elections. China was opening up and joining the World Trade Organisation. North Korea was a communist relic that seemed destined to collapse. But these states learned different lessons from the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. That order was never as durable as it appeared.

“The post-Cold War era is definitively over,” said the Biden administration’s national security strategy, released in October, “and a competition is under way between the major powers to shape what comes next.” That contest is already taking place in Ukraine. The West’s capacity to stay the course and sustain Ukraine’s ability to fight will determine whether that order is shaped by liberal democratic principles and international norms, or a world of great-power rivalry in which might makes right and Putin and his fellow autocrats learn that they can take what they want with enough force.

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette