No "Ukraine Fatigue" In Sight
But keep an eye on Europe's energy situation this winter
More than six months after Russia’s initial invasion, “Ukraine fatigue” has yet to set in among the American and European publics. The sort of widespread war weariness foreign policy pundits and observers often predicted has not come to pass in Ukraine’s strongest backers – countries like the United States and its NATO allies in Europe. Assumptions that American and especially European support for Ukraine’s war effort would wane as the conflict dragged on and economic costs mounted have turned out to be erroneous, at least for the time being.
Public opinion surveys indicate continued willingness in the United States and Europe to support Ukraine with economic aid, arms supplies, and sanctions against Russia. A Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll released last month, for instance, shows no real deterioration in American support for sanctions on Russia or the provision of arms and economic assistance to Ukraine – moves that are backed by roughly three-quarters of the American public (see chart below). Democrats are more supportive of these moves, but at least two-thirds of Republicans and independents approve of them as well. The only policy option that lacks majority support involves sending American troops to fight in Ukraine, something President Biden has ruled out since the start of the war.
What’s more, a solid 58 percent of Americans say the United States “should support Ukraine for as long as it takes, even if American households will have to pay higher gas and food prices as a consequence. Just over a third say the United States should urge Kyiv to settle on whatever terms are possible to ensure Americans don’t face higher economic costs. In other words, there is very little appetite for “restraint” among ordinary Americans – and no real sign that they’ll tire of supporting Ukraine’s war effort. The foreign policy left and the America First right may make a lot of noise and attract media attention, but so far they haven’t had much of an effect on how Americans think about the world.
When push came to shove, few Americans or their elected representatives have embraced the “restraint” worldview or swallowed Trump’s America First approach whole. Sen. Josh Hawley, the insurrection-backing Republican from Missouri, cast the lone vote in the Senate against approving the bids of Sweden and Finland for NATO membership in August. This vote earned Hawley the ire of fellow Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who accused his colleague of rank opportunism and hypocrisy. Other votes have been similarly lopsided, with just eleven senators and 57 representatives - all of them Republican - opposing the $40 billion military aid package for Ukraine this past May.
This strong and broad support for Ukraine also offers President Biden an opportunity expand the strong case against Trumpism he’s been making on domestic issues to foreign policy. He can and should argue that Trump’s America First approach would sell out Ukraine and leave America at the mercy of dictators like Vladimir Putin. It shouldn’t be a hard case to make: Trump himself recently praised the “iron fist” with which Putin and Chinese autocrat Xi Jinping rule, calling them “fierce” and “smart.” In so doing, Biden will spotlight the divisions between an emerging conservative isolationism of Trump and his ilk and the more traditional conservative internationalism offered by the likes of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Public Opinion in Europe: Bearing the Burden of Support for Ukraine
It could have been a potentially different story among America’s allies in Europe, where dependence on Russian natural gas and an understandable desire to avoid conflict might have led to an erosion in support for Ukraine. According to the Eurobarometer poll carried out in July, most Europeans are satisfied with the way the European Union and their own national governments have responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Majorities back financial support and military aid to Kyiv as well as sanctions against Moscow.
There are degrees of support across nations in Europe, of course: 91 percent of Danes, for instance, endorse the financing and supply of military equipment to Ukraine versus just a third of Bulgarians. But by and large, majorities across Europe members back military aid to Ukraine. There’s even less disagreement over sanctions against Russia and purely financial assistance to Ukraine, with only two nations – Bulgaria and Cyprus – expressing less than majority support for these measures. What’s more, strong majorities in Europe say the EU should reduce its dependence on Russian energy.
These results are all the more noteworthy given that 88 percent of Europeans say that the war in Ukraine has had “serious economic consequences” for their own countries. A further 62 percent say the war has had “serious financial consequences” for themselves personally. Though there’s no direct question gauging the willingness of Europeans to support Ukraine in the face of continued economic costs, these results indicate that there’s not too much weariness with the war among America’s allies in Europe.
A Rough Fall and Winter Ahead
While there’s currently solid support for Ukraine’s war effort on both sides of the Atlantic, matters could change over the next six months – especially in Europe, where Sweden and Italy both have national elections scheduled for later this month. Polling indicates that little will change in Sweden, but in Italy the nationalist right looks set to win an even greater share of the vote than it did in 2018 – possibly even a majority. That would be a gift to Putin, with major Italian populist figures and right-wing factions singing his praises in the past and questioning sanctions against Moscow in the present. It’s not clear that a right-wing Italian government would replicate, say, the illiberal Hungarian leader Viktor Orban’s sympathies toward Moscow, but it’s not clear that it wouldn’t emulate Budapest’s policy either.
More worrying is the potential for high natural gas prices to disrupt European politics this winter. It seems clear that Putin is counting on high energy costs to coerce European governments into curtailing their support for Ukraine; a year ago, Moscow stood accused of manipulating Europe’s gas supply. European natural gas prices jumped 30 percent on Monday, for instance, after Russia’s state-controlled energy company Gazprom announced it would shut off the Nord Stream gas pipeline indefinitely. Gas prices remain below their August peak, however, and European governments are taking steps to avert a worst-case energy scenario. Sweden and Finland have propped up their energy sectors with tens of billions of dollars in guarantees, while Germany has announced that it will keep open two of three nuclear power plants previously scheduled for decommissioning – at least through the winter. French President Emmanuel Macron announced a national energy conservation campaign, two months after re-nationalizing France’s national energy provider.
These moves and others may not succeed in averting a hard winter ahead, but they do show that European leaders take their energy problems seriously and show little if any willingness to compromise their support for Ukraine in exchange for Russian gas. They apparently feel their nations can weather the predicted winter energy crisis without selling out Kyiv or appeasing Putin. It’s a bet that public support for Ukraine will not flag in the face of a blatant attempt at coercion by the Kremlin – one that, if polling is any indication, will probably pay off.
What’s Still at Stake in Ukraine
As the war entered its seventh month, Ukrainian forces launched what amounts to a major counteroffensive against Russian positions around Kherson in the country’s south. They’ve cut bridges and hit supply dumps, apparently aiming to force Russian commanders to withdraw or see their formations slowly but inexorably disintegrate. Ukrainian government officials have also signaled potential new advances in the east near the major city of Kharkiv.
Given the battlefield realities and diplomatic strategies at play, this war will likely continue for quite some time. It seems clear that Putin hopes high energy prices will cause Europe to give up on Ukraine, while the Ukrainian military lacks the numbers and the heavy equipment necessary to launch a full-scale offensive and expel Russian invaders from their territory. The war may not be a stalemate at present, but neither side appears poised to achieve a decisive breakthrough either.
But there’s little reason to think that “Ukraine fatigue” will set in either in Europe or the United States. True, European nations face a difficult and potentially hard winter thanks to high energy prices. However, both Americans and Europeans appear to intuitively understand what’s at stake in this war. They may not frame it as a fight between democracies and autocracies in the way the Biden administration has tried to cast its foreign policy, but many Americans and Europeans realize that international bullying and naked aggression of the sort on display in Ukraine cannot and does not serve their own interests or anyone else’s.
Democracies and their publics have been consistently underestimated by their opponents and even their own elites. Too often, ideologues and commentators believe their own propaganda that purportedly soft and complacent democracies will fold when faced with the prospect of even the slightest sacrifice or hardship. When the stakes are as clear as they’ve been made in Ukraine, however, democracies almost always prove more resilient than their detractors and opponents imagine.