Russia is hoping that the West’s support for Ukraine will begin to falter. Kyiv knows this, and is therefore trying to obtain long-term aid agreements — which have the potential to determine their future. But the current Poland-Ukraine row is a troubling sign.
WARSAW — It's been four months since the Ukrainian Armed Forces mounted their counteroffensive in southeastern Ukraine. The fighting is extremely difficult, and Ukrainian soldiers must make their way through kilometers of mines and fortified lands occupied by Russia.
Few would argue that Ukrainian army’s effort would be more effective if they had modern planes, including the F-16 fighter jets they were promised after several months of negotiations (they will receive the first ones in 2024, at earliest). Ukraine is also seeking long-range missiles: whether a U.S. arsenal of ATACMS missiles, which have a range of 300 kilometers, or Germany's Taurus cruise missiles with a range of over 500 kilometers. For now Washington and Berlin have balked on delivery.
There was more bad news this week for Kyiv amid a dispute over grain exports with its neighbor and ally Poland, which announced that it wouldn't send new weapons systems to Ukraine, though it will continue to fulfill its existing deals.
But Kyiv has also been facing problems with arms that it has already been promised. In a recent interview with CNN, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that it's now been months that many of the arms Ukraine has been promised have been in an “on-their-way” status.
The Western supplies of arms to Ukraine are not only key to helping their efforts in the counteroffensive. Russia, having a numerical advantage, is trying to wage a war of attrition: wearing down Ukraine until its army has no choice but to collapse. For Radosław Sikorski, a Polish member of the European Parliament, who took part in the recent Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference in Kyiv, said the West must remember what's at stake even more when the battle hardens.
“It’s paradoxical that the human willingness to help is strongest when the victim of aggression is successful, but as soon as they start to have problems, it falls," Sikorski said. "But it is exactly this logic that we must be opposed to. Now is exactly the moment to show our true character: that we are with Ukraine until the end, and not only when things are going well.”
A collective future
The YES conference is an annual event organized since 2004 on the initiative of Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk. Until 2013, it was held in Yalta, Crimea. After the peninsula was annexed by Russia, the conference was moved to Kyiv.
This year, the conference was titled “War Room: The Future Is Decided In Ukraine.” Guests attending the forum could — to some extent — take on the role of the central command. An enormous screen in front of them showed them the live progression of the war. Thanks to the modern technology of the equipment, images from the battlefield along different sections of the front line were broadcast in real time.
Sikorski remains optimistic regarding Ukraine in the long term, citing the fact that the European Parliament has already voted on aid packages for Kyiv's war effort. "It seems like there is also support for a new package of up to 20 billion euros.” This would-be money, intended to arm Ukraine, would be paid over the next four years in installments of 5 billion euros.
Extreme emotions about the Russian aggression have been replaced by routine discussions about the war’s progression.
“I am proud that for the first time in its history — the European Union is buying arms and providing them to a country under attack,” he added.
On Thursday, Ukraine secured a new $325-million military aid deal from the U.S. after President Zelensky met with his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden in Washington on Thursday. A larger $24-billion package is still held up by political disagreements in Congress. Both countries also agreed to launch joint weapons production.
Yehor Cherniev, the Ukrainian deputy of the Supreme Council of Ukraine and chairman of the Permanent Delegation of Ukraine in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, says he does not feel a decline in support from partners, although the aid still often proves difficult to implement.
“We are continuing to try to get Taurus [missiles] from Germany, although I do not know what is still bothering them about making such a decision after a year and a half of full-scale war,” Cherniev said. "This is is the same situation as the one regarding the American ATACMS missiles. Obtaining the F-16s is also taking very long.”
In Cherniev’s view, there has been a certain change in the behavior of Ukraine’s Western partners, but he refrained from using the word “fatigue” — instead suggesting that the extreme emotions felt worldwide in the first months of the Russian aggression have been replaced by routine discussions about the war’s progression.
The U.S. elections factor
During his speech at the YES conference, Volodymyr Zelensky also referred to next year’s presidential elections in the United States.
“The Russians are counting on the American elections,” the Ukrainian President said.
Cherniev said the risks tied to these elections and the presidential campaign in the U.S. are evident, but cited "consistent support" in Congress and from the current White House. “The central nucleus of the Republican party also supports ongoing aid,” he added.
Based on his conversations with supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Radsław Sikorski believes that they perceive the Russian invasion through the lens of China, and believe that, thanks to the ongoing difficulty of the war effort, Beijing has seen how expensive such operations really are.
“American financial support for Ukraine is safe until the end of next year”, Sikorski said, “To me, it seems that if Putin is assuming that some other President will change the international politics of the U.S., then he might be making a mistake”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington on Sept. 21
NATO is important as ever
Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, continue to insist that only NATO membership can ultimately guarantee Ukraine’s safety into the future.
Until Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, we require safety guarantees.
“Of course, the best safety guarantee for us and for Europe is Ukrainian membership in NATO," Cherniev said. "As history shows, Russia tries to occupy 'gray areas', which are still in Europe ... Ukraine should not be this type of 'gray area'."
Still, at the last NATO Summit in Vilnius, Ukraine did not receive an invitation into the military alliance. However, the G7 countries declared that they would sign safety guarantees with Ukraine.
"Until Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, we require safety guarantees", Cherniev said. "Although I would rather call them aid guarantees, because they do not include mandatory military engagement from the armies of its signatories. In this case, it's about supporting our defensive efforts in the case of aggression."
He also noted the importance of Ukraine developing its own defense industry, and not be so dependent on international partners for weapons. In the meantime, there are "other agreements that 'turn on" when there is a threat of aggression and involve direct assistance with supplies of a specific weapon in a specific quantity."
Many European countries have already signed on to these so-called "safety guarantees," but, perhaps surprisingly, Poland is not among them. In a recent interview for BBC News Ukrainian, Polish Ambassador to Ukraine Bartosz Cichocki explained that these declarations are not real "guarantees."
Still, countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have so far treated the issue of these obligations as a serious one. These countries are also in bilateral talks with Ukraine, which intend to make these "guarantees" concrete in the future.
In wartime, and still in pursuit of NATO membership, Ukraine wants to be sure that the aid from the West will not come to an end, and that Ukrainians will not remain the sole nation fighting against Russian aggression.