Is the world suffering from “Ukraine fatigue”? It is, and it matters immensely. The security of all of us is at stake as winter draws in.
Ukrainian partisans from a Soviet-era war memorial in Kyiv
Giorgia Meloni on Ukraine fatigue
‘I see that there is a lot of fatigue, I have to say the truth, from all the sides. We (are) near the moment in which everybody understands that we need a way out… The problem is to find a way out which can be acceptable for both without destroying the international law.’ Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, speaking to two Russian pranksters about the war in Ukraine, September 2023.
Ukraine fatigue: the problem
In a recent interview with LBC, interviewer Nick Ferrari asked me about the risk of “Ukraine fatigue”. He referenced the comments by Giorgia Meloni above, and quoted former UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace, who made an eloquent case for maintaining support for Ukraine.
The risk of Ukraine fatigue is, indeed, immense. Wallace was right to underline the importance of maintaining support in the long run. Apart from the horrific suffering caused by the Russian invasion, it is vital for international security to maintain the principle that countries cannot invade their neighbours and take over their territory .
President Putin has passed legislation incorporating into Russia five regions comprising around 22.5% of Ukraine. Those regions – Crimea (4.5% of Ukraine’s total area); Donetsk (4.4%); Kherson (4.7%); Luhansk (4.4%) and Zaporizhzhia (4.5%) cover a total area of around 136,000 square kilometres – a bit bigger than England, or Louisiana.
The outcome of this war matters to all of us. The principle that countries can’t steal land from each other is fundamental to the post-1945 settlement. Weaken that, and we open a Pandora’s box of future conflicts. We have to remain engaged.
President Zelensky has said: “The scariest thing is that part of the world gets used to the war in Ukraine.” That prospect should scare not only Ukrainians, but all of us who want to sleep soundly in our beds at night.
How Ukraine fatigue works
Russia launched its bloody, full-scale invasion in February 2022 (my “Russia-Ukraine war explainer” is at the link). At first, people across the world were horrified. Peaceful, democratic, diverse Ukraine offered no threat whatsoever to Russia. Putin’s violent war of aggression was abhorrent and should be condemned and resisted.
But all people, everywhere, have a short attention span. It is hard to remain concerned about suffering that continues over many years. We saw this after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. 14,000 people died in in the following eight years. Yet many outside Ukraine forgot the war was even happening. We saw a “normalisation of atrocities” like Russia’s shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 with 298 passengers and crew.
Over the past few months, as the front lines in the 2022 war have ceased – for now at least – to move rapidly, news organisations have trouble finding new stories to report. Only when something dramatic happens or land is captured or lost does Russia’s war against Ukraine rise up the agenda.
The result is that people lose interest and – literally – forget the fighting and why it matters. Other conflicts and crises fill the headlines. Governments find it harder to persuade their voters that Ukraine is important. We see this most dramatically in the United States, where some opposition politicians appear to see more gain in opposing aid to Ukraine for political reasons and contrariness than in supporting key principles of international law that underpin US security.
Ukraine fatigue suits Vladimir Putin
Ukraine fatigue is what Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, wants. He hopes that, over time, international interest in his war of choice against Ukraine will decline. He hopes that will lead to less international economic and military support for Ukraine. That would make it easier for Russia to prevail.
Even if that outcome led to Russia “only” occupying the five regions of Ukraine it has so far attempted to annex (up to now, Russia has failed totally to occupy them), it would be a colossal victory for President Putin. He would be able to claim that the slaughter of Ukrainians (and Russians) he launched in 2014, and amplified in 2022, had been “worth it”. Many Russians, fed a ceaseless diet of pro-Putin propaganda and anxious about the war’s outcome, would probably agree.
Worse still, a “frozen conflict” with Russia occupying a large chunk of Ukraine would not create stability. Rather, Putin would be emboldened to attack Ukraine again at a later date. This is what happened after the 2014 war settled down into a stalemate. Russia might feel emboldened to attack other countries, too. Any promise by Moscow not to attack Ukraine would be meaningless. After all, in 1997 Russia signed international treaties with Ukraine recognising Ukraine’s international boundaries, including Crimea.
What will happen next
I see three possible outcomes:
(i) a long attritional war. This is probably the likeliest outcome. I do not claim to be a military expert. But recent fighting has shown it is hard for either side to make major gains over well-entrenched defenders. This outcome will suit Putin, who hopes that if he hasn’t lost war by the time of the US elections in November 2024 he may get a regime in Washington that is less supportive of Ukraine;
(ii) Russian forces collapse. In late 2022, Ukrainian forces advanced rapidly in the north and south of the country. In June 2023 Putin’s ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin, led a mutiny and a “March on Moscow” that threw into doubt the loyalty of large number of Russian troops. The losses suffered by Russian troops since February 2022 – around 150,000 dead and permanently incapacitated – would be the equivalent, in the UK, to the loss of over 70,000 young men (Russia’s population, although in decline, is still just over twice that of the UK).
Prigozhin’s mutiny reflected the internal tensions caused by the costs of war to Russia’s people. Russia is the world’s 11th largest economy, comparable with Italy or Canada. Putin is desperate not to lose the war: its success is existential for his future. He has spent two decades seeking to ensure no-one can overthrow him. But many senior Russians know the war is pointless, and destructive to the long-term future of Russia and its people. The possibility of a palace coup in the Kremlin can’t be ruled out. It’s a bit like a bridge where you can see the concrete cracking, but can’t see clearly if or when it’s going to fall down.
(iii) collapse on the Ukrainian side. Ukrainian forces have the huge advantage of higher morale than their Russian counterparts. They are defending their country; Russian soldiers would rather be back home. New Ukrainian weapons such as ATACMS missiles make life difficult for Russians. Ukraine has done well to clear much of the Black Sea of Russian naval vessels. People in Kyiv tell me they see no sign of weakness there. But we should not take Ukrainian success for granted. Ukraine, too, has suffered heavy losses of armed forces and equipment. The war, and ceaseless Russian attacks against infrastructure, strain the economy. Russian forces may be weaker than many expected, but they are still large. If international support for Ukraine declines, Ukraine will find it harder still to prevail.
Ukraine fatigue: support matters
Many countries, which understand the threat from Russia more than most from bitter experience, have made clear their continued support to Ukraine: step forward the Baltic states, Czechia, Slovakia and Poland. Germany, Norway, Denmark, the UK and countries such as Japan and Canada have also stepped up. When Foreign Secretary David Cameron (it feels odd to write that) visited Ukraine in November 2023, I was pleased to see him say the UK would continue to give Ukraine “above all, the military support that you need, not just this year and next year but for as long as it takes”.
But the further you get away from the front line, the harder it becomes to persuade voters, as the months tick by, how dangerous Russia’s attack on Ukraine is for their security. That is nowhere truer than in the United States – the most significant source of advanced weapons to Ukraine in absolute terms up to now, but also the country where President Putin has the greatest hopes of a political change in the wind to his advantage.
Against this background, the most important thing is for those countries and people that have supported Ukraine up to now to remain engaged. That means resisting Ukraine fatigue, and continuing to take an interest. It won’t be easy. Plenty of forces, including but not only Russian media campaigns, are keen to tell us that the war in Ukraine is far away and doesn’t matter to us. Don’t fall for it.
What to do next
Most important, continue to support Ukraine against Russia’s attempt to wipe the country off the map. This is the worst war in Europe since 1945, and the most nakedly imperialistic.
Do feel free to browse the rest of this website, including my posts on Russia/Ukraine.
If you want to read my books, that’s welcome, too. I discuss the background to the Russia/Ukraine war in my book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy, so far only available in German but due out in English in 2024. I look forward to that.