By Neil Heriot | September 19, 2022
The Ukrainian flag
Photo Credit: Shutterstock
I doubt I was alone when I believed Ukraine would fall quickly in the early days of the Russian invasion. I’d been watching the build-up in the months prior, and cynically believed that Ukraine would be another example of an authoritarian regime committing a blatant violation of international law to further their own goals followed by a pitiful response from democracies, much like when Russia annexed Crimea eight years ago. Then the invasion began, and to my surprise, the opposite happened. Russia failed to take Kyiv and struggled to make any major gains. Even better, the West got its act together, and quickly responded with harsh sanctions and strong support for Ukraine. This brings us to today, where the unthinkable six months ago is now the reality.
This week has been one of Russia’s most humiliating in its history. The long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive began around a week ago, with most of the success in the Kharkiv Oblast. There, the Ukrainians have captured and forced the Russians to withdraw from two key towns that the Russians were using as supply bases: Kupiansk and Izyum. This a great military success, as Ukraine has managed to break the stalemate that began after Russia withdrew from Kyiv in March. It is also a great PR message and has vindicated Ukraine’s biggest advocates and supporters.
Part of this success can be attributed to High Mobility Armed Rocket Systems (HIMARS) that were built and provided by the West and expertly used by the Ukrainians. It is unlikely that the counteroffensive would have been as successful as it has been without these HIMARS. If current Western support is sufficient to prevent Ukrainian capitulation and allow Ukraine to go on the offensive, then it is important that the West increases its support for Ukraine, especially once winter is at its harshest.
While Ukraine is in the worst position in this conflict, Western nations aren’t in the best shape either. Inflation, which was 9.1% at the end of August, is a pressing issue for many voters, exacerbated in part by the sharp increase in energy prices (38.3%) from the withdrawal of Russian gas. This is especially troubling for Europe which had imported much of its natural gas (43% in 2020) from Russia to the point of overreliance. Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy corporation, shut down its pipelines that transported gas around a week ago, making it much more challenging for Europe to prepare for winter.
Russia hopes that without Russian gas, Europeans will struggle to fulfill their energy needs, and demand their governments abandon sanctions. Sanctions have already been damaging to the Russian economy, especially in the tech sector, and if left in place they will do more damage as time passes. If these sanctions, the West's biggest tool to combat Russia without directly intervening in Ukraine, were removed, it would send a message to Russia that the West cannot do any real damage in retaliation to Russian aggression. This coercion cannot be allowed to succeed, and voters will need a good reason to accept a lack of energy if support for Ukraine is allowed to continue.
The West must be reassured that its sacrifices are worth the cost, and the liberation of Kupiansk and Izyum are two of the most reassuring victories that Ukraine has shown to the West. In supporting Ukraine, Western nations have spent large sums of money, donated tons of valuable military equipment, risked their energy security, and taken in large numbers of Ukrainian refugees; the West will want to see very positive returns before it continues support.
If, in spite of Western support, Ukraine loses territory or is locked in an endless stalemate with Russia, Western voters will react. They will vote in new governments or demand changes in policies that will cut Ukrainian support in order to protect and appease their own people. On the other hand, if Ukraine can regain territory and fend off Russia, the West will notice that its support has made a positive difference. One the West sees that Ukraine is not a lost cause, it will continue to rightfully support Ukraine despite any domestic troubles. As long as Russia is being pushed back in Ukraine, then the lack of Russian gas and other problems will be worth it.
For obvious reasons, Western support is highly beneficial to Ukraine. However, what is overlooked is that it is in the West’s best interest to support Ukraine. Putin will stop at nothing to tear down the US-Western led world order, and destroying Ukraine was supposed to be another step toward this goal. If Kyiv had fallen days after the invasion began in February, it would have empowered and emboldened Russia and forced the West to be on the defensive. If Ukraine had fallen to the all-powerful Russian army in days, would NATO have defended eastern Europe from a Russian invasion? Likely not. With a fearful NATO, Russia would have had free reign to build and assert its power in eastern Europe, as it did in the Cold War.
This, luckily, did not happen and the West has a new opportunity to make sure Russia can never be a threat ever again. Already, the Russian economy is no match to the economic juggernauts that are the EU and the US. Defending Ukraine can also make sure that Russia will not be a threat militarily. With strong support for Ukraine, Ukrainian victories will weaken the Russian military to the point where it cannot pose any real danger to other countries such as the Baltic states and Poland. Putin had no intention to stop once Ukraine was conquered, and it is the responsibility of the West to ensure that Ukraine is the end of the Russian threat.
Unfortunately, Russia is not alone. Authoritarian regimes such China, North Korea, Hungary, and Iran that are allied with (or friendlier with) Russia are watching the invasion of Ukraine closely. They are aware that if the West’s response to Russia is insufficient/lackluster, these regimes, with their own ambitions not too different from Russia, could get away with their own actions. The West has been in decline in recent years, weakly protesting and offering no serious resistance when authoritarian regimes act belligerently, such as China threatening Taiwan, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb, Hungary’s democratic backsliding under Viktor Orban, and North Korea’s shows of “strength” with their missile tests. Ukraine offers the West a crucial chance to reverse this trend.
By staying strong and resolute in their support for Ukraine, the West can send a new message. In the past, this message has been “If you do anything, we will complain, but do nothing otherwise.” The defeat and humiliation of Russia would then transform this message into “Should any authoritarian regime try anything; we will react and we will stop you. Just look at Russia.” For too long the West has been reacting to these regimes, and have found themselves on the backfoot when trying to respond. Consistent and strong support for Ukraine would allow the West to be proactive, not reactive, in checking the hostility of the authoritarian regimes waiting for any chance to weaken the West and grow their own power.
Western resolve has been admirable in supporting Ukraine ever since the invasion began on Feb. 24. But its biggest test will come in winter when energy demand is at its highest. This is when the pressure to abandon Ukraine will be at its greatest, and the West must not fail this test.
Fortunately, there is a noticeable positive feedback loop that the West can take advantage of. It starts with the West supporting Ukraine by sending arms and/or money. Ukraine uses this support to defend and counterattack Russia. This improves the standing of Ukraine in the eyes of the West, therefore giving the West greater incentive to support Ukraine. The West would then send additional support, and the cycle would continue again and again. Ukraine has taken advantage of Western support well, and it would be wrong to turn and abandon Ukraine at the first sign of difficulty. Ukraine must not be allowed to fall, at any cost necessary.