Vasyl, a burly, tattooed infantry commander who lost a leg to a Russian mine on the eastern front, sits swinging his remaining leg on the edge of the treatment table in the “Unbroken” rehabilitation clinic in Lviv. He’s been inside the Russian trenches fifty times, he tells me. His stories are reminiscent of World War One. I ask him what Ukraine needs for victory. Answer: “Motivated people.” His T-shirt proclaims “no sacrifice, no victory.” After we shake hands and I wish him luck, he suddenly jumps off the table and starts skipping at amazing speed, his blue skipping rope whizzing around under his one foot, while he looks at me with a broad grin, as if to say “Here’s your answer.”
Maksym, a sturdy marine and professional sniper, who lost a foot to a hidden Russian mine on the southern front, is less exuberant. The minefields are terrible, he says, and the Russians well dug into their defensive positions. And, he adds, “they have more men.” He believes that victory will come only if Vladimir Putin dies or there’s a coup in Moscow. Otherwise, “this war can continue for years, or even decades.”
According to American estimates, Ukrainian fatalities in the first year and a half of this full-scale war exceed the US losses in two decades of involvement in Vietnam. I visited the military cemetery in Lviv to lay flowers on the grave of a volunteer soldier called Yevhen Hulevych, who I met in this beautiful western Ukrainian city last December, shortly before he was killed near Bakhmut. I was shocked to see that the forest of fresh graves had almost doubled in size since I was last there. There were now 520 fallen from this one city, including three women, all medics. But Ukraine is running short of people ready and able to fight.
Before I traveled to Lviv earlier this month, I spent two months in the United States. Opinion polls showed a worrying decline in support for continued funding of Ukraine. Sitting in a Washington airport hotel with nothing better to do, I switched to Fox News. A so-called comedian was joking about AI. Her riff went like this: “Biden typed into ChatGPT ‘How to screw the American middle class’ and the answer came back ‘Send $75 billion to Ukraine.’” With the unprecedented toppling of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, partly because he worked with Democrats to get more money for Ukraine despite a threatened government shutdown, the issue is now fatefully entangled with hyper-polarized US politics.
Ukrainian fatalities already exceed American losses in two decades of involvement in Vietnam
I was told it’s unlikely that Ukraine will be invited to join NATO at the seventy-fifth anniversary summit in Washington next July, because that might cost Joe Biden — or, if he steps aside, another Democratic candidate — votes in November’s presidential election. “You’re getting us into another forever war!” Donald Trump would shout. And a second Trump presidency would be a disaster for Ukraine.
All this was before the Hamas invasion of Israel began another terrible war which will be at the very center of American attention. It will absorb most of Washington’s diplomatic and political time, and may take some of the funding and military equipment that might otherwise have gone to Ukraine. In signaling his unconditional support for the US in its battle against Hamas, President Volodymyr Zelensky is obviously aware of that danger.
What’s the right conclusion from these two worrying trends, one on the battlefront and the other in distant Washington? I think it’s clear: Europe must do more. That’s also how Europe can persuade the US to stay the course and go on offering the kinds of weapons, ammunition and other equipment which only the world’s military super power has in sufficient quantity.
Europe should give more military support. Britain has led in this respect, but its own — anyway diminished — stocks of arms and ammunition are running low. Germany, following a very slow start, has overtaken the UK to become Ukraine’s second-largest supporter, after the US. Honor to a country which, to do this, has had to jump over its own shadow. But Chancellor Olaf Scholz is still given to nervous hesitation about each particular weapon system — most recently, declining to send German Taurus missiles, even though the UK, France and the US have already sent comparable weapon systems. Of course the escalation risks always have to be weighed carefully. But this is not how you help a country win a war.
Equally important is gearing up European defense industries to continue to supply the almost World War Two levels of arms, ammunition and other equipment that Ukraine will need. When I met the country’s then defense minister earlier this year in Kyiv, with a delegation from the European Council on Foreign Relations, we were already discussing the country’s requirements for the next counteroffensive, next summer, and quite possibly the one after that. The heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, brother of Kyiv’s mayor, put it vividly. If you can’t land a knockout blow, he said, you need to have the stamina to go twelve rounds.
Above all, though, Europe needs to lead on economic, social and political support. In moments like this, people always reach for the metaphor of a Marshall Plan, but by its very name, that suggests the US will play a leading role. The American public is just not ready for that anymore. And in any case I don’t see why Europe should expect the US to do the lion’s share, nearly eighty years after the end of World War Two. Ukraine is in Europe, after all, and Europe has a very large economy of its own. If we succeed in the reconstruction and European integration of Ukraine — a breadbasket of the world with a significant potential for economic development — Europe will be the biggest beneficiary.
The Marshall Plan metaphor is also wrong because this has to be done very differently. What might be called the three Rs — reconstruction, reform and reaching for EU membership — must be conceived and implemented together. Reconstruction can’t wait until the end of the war: people need homes, schools and hospitals now. Nor can reform of the Ukrainian state. On that, there are some concerning signs, such as an apparent reversal of the decentralization which was an important element of the country’s post-2014 renewal. Nor can the first steps of getting closer to the EU. The EU needs to start an incremental process which at each stage creates a positive incentive: you reconstruct, you reform, you gain more access; you gain more access, that helps you reform further, that boosts reconstruction; and so on.
I returned to Britain from Ukraine and the US strongly persuaded that this is what Europe must do. The alternative — unfortunately almost as probable as it is bad — is that the West will eventually settle for a “peace” which involves Ukraine effectively losing a large chunk of its sovereign territory. That would not be peace, but a semi-frozen conflict — just a pause before another round of war, very much as we have seen it for decades in the Middle East. In the meantime, it would also enable Putin to declare victory at home, and therefore stay in power for longer, send precisely the wrong message to Xi Jinping over Taiwan and feel like a terrible defeat to every Ukrainian. The memory of soldiers like Yevhen, who have paid the ultimate price, and the sacrifices of those like Vasyl and Maksym, demand better.