Ukraine has just had a diplomatic triumph. Now the country is under pressure to follow up with a military triumph.
After the pomp of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, the focus will switch back to the brutal realities of warfare in eastern Ukraine. The diplomatic and military support offered to Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the G7 was a big boost to the Ukrainian president. But the danger is that it could be remembered as the high watermark of international backing for Ukraine.
The Ukrainians know that the best way of maintaining western support is to make dramatic progress on the battlefield. But Russian claims that they have finally taken control of the bitterly contested, largely destroyed town of Bakhmut underline how challenging that could be.
There was no hint of this international pressure on Zelenskyy in the communique issued by the G7. The group used the familiar formula that they will back Ukraine for “as long as it takes”. But the unofficial message is a little more complicated: “As long as it takes. But it would be better if it doesn’t take too long.”
This sense of urgency does not reflect any lack of sympathy for Ukraine in the key western governments. Instead there is a concern that, if Kyiv’s much-anticipated counter-offensive fails to turn the tide on the battlefield, it will be difficult for the country’s backers to maintain the current level of political, financial and logistical support.
The mounting pressure on Ukraine is closely linked to the 2024 US presidential election. Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republican frontrunner increases the fear that the next US president will radically change policy on Ukraine. Trump has bragged that he could end the war in a day, a rather different message from “as long as it takes”.
Even a presidential election campaign dominated by Trump is likely to visibly undermine America’s bipartisan consensus on Ukraine. All sorts of arguments against backing Kyiv — from the costs of the war to the dangers of escalation — will get an airing. Opinion polls in the US already show some decline in support for Ukraine.
All this gives Vladimir Putin reason to hope that, if he can keep Russia fighting for another 18 months, the Trumpist cavalry might appear over the horizon. The Kremlin is already flirting heavily with the former US president and his supporters. Russia’s latest list of sanctioned Americans includes people who have nothing to do with Ukraine, but who are on Trump’s unofficial domestic enemies list — such as Brad Raffensperger, the official who resisted Trump’s entreaties to “find” him some more votes in Georgia.
Given that the US supplies most of the military support to Ukraine, attitudes in Washington are critical. A shift in the political atmosphere in the US will also inevitably seep into Europe. The disruptions to the energy market caused by the war have already led European countries to spend around €800bn on energy subsidies. Economic discontent could translate into rising support for populist parties of the far right and the far left that are sympathetic to Russia.
Then there is the question of arms supplies. Both the US and Europe have all but emptied their inventories of relevant munitions, such as artillery shells, in their efforts to keep Ukraine supplied. Without converting to a wartime economy, western arms factories cannot keep up with the pace of the battle. The fighting is so intense that, as one western politician puts it, “the Ukrainians are consuming in hours what we produce in weeks”. Western national security officials have had to moonlight as arms-dealers — ringing around global capitals, from Seoul to Islamabad — to scrounge new supplies of missiles and other weapons to be sent to the front.
The US and the Europeans believe that their efforts have worked and that Ukraine now does have enough weaponry to mount a serious offensive. But the west’s armaments cupboard is now looking pretty bare. It will not be fully replenished by 2024 — although by that time the Ukrainians will be able to deploy the fighter planes that were promised to them last week.
Ukraine’s current counter-offensive is likely to begin quietly with a series of probing missions that will look for weaknesses in the Russian line. But the extent of those Russian weaknesses remains the great “known unknown” of the war.
Some western officials, who have worked closely with Kyiv, believe the Ukrainians have a good chance of breaking through Russian lines and threatening Crimea. Others warn that the Russians are dug in — and that inexperienced Ukrainian troops may struggle to gain ground. The pessimists fear that, if the war is still deadlocked next year, Putin may manage to mobilise hundreds of thousands of new troops for the next phase of the conflict. Although the Ukrainians have higher morale and better tactics, Russia has a larger pool of potential soldiers.
But even if Ukraine fails to make a breakthrough and western support for Kyiv does begin to falter, that will not be the end of the matter. Ukrainian officials point out that, unlike their western backers, they will never have the luxury of walking away from the conflict. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, likes to quote an adage attributed to John Lennon: “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”