Olaf Scholz, Germany’s safety-first chancellor, has been harshly criticised for foot-dragging on military assistance for Ukraine. As Russia’s invasion loomed, he was ridiculed for offering 5,000 helmets instead of heavy weapons.
Early German doubts and prevarications delayed delivery of missiles and Leopard tanks. It got so bad that, in April last year, Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was bluntly told he was not welcome in Kyiv.
What a difference a war makes! As the conflict approaches the two-year mark, Scholz, remarkably, is now leading the western effort to keep Ukraine afloat.
Continued US military aid is in doubt. President Joe Biden’s proposed new $61.4bn package has been blocked by Republicans in Congress. EU funds worth €50bn are held up by Hungary’s Kremlin-friendly leader, Viktor Orbán.
Former UK prime minister Boris Johnson boastfully claimed to be President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s best friend. Yet Rishi Sunak, his latest successor, has so far failed to renew annual assistance of £2.3bn in the coming year.
Visiting Kyiv last month, David Cameron, one of Sunak’s predecessors, vowed to provide “all the military support that you need”. But Cameron had no new hardware or cash to offer, and the government’s autumn budget statement avoided the subject.
“UK leadership on Ukraine is flagging,” said Labour’s shadow defence secretary, John Healey. “UK military funding runs out in March, while this month Germany announced military aid for next year of €8bn.”
Since Scholz’s €8bn figure was announced, a government borrowing dispute has put it in some doubt. But unlike Cameron, his defence minister, Boris Pistorius, made an impressive downpayment in Kyiv last month.
It comprised €1.3bn of medium-range missiles, artillery shells and Panzer anti-tank mines. The ammunition was doubly welcome, given the EU has missed its target of providing one million artillery rounds.
Addressing parliament with all the fervour of the converted, Scholz showed how far he has travelled since spring last year.
“We will continue with this support as long as it is necessary,” he said. “This support is of existential importance. For Ukraine … but also for us in Europe. None of us want to imagine what even more serious consequences it would have for us if Putin won this war.”
A big military escalation may be the only way to avoid slow death by a thousand cuts
Scholz’s leadership is a bright spot in a gloomy landscape. His fears about the wider dangers inherent in a Russian victory, while broadly shared, do not appear daunting enough to spur fellow EU and Nato members into more urgent, substantive action. Their attention and resources are increasingly directed elsewhere when they are not actually fighting among themselves.
Pro-Vladimir Putin Orbán poses a familiar problem for the EU. All the same, the possibility Hungary will veto the promised the new aid package at this month’s summit is real.
Nor is he alone in his scepticism about the war. Slovakia’s newly elected leader, Robert Fico, is setting conditions on further assistance. In the Netherlands, last month’s far-right poll victor, Geert Wilders, wants to end it altogether. Nato foreign ministers, meeting last week, offered the usual strong words of support for Ukraine.
But Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, admitted there were creeping doubts. “Some are questioning whether the US and other Nato allies should continue to stand with [Kyiv] as we get to the second winter, but the answer here today is clear,” he said. “In some way, we must and we will continue... to ensure Russia’s war of aggression remains a strategic failure.”
Blinken said he expected Biden’s latest aid package would be unblocked before Christmas, but Congress-watchers say that’s optimistic.
Whatever Nato and the EU do, US officials say they believe Putin will keep fighting until at least next November, when the US presidential election is held, and possibly to spring 2025, before entering into any kind of peace process.
The Kremlin is evidently hoping for a repeat victory by Putin-admiring Donald Trump or at the very least, Biden’s defeat – and latest US opinion polls suggest both outcomes are on the cards amid waning US public interest in Ukraine.
Nato governments know this only too well, and it is undoubtedly influencing how they think about the war. “The challenge now is that we need to sustain the support,” urged Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary general. “We just have to stay the course.”
All the while, Russia is ramping up the cost to the west. A recent example is the Finland-Russia border, where Helsinki says Putin has launched a hybrid warfare operation by weaponising asylum seekers and refugees seeking to enter the EU. Finland has now closed the entire border, claiming Moscow is punishing it for joining Nato after the Ukraine invasion.
Nato unity is also being tested by the cynical antics of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s leader, who continues to try to extract political and security concessions in return for ratification of Sweden’s post-invasion Nato membership push.
The disappointing results of Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive, domestic budget pressures, insufficient military supplies, signs of wavering public support – plus the distraction of the war in Gaza – are all insidiously combining to sap EU and Nato resolve despite brave public words about undying solidarity.
Add to that below-the-radar doubts about Zelenskiy’s leadership (he has been at odds with top commanders), declining trust in his government, low morale among families of mobilised soldiers, and relentless Russian ground and drone attacks on civilians and on energy infrastructure and the war begins to look, to some US and European politicians at least, like a dead end.
Zelenskiy and his generals must find ways to disrupt this defeatist dynamic before it takes firm hold. A big military escalation may be the only way to avoid slow death by a thousand cuts. Yet that way lies extreme danger – for Ukraine and its uncertain western backers.