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The West must overcome Ukraine fatigue

John Baron MP
December 18, 2023

The world is forgetting that there is a desperate European conflict still raging. Ukraine continues to struggle valiantly against the Russian invasion, whose extensive defensive fortifications, put in place during last winter’s lull in the fighting, have so far remained firm and frustrated Kyiv’s aim of a decisive counter-offensive this year. The horrific attacks in Israel and the ongoing conflict in Gaza have diverted international attention away from Russia’s invasion, whilst disagreements in Washington have stalled vital military and financial aid.

All of these developments are playing into the hands of Vladimir Putin, who has recently announced his intention to stand for re-election for the fifth time in March’s elections. Following the 2020 referendum, Russian presidential terms have increased from four to six years, and Putin’s previous terms as president were cancelled out, potentially enabling him to remain in the Kremlin until 2036. He is already the longest-serving Russian leader since Stalin, and clearly believes he can personally outlast international interest in his invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, despite the deep and broad economic sanctions, on the surface the Russian economy continues to perform quite well – growth is estimated to be about 3%. In no small part this is due to Putin transitioning to a war economy: defence spending is set to double next year to 6% of GDP. With an eye to the upcoming elections, welfare payments and pensions are set to increase and the Economist reports that some families of soldiers killed in Ukraine are receiving payments equivalent to three decades of average pay.

Yet all is not well for the Russians: the price of this war spending is pernicious inflation. Huge demand for war-related manufacturing is coming up against a shortage both of raw materials (which also often have to be imported) and of highly educated workers, many of whom fled Russia in the wake of the invasion. Unemployment is at a record low, which is leading successful calls for higher wages. According to the Economist, pay is increasing at 15% year-on-year, with companies passing on these added costs to consumers. This inflation is feeding into the real economy – egg prices are up sharply, just as Russians begin their egg-heavy preparations for the festive season.

Meanwhile, President Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington will hopefully focus minds in Congress. The next tranche of US military aid, worth around £48 billion, is stalled amidst a rancorous debate between Republicans and Democrats over immigration reform and funding levels for securing the US-Mexican border. Even if the deadlock in the Senate could be overcome, the overall funding package will still have to be approved by the House of Representatives – where ‘Ukraine fatigue’ means the scepticism of funding Ukraine is even more pronounced.

This ‘Ukraine fatigue’ needs to be tackled head-on. The goals announced ahead of the summer’s counter-offensive were in hindsight perhaps overly optimistic, given the huge Russian defensive lines which have been described as the deepest and most complex constructed in Europe since the Second World War. Western weapons are excellent and are being well and inventively employed by the Ukrainians, but even these only get you so far against interlocking defensive lines and well-emplaced artillery. Expectations should be recalibrated accordingly.

Western weapons are excellent and are being well and inventively employed by the Ukrainians, but even these only get you so far against interlocking defensive lines and well-emplaced artillery. Quote

Although in many ways the conflict has been an eye-opener as to how wars will be fought in future, in many respects the conflict is reminding us of lessons that should never have been forgotten. The importance of well-trained and well-led soldiers has been shown by the professionalism of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, set against the shocking wastefulness and callousness of ‘single use’ soldiers and the unwise use of penal battalions and personal militias on the Russian side – which contributed to the full-on Prigozhin mutiny in June.

Above all, the war in Ukraine is a reminder that you cannot throw everything together at the last minute, something European NATO powers should really take to heart. Both sides have suffered from chronic shortages of basic ammunition, and artillery ammunition especially. The Russians have ramped up domestic production (albeit by, amongst other measures, lowering safety standards in their factories) as well as buying in North Korean shells of dubious quality.

Meanwhile, Western arsenals are beginning to run dry and American factories are slowly increasing production, while the European effort to produce a million shells by March will fall short. Modern warfare goes through ammunition stocks at a prodigious rate, and lazy defence assumptions from the Cold War ‘peace dividend’ should be rapidly readdressed. The importance of shortened supply lines and domestic production, even if modestly more expensive, has now become apparent.

In all of this, it cannot be restated enough times that Vladimir Putin must not be allowed to win his war of imperial conquest. Ukraine is a proud and sovereign country, which is rightly engaged in a desperate struggle to liberate her occupied areas and protect her population. Putin and his cronies are betting that their strategic patience and the Russian people’s ability to withstand privations are going to outlast Western interest and commitment to the people of Ukraine. If Western promises are to mean anything in the modern age, this cannot be allowed to happen. The world is watching.

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John Baron is the former Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a former Shadow Health Minister.

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