Ukraine: Do Liberal Democracies Have Staying Power?

Praying for good news: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony for Orthodox Christmas. Image: / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0 DEED

Moscow and Beijing may believe Western democracies have trouble staying the course when it comes to foreign entanglements. But if leaders explain what success looks like, how it can be achieved, and why it matters to national interests, this need not be the case.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin looks ahead to 2024, he may think he has reasons to feel optimistic. True, the West’s response to his invasion of Ukraine was stronger and has lasted longer than he or anyone else would have forecast. The US alone has committed some $75 billion to supporting Ukraine, and European countries and institutions have also stepped up, with individual and multilateral commitments for humanitarian and military purposes exceeding those of the US as a proportion of their GDP. What Putin expected to be a short and successful war has become bogged down in a bloody struggle which has cost Russia huge numbers of dead and injured. And the burdens on a dislocated Russian economy signal trouble ahead in the longer term.

Still, Putin will have been carefully scanning for signs not only that the West is running low on many munitions and weapons systems for Ukraine, but also that the almost unanimous political resolve to fully back the Ukrainian cause may be weakening. Without continuing high levels of support from the West, Kyiv’s prospects look bleak.

In the US, President Joe Biden is trying to navigate Republican reluctance to authorise the next big package of support for Ukraine. In the end, Congress will probably do the right thing, but Putin will see evidence of growing fatigue with the conflict. And he will be rooting for a Republican victory in November’s presidential elections in the hope that a second Trump administration would stop or greatly reduce US support for Kyiv.

In Europe, too, Putin will see some signs of weariness: at the hard end, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s blocking of a $55 billion package of EU economic support; and at the soft end, Italian premier Giorgia Meloni’s admission to prank callers that there was a lot of fatigue over the war in Ukraine.

Public opinion polling on the Ukraine conflict shows a mixed picture. In many European countries, support for Ukraine has stayed pretty strong, although the growing political strength of extreme right-wing parties in some European countries is a source of concern for the future. But polling also suggests that increasing numbers of US citizens – especially Republicans – question the level of US support. A recent poll showed 48% of Republican voters thought the US was giving Ukraine too much support, compared with16% of Democrats. The same polling shows that since the invasion, fewer US respondents – about a third of those polled – consider Russia’s invasion to be a major threat to US interests.

Those who make policy in the Kremlin may well interpret all this as confirmation of a view which is probably also shared in Beijing: that liberal democracies, with their changing priorities and shifting power balances, do not have the consistency and resolve to stay the course when costly foreign entanglements do not result in quick success. This is, from the West’s perspective, a dangerous conclusion: all that Russia and China have to do is wait it out, let the costs mount up, and sooner or later the West – mainly the US – will lose interest and fold.

If one looks at the West’s record in the 21st century – which happens to be the period since Putin became Russia’s leader – one can see why he might believe that the West lacks staying power. Biden pulled the rug from under the already enfeebled Afghan government in 2021. The US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 opened the way for Islamic State to cut a murderous swathe through the region three years later. Also in 2011, a Western coalition facilitated regime change in Libya, only to cut and run, leaving chaos in its wake. Western support for the Syrian opposition, beginning in 2011, petered out in the face of mounting difficulties.

Putin will have been carefully scanning for signs the West's almost unanimous political resolve to fully back the Ukrainian cause may be weakening

A different reading of the West’s record might lead to another conclusion. In Afghanistan, the Western coalition showed extraordinary staying power for two decades, despite significant costs in terms of both human life and money. And the coalition’s eight-year commitment in Iraq also showed endurance for longer and at much higher cost than would be needed now to keep Ukraine in the fight.

That said, politics in the West – and the US in particular – has shifted since Afghanistan and Iraq. The failure of military adventurism of the early 2000s, the suppression of directed transcontinental terrorism and the tarnished image of globalisation mean it is harder to win the argument that wealthy countries will suffer if they disengage from overseas entanglements. If a second Trump administration were to occur, we should expect a US that is less willing to engage in costly foreign missions than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Against this backdrop, are there circumstances under which liberal democracies can be induced to stay the course when costs rise, public opinion wavers and success is less than hoped for? To be clear, none of these elements will work if the facts on the ground contradict the narrative. Nor are they likely to withstand a political sea change. But if the narrative is unconvincing, political and public support becomes much harder to sustain. Here are four factors that can help with that – and which are important in substance as well as communication.

First, a realistic description of what success would look like. This is less straightforward than it might appear, and poses problems of different types both for the supporters and the supported. For the donors, there is sometimes a political temptation to describe outcomes on governance or human rights which are unrealistic and undeliverable. Public support is hard to sustain if the recipient of their tax money is characterised as corrupt or incompetent; and, as in Afghanistan, Western media will be quick to point out the expectation gap.

There can be challenges for recipients of Western support, too: firstly because – as in Afghanistan – they can face pressure to hold democratic elections and confront powerful interests in ways that are destabilising in an already unstable situation; and secondly, because Western backers may define success in ways that are unacceptable to the country concerned. In the case of Ukraine, Western leaders have rightly been careful not to suggest that Kyiv may have to compromise on its pre-2014 borders. Whether they all believe this is realistic is another question, but not one that needs to be answered now.

Sometimes the best answer to these dilemmas is to frame success in terms of next steps rather than end goals. People are more likely to be convinced that we need to keep Ukraine in the fight through 2024 and therefore stretch Russia’s military and economic staying power than they are to believe in the feasibility of a quick knock-out blow.

Second, a plausible explanation of how success could be achieved. In Afghanistan and Iraq, political support ebbed away because it became impossible to say how the situation would improve if the West stayed. An open-ended investment – whether of money or military support – just to stop things getting worse doesn’t tend to rally support in Western countries for long. Lost causes don’t win votes. But success with intermediate goals is easier to chart than distant end states.

Looking back at decades of Western overseas entanglements, there is a familiar (though not inevitable) pattern which resembles a doomed love affair

Third, a convincing link to the interests of donor countries. Public support for bearing the costs of Afghanistan was rooted in 9/11 and the need to prevent the country from reverting to being a haven for terrorists. The justification for action against Iraq was muddled and proved substantially wrong; but the idea that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the West was enough to carry political support until a point was reached where the coalition’s investment was too great to easily walk away from. The problems come when politicians can no longer convince their electorates that using resources in far-off places carries a tangible benefit for their own countries. Arguments about justice or philanthropy may work for a while, but are usually hard to sustain.

Fourth, resilient alignment between donors and recipients. Looking back at decades of Western overseas entanglements, there is a familiar (though not inevitable) pattern which resembles a doomed love affair. Initially, the donors have huge admiration for the courage of the people they support; the recipients are massively grateful for the help they get. As time moves on and success becomes hard, the donors start to see failings where they once focused on strengths. Equally, the recipients of aid start to chafe at the unwillingness of their partners to fully understand their problems and, often, at the stream of unwanted advice or pressure they receive instead. Nowhere was this more evident than in Afghanistan after 2009.

In Ukraine’s case, many of the elements for a strong public narrative are in place, and many of Kyiv’s political supporters have made the case for continued support eloquently. But as the going has got tougher, the argument has too often become about individual decisions on packages of military or economic support or Ukraine’s future membership of NATO or the EU rather than restating why it is in the interests of Ukraine’s supporters – including the US – not to allow a Russian victory.

There are many ways to express this last point. Many of us remember the shock of seeing Taliban fighters entering Kabul in August 2021 and the feelings of guilt and remorse when we thought of what little it would have taken to avoid that outcome. Imagine what we would feel if we saw Russian troops driving into Kyiv. A triumphant Putin. Patriotic Ukrainians being murdered. Democracy crushed. Beijing celebrating a further loss of US prestige. Alarm within NATO about what Russia’s further revanchist ambitions might be. And further evidence in the minds of the West’s enemies that it doesn’t have the staying power. Trouble would follow, and of a type that the US would find it impossible to stay out of.

The costs of preventing that disaster are modest compared with the damage that would be done. Political momentum often arrives when high principle and self-interest combine. Ukraine is exactly such a case for the West – but we need to keep explaining why.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Sir Simon Gass

Distinguished Fellow

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