Sustaining public support for opposing Putin’s imperialistic war on Ukraine
Russian President Putin apparently thought it would take his “special military operation” days or perhaps a few weeks to conquer Ukraine, so the fact that his war is now a year old is both good and bad news. The bad news is that Ukraine and its people have suffered a year of Russian violence, destruction, war crimes, and death. The good news is that the Ukrainian government and people have risen to the challenge by standing firm, resisting the invasion, and pushing Russian forces back in key areas. Nonetheless, there is much more to do to ensure Ukraine emerges from the war both free and secure.
The Ukrainian people’s courage, creativity, and love of country are the foundation of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion. But weapons and financial support from the U.S., the EU, and other countries have been vital on the battlefield and in dealing with the humanitarian disaster Putin unleashed, which has produced more than 8 million refugees and millions more displaced within the country.
Continued Western support for Ukraine is essential to turning back Russia and ending the war in a way that produces regional stability.
During a speech in Warsaw after he had visited Ukraine, President Biden stressed this fact and committed the U.S. to supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes” to defeat Russian aggression and secure a stable peace. At the Munich Security Conference a few days before Biden’s unannounced visit to Ukraine, Senate leaders, including Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), underscored that support for Ukraine enjoyed bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.
While public opinion in the U.S. and Europe has generally remained steady in support of Ukraine over the last year, a few polls suggest some softening of that support. A November 2022 Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs poll, for example, found that only 48 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should support Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” down from 58 percent in July 2022. There are also indications that partisan differences are developing on Ukraine. Former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, criticized Biden’s trip to Ukraine, and a recent Gallup poll indicated Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the U.S. is doing too much for Ukraine.
Public opinion matters in democracies. Putin believes he can wait out the West on Ukraine and is counting on first Western publics and then Western leaders tiring of the costs of supporting Ukraine on and off the battlefield.
Putin’s view of Ukraine and his commitment to the war are rooted in centuries of Russian regional imperialism. From the 13th into the 19th Century, the principality of Moscow grew through a sustained campaign of military conquest, diplomatic deals, and annexations to become the world’s largest country. Ukraine has existed in one form or another since the Viking age, but reached a treaty with Moscow in 1654 that resulted in Russia — and then the Soviet Union — claiming political control. While Russia agreed in 1994 to respect the independence and existing borders of Ukraine, Putin is seeking to use military force to return Ukraine to the Russian “empire.”
Were Putin to succeed in Ukraine, other nearby dominos would fall. He would increase pressure already being exerted on other former parts of the Soviet Union, such as Moldova, Georgia, and Belarus, and would seek to create additional mischief in and through autocratically minded nations, such as Serbia and Hungry. The reconstitution of a hybrid Russian empire would create insecurity along its borders with Europe and the Baltic states and strengthen autocratic trends elsewhere. That insecurity would promote neither stability nor prosperity.
The war in Ukraine is unlikely to end in 2023 and could drag on for another year or more. As a result, U.S. and other Western leaders need to have a clear and persistent message for their publics about the war, why it started, what is at stake — and why supporting Ukraine matters to them.
President Biden’s recent speech in Warsaw did a good job of outlining what is at stake in Ukraine, and UN Secretary General Guterres’s speech Feb. 22 to the UN General Assembly also hit the mark by stressing that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine violated the UN’s Charter and international law and hurt global food and energy supplies.
Going forward into the second year of Putin’s war on Ukraine, the key elements of public messaging need to include the following points: (1) Putin’s war on Ukraine is a continuation of centuries of Russian regional imperialism and has the goal of reincorporating Ukraine into a new Russian empire; (2) The UN Secretary General has consistently said Putin’s war on Ukraine is a violation of the UN Charter and international law; (3) Putin’s military has routinely committed atrocities and war crimes against civilians in Ukraine; (4) the world, particularly the developing world, is paying for Putin’s aggression in Ukraine through higher food and energy costs; (5) Putin’s war is not a European issue — Ukraine is defending the rights of all nations and peoples everywhere to live within secure national borders and be free of the threats of violent and coercive attacks by neighboring countries; and (6) an international system that tolerates autocrats, such as Putin, attacking neighbors would produce a world in which every country is poorer and less secure and free.
Ukraine’s success depends on continued financial and material support from Western democracies, which, in turn, depends on those publics being willing to continue to shoulder the burden Ukraine’s defense. As we are already seeing in Europe and America, that support cannot be taken for granted.
Leaders at all levels in the U.S., the EU, and other Western democracies must make the case frequently and persistently to their publics that in defending itself against Russian aggression, Ukraine is also defending the security and freedom of all countries. If Western public opinion remains steadfast in its support, Ukraine will prevail over Russia.
Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as an Ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
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