I’ve got ‘Ukraine fatigue’ fatigue
Please forgive me, but I’m tired of reading how tired of Ukraine the West is becoming — again.
“Ukraine fatigue” is a strange kind of fatigue, since it’s been coming and going every few years since 1991, when Ukraine became independent. But the West doesn’t seem to be getting cumulatively more tired. Instead, there’s a persistent pattern to the fatigue. The West first gets excited about Ukraine’s prospects for something or other, and then it gets enervated by the waiting and the seeming lack of progress.
The fatigue is thus a product, not so much of anything Ukraine does or does not do, but of the West’s impatience or exalted expectations. Were the West’s attitude toward Ukraine guided less by emotion and more by reason, were the West guided more by knowledge and less by hope, the fatigue — which is really the disappointment that follows unrealistic expectations — would be far less likely.
In the past, the West expected Ukraine to become “just like us” in a few years and, when it didn’t quite meet our expectations, we decried Ukraine for being hopelessly corrupt and unable to do what we instructed it to do. In fact, Ukraine had made enormous progress toward becoming a consolidated democracy and vigorous market economy before Russia invaded in February. Moreover, Ukraine’s civil society is strong and, despite Western insistence to the contrary, Ukraine actually managed to reduce corruption over the years.
But none of that mattered, because the West lacked a genuine strategy toward Ukraine, never fully appreciating its positive systemic evolution and geopolitical importance to global stability. Ironically, it took Vladimir Putin’s war to change Western perceptions of Ukraine — so much so that Ukraine is now the recipient of military and financial aid from over 50 countries and has just become a candidate member of the European Union.
The latest bout of “fatigue,” however, is different. It’s not motivated by ignorance of and unrealistic expectations toward Ukraine, but by fear that the Russo-Ukrainian war won’t be ending soon. The West desires to return to the status quo ante and resume “normal life.” The fear is perfectly justified, but the desire, while not unreasonable, underscores the degree to which the West still has not fully understood just what the war means — for the world in general and Europe in particular.
The fact that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Prime Minister Olaf Scholz still hold on to the illusion that talking to the Russian president makes sense illustrates nicely just how divorced from reality they are. One doesn’t have to compare Putin with Adolf Hitler to realize that the Russian leader believes, as he and his cronies repeatedly have stated, that negotiation can mean only the acceptance of Russian territorial gains and the evisceration of Ukrainian sovereignty.
If, contrary to Macron and Scholz, the war cannot end via agreement, then it can end only by means of a victory — either by the Russians, or by the Ukrainians. That may mean a short war or a long war, but, whatever the length, there will be war until one side — preferably imperialist Russia — loses.
That’s one of the reasons why today’s “fatigue” is unlikely to be long-lived. The West is beginning to appreciate that Putin is a menace, Russia is an unregenerate rogue, and that their victory would portend a variety of dreadful consequences for the world. First, authoritarianism would get a shot in the arm, while democracy and liberalism would continue to wither away. Second, fascist Russia would come to border the European Union and NATO, threatening their security and probably testing Western resolve to defend itself by continuing its encroachments on the Baltic states and Poland. Third, Russia’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy needs would tighten as well, while its seizure of Ukraine’s agricultural lands would add to its clout on global grain markets. All these factors would produce a major shift in power that would not favor the West.
The second reason for today’s fatigue being short-lived is that the West has sunk enormous costs into Ukraine and has created a variety of institutional mechanisms for channeling its aid. Sunk costs are always an obstacle to bolting, and institutions usually develop momentum of their own and dictate policy as much as they execute it. Given the West’s already high commitment to Ukraine, it’s very likely to be sustained even after fissures in the Western coalition appear, Western economies slow down, and the prospect of a long war with huge additional costs becomes reality. Whether or not the West will remain as committed to Ukraine for as long as the United States was present in Afghanistan is unclear, but the time is sure to be longer than a few years.
It’s high time for the tiresome talk of fatigue to stop and for the West to “get real.” The West needs to realize that, just as no post-Soviet country can magically become Switzerland in a few years, so too fascist Russia’s imperial aspirations will not cease — even if Putin assures us that he has no aggressive intentions. Stopping Russia means saving the world and, when it comes to something of that magnitude, fatigue, whether real or feigned, is no excuse.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”