After days in which the West has sought to present a muscular and united front in the face of Russia’s challenge to the international order, leaders on Thursday were facing a longer-term dilemma: how to maintain public support for a grinding war whose economic costs are stoking exhaustion.
In a sign of the challenges of maintaining pressure on Russia despite fuel price shocks and wider economic pain, President Joe Biden said at the close of the NATO summit in Madrid on Thursday that Americans should be prepared to pay higher gasoline prices for “as long as it takes, so Russia cannot in fact defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine.”
As NATO concluded its annual meeting — in the same week that the Group of 7 industrialized nations held their own gathering in Germany — Western leaders expressed concern about weariness back home. At the same time, President Vladimir Putin of Russia was showing intensified resolve while Ukraine’s demand for financing and weapons appeared increasingly inexhaustible.
Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister, who doggedly persuaded Turkey to lift its block on the NATO membership applications of her country and of Finland, warned about the perils of diminishing popular support and fading public interest as rising inflation, energy and food prices took their toll.
“You can already see in the media that interest is going down, and that is also affecting the public, and the public is affecting the politicians,” she said. “So it is our responsibility to keep Ukraine and what Russia is doing high up on our agenda.”
With Biden and his allies unable to match their pledges of support for Ukraine with a viable endgame for the conflict, Putin signaled that he believed he could outlast Ukraine and the West, and that he still aimed to topple the pro-Western government in Kyiv.
In overnight comments to journalists after a regional summit in Turkmenistan late Wednesday, Putin insisted he was in no hurry to end the war, again claiming that the West had created an “anti-Russian bridgehead” in Ukraine that represented a “sword of Damocles” hanging over Russia.
“The work is going smoothly, rhythmically,” Putin said of the fighting by Russian forces. “There is no need to talk about the timing.”
The remarks underscored a change in Putin, whose irritability and propensity for anger early in the war has given way to a more relaxed and self-confident posture, in line with his prewar image. The shift suggests he believes that he has stabilized his war effort, and his economic and political system, after Russia’s initial military stumbles and a flurry of punishing Western sanctions.
Looming over the battle of resolve is the fact that Ukraine is burning through cash and weapons.
Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told the World Bank last week that current international support was not enough to cover Ukraine’s monthly military spending. Ukraine’s government is spending $5 billion to $6 billion on the war a month at the last estimate, she said, adding, “and that is a staggering burn rate.”
Addressing the G-7 and NATO summits, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine repeated his calls for more and faster arms to try to beat back the Russian advance in eastern Ukraine. Although more longer-range Western weapons are arriving — as are artillery shells, encrypted radios and better drones — it is still not enough, Zelenskyy says.
As Western leaders depart Madrid in clouds of rhetoric about defending freedom from tyranny, Britain said it would give Ukraine an additional $1.2 billion in military support, nearly doubling its financial commitment to Kyiv. The U.S. has pledged $54 billion in support to Ukraine since the start of the war.
While the Russian invasion has emboldened NATO and prompted members to buttress their own defenses, Ukraine still must hang on through the summer fighting season and hope that the progress of Russian forces is stymied by their own exhaustion.