The tanks are arriving. The recruits are undergoing training. New units are being formed. Preparations for Ukraine’s spring offensive are afoot, with US officials expecting it to begin in the coming weeks. Ukrainian hopes to dislodge Russian forces from the country are reportedly centred on the Zaporizhzhia frontline, which would allow Ukraine to push into the partially-occupied oblast to seize the transport hub of Melitopol and sever the land bridge which permits Russia to supply forces from Crimea.
The counter-offensive may well prove decisive in determining the fate of the war, not least because significant territorial gains could lead to negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. The country’s leadership having hitherto ruled out peace talks until Russian forces have withdrawn entirely from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, on 5th April, Ukrainian presidential advisor Andriy Sybiha said that if its forces achieve “strategic goals on the battlefield” and reach Crimea’s borders, the leadership would be open to negotiations over the future of the peninsula.
Alternatively, should Ukraine’s army falter, the Spring Offensive could mark the moment at which Western support to Ukraine begins to decline, with former US Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer warning that “if this becomes a grinding war with no end in sight, it becomes a lot harder to maintain Western support”.
Second only to the Russians, Ukraine’s greatest enemy is Western fatigue. Back in September, Russian-born banker Lubov Chernukhin warned of people viewing Ukraine as “Afghanistan 2.0 – a war that drones interminably on, prompting fatigue”. Meanwhile, in February, Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrij Melnyk noted that a key challenge for Ukraine is combatting Western weariness, with allies feeling they could “put their feet up” after supplying tanks.
This is especially apparent in America. Some in the Republican Party, notably in the Trumpist wing, have been voicing doubts about support to Ukraine, none more so than the man himself. Trump has complained of the US giving Ukraine too much aid and said he could have prevented the conflict by letting Putin “take over something”. In February, a group of pro-Trump Republicans led by Congressman Matt Gaetz introduced the ‘Ukraine Fatigue Resolution’, urging an end to US military and financial aid to Ukraine and warning of the costs of a protracted conflict.
Meanwhile, Trump’s potential rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has claimed it is not in America’s interest to become “further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia”. With US public support for aid to Ukraine declining, assistance to the embattled nation looks set to be a hot topic in the run-up to 2024’s presidential election.
Moving beyond party politics, this is an America which wants to concentrate on its epoch-defining clash with China — as outlined by former Trump advisor Elbridge Colby in a recent interview with UnHerd. The country has learnt severe lessons about prolonged military engagements on the other side of the world, and perhaps most importantly is still led by a President whose hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan let the Taliban seize power and left well-meaning coalition partners unable to fill the gap left by US resources — an incident which should keep Volodymyr Zelenskyy awake at night.
For his part, President Biden has vowed to stick by Ukraine “as long as it takes”. However, the US budget for military assistance is expected to run out by September, while US defence officials have privately described shipments of ammunition for the coming offensive as a “last-ditch effort” since allies cannot meet the pace at which Ukraine is firing and it will take months for suppliers to catch up. As Ukraine’s single biggest military and financial supporter, if the US were to pull out, it would have a catastrophic effect on Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russian aggression.
The Russians are aware of this — Putin’s strategy hinges on outlasting Ukraine and its backers. Last month, ex-president and current deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council Dmitri Medvedev said that “of course” Ukraine’s supporters are growing tired, which is why “Biden and his henchmen have been doing their utmost to push through this aid and everything else as quickly as possible”.
As Ukrainian forces plan how to break into Russian-held territory and liberate occupied areas, there can be no pressure quite like preparing for battle. However, added to this is the fear that failure to make significant territorial gains will weaken Ukraine’s position not just on the battlefield, but in the capitals of Western allies.