The mood in Kyiv is darkening. The euphoria of a few weeks ago when Russian forces seemed on the retreat has turned to unease over what has become a punishing war of attrition in east Ukraine. A note of disquiet has crept into the speeches of the indefatigable president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that western support could ebb or fracture, or that its leaders might push his country into an unacceptable peace. Some 108 days into the war, it is more vital than ever that Kyiv’s allies remain united and resolute in their actions, and their messaging.
First, that means stepping up arms deliveries. The US and UK are providing multiple-launch rocket systems capable of firing up to 50 miles, after receiving assurances they would not be used to strike inside Russia itself. Kyiv says it needs at least 60 — far more than pledged — to have a chance of turning the tide in the war. A $40bn US support package includes $19bn of near-term military aid, but deliveries will take time. Ukraine needs more arms now to repel Russian forces that, by concentrating troops and long-range artillery in strategic spots, are finally grinding out advances — but may struggle to sustain such tactics indefinitely.
Just as important is resolve and consistency in allies’ diplomacy. It is prudent in security terms to avoid driving into a corner a paranoid Russian leader who has broken taboos on threatening to use nuclear weapons. But French president Emmanuel Macron’s insistence that the west must not “humiliate” Vladimir Putin sounds dangerously pusillanimous. A leader whose forces are maiming and killing Ukrainians deserves no help in saving face.
Germany and Italy have also called for a ceasefire as a path to a negotiated settlement. Ukraine’s president fears a repeat of 2014, when Kyiv was pushed to accept a deal that cemented Russia’s territorial gains in the east.
In a Financial Times interview, Zelenskyy set out a legitimate framework for his military aims. A stalemate leaving Russian forces where they are, he said, was “not an option for us”. It should be unacceptable, too, for Kyiv’s allies; tolerating Putin’s Ukrainian land grabs through force, for a second time, might only embolden him to use aggression elsewhere. Zelenskyy specified that repelling Russia’s army to positions before its February 24 invasion would be a “serious temporary victory”, but restoring full sovereignty over its territory remains Kyiv’s ultimate goal.
Without directly discussing borders, US president Joe Biden has also set out a position more robust than Macron’s, and not inconsistent with that of Zelenskyy. The US will not press Kyiv to make territorial concessions. It wants a “democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine” that can deter future aggression. But it will not try to “bring about [Putin’s] ouster”, or encourage or enable Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.
While some may privately differ, western leaders ought to be able to unite around these frameworks — and use them as a guide in all contacts with Russia’s Putin. Above all, they should respect the principle of deciding “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine”.
After western allies chose, for understandable reasons, not to intervene directly in the war, Ukraine is fighting alone. It is defending not only its own sovereignty but, by extension, freedom and security in Europe. How far it thinks it can go in prosecuting its aims will be determined in no small part by the support it can secure from its partners. They should equip it with all means possible without triggering a direct conflict with Russia. It is then for Kyiv to determine the timing and terms of any peace talks with Moscow.