European allies worry US could dial back support for Ukraine
The Washington Post October 26, 2022
LONDON — U.S. allies in Europe are growing increasingly concerned that the united front presented by the West in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could quickly unravel if Republicans are victorious in next week’s midterm elections, ceding an advantage to President Vladimir Putin just when Ukraine is making progress on the battlefield.
In the eight months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a rare level of transatlantic consensus has taken hold over the need to support Ukraine. Collectively, Ukraine’s allies have pledged over $93 billion in military, financial and humanitarian assistance, with the lion’s share of that promised by the United States.
Since comments by the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that a Republican-controlled House wouldn’t continue to issue “blank check” funding for Ukraine, officials in both Kyiv and Western Europe have begun to wonder if Ukraine can continue to count on the United States.
It’s unclear whether Republicans would carry out the threat to reduce funding for Ukraine if they do take control of House. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in contrast, said a Republican Senate majority “will focus its oversight on ensuring timely delivery of needed weapons and greater allied assistance to Ukraine.”
President Biden’s effort to aid Ukraine has so far enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and public opinion polls show strong backing for continued U.S. assistance, with 72% of respondents telling a Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll last week that they support sending additional weapons and military aid to Ukraine — including 68% of Republicans.
But the mere suggestion that the U.S. might pull back has set off alarm bells in Western capitals.
Ukraine simply wouldn’t be forcing Russia into retreat if it wasn’t for the enormous quantity of U.S. weaponry that has flowed into the country since February, and any slowdown would be “game-changing” and could turn the tide of the war in Russia’s favor, said Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the defense committee in Britain’s parliament.
“You’d be playing into Putin’s hands,” he said. “If America pulls back, Putin could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.”
A reduction in U.S. aid could come as a wake-up call to many countries in Europe still dallying over fulfilling some of the defense and financial commitments made in the wake of the invasion, said Cathryn Culver-Ashbrook, a German political scientist who is executive vice president of the Washington-based Bertelsmann Foundation.
Germany, for example, has yet to take steps to raise its defense spending, in line with a historic pledge made by Chancellor Olaf Sholz immediately following the Russian invasion in February, she said. The European Union has promised 11 billion euros in financial aid to Ukraine, but has so far disbursed only about 3 billion of that.
“It’s going to hasten a somewhat difficult conversation among the political classes” in Europe, she said.
Whether Europe would respond by stepping up its commitments is in question, said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Istituto Affari Internazionale. At a time of deepening economic crisis across the continent, some governments might take the cue to ease up on their own aid to Ukraine.
Although U.S. officials have often fretted that European unity could fray in the face of soaring energy prices that have hit European consumers particularly hard because of the continent’s reliance on Russian energy, so far it has held up surprisingly well, diplomats say. Europeans are divided on many issues, ranging from how to share the energy burden to the need for greater defense commitments. But on the core issue of standing up to Russia, Europe’s resolve has remained undimmed, said a European official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive subjects.”
“No one is saying no to anything. Despite some disagreements over details, no one is balking or slowing down,” the official said.
The Biden administration has been instrumental, however, in prodding and rallying Europeans to present a united front, leading by example with the size of its own commitments, Tocci said.
“You could really imagine that if this were to falter within the United States, then the house of cards would start falling,” she said.
She cited the case of Italy, where a new government composed of far-right parties has just been voted into power. The new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has quelled European fears that Italy could become the first European country to break ranks over Ukraine. “Italy with us in government will never be the weak link of the West,” she said as she took office.
But Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is governing in coalition with two Euroskeptic right-wing parties: the League, and the Forza Italia of former premier Silvio Berlusconi, an admirer of Putin, who was recently recorded saying the Ukrainian president was to blame for forcing the Russian president to invade.
“A very important push to the Europeans is that the United States has been so prominent militarily and also financially — really nudging the Europeans into supporting Ukraine. If that were to fall through in the United States, then inevitably in Europe, where the energy and economic crisis is felt more strongly, you could imagine that having a big impact,” Tocci said.
Even if European allies were to seek to compensate for a reduction in U.S. assistance, it’s unclear whether they would be able to, analysts say. As a percentage of GDP, the United States lags behind many European countries in terms of the size of its contributions - Latvia leads, with assistance worth 0.9%t of its GDP, according to the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine support tracker. The United States has given aid worth 0.2% of GDP. But that nonetheless eclipses by a huge margin the total amount given by any other nation.
The size of America’s military commitments in particular dwarfs the capacity of any of its Western allies to fill the gap — the United States has promised $27 billion, more than seven times the $3.74 billion pledged by the second-largest military donor, the United Kingdom.
And Ukraine’s needs continue to grow. Russia’s escalating attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure have knocked out power supplies to parts of the country, and President Volodymyr Zelensky says the country needs billions in emergency aid just to survive the next year. At a conference in Berlin on Tuesday dedicated to Ukrainian reconstruction, Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister, urged the West to provide an immediate economic relief package of $17 billion in addition to aid worth $3 billion a month from the European Union and the United States.
The requests are enormous and could become increasingly burdensome as countries head into winter and possibly recession, analysts say. That’s where American leadership is vital, said Ellwood, the British parliamentarian.
“When America steps forward, other nations follow suit. The scale of both financial and military support from the United States is off the scales compared to other countries,” he said. “But if America starts to blink, other nations might as well.