As U.S. Support for Ukraine Falters, Europe Splits on Filling the Gap

In Estonia, a four-story banner that combines the flags of Ukraine and Estonia hangs over a main square in the capital, Tallinn. In Latvia, Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins is calling for allies to “ramp up military support to Ukraine without delay.”

And the leader of Lithuania, where President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine began a tour of Baltic States on Wednesday, recently made a pointed plea to help Kyiv hold the line against invading Russian forces as support for Ukraine in the war elsewhere in Europe threatens to fragment.

“For all those saying they are tired of war in Ukraine – a reminder by the terrorist Russia that there’s no limit to its brutality& thirst for blood,” President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania wrote on the social media platform X on Dec. 29, hours after a Russian barrage of missiles and drones slammed into cities across Ukraine.

Almost nowhere is the emotional investment for Ukraine’s war effort stronger than in the Baltics, where the three former Soviet states declared independence at the end of the Cold War to escape Russia’s grip. Mr. Zelensky’s trip there this week, an early diplomatic foray of 2024, comes as he tries to rally support for his war effort from a bastion of political backing while other European nations show increasing fatigue and financial distress from a war that began nearly two years ago.

Mr. Zelensky said on Wednesday that his trip, which will also take him to Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia, was meant to show Ukraine’s gratitude for “the uncompromising support for Ukraine since 2014 and especially now, during Russia’s full-scale aggression.”

Pavlo Klimkin, a former foreign minister of Ukraine, said the trip was intended “to engage our friends who are close to us in their understanding of Russia to push for assistance in D.C., in Brussels, because this assistance is critical for us now.”

With additional American aid in doubt — as Republicans in Congress are continuing to block about $61 billion in weapons and other assistance — European leaders face the prospect of having to fill as much of the gap as they can to maintain support for Ukraine.

Latvia’s foreign minister, Krisjanis Karins, right, and his Swedish counterpart, Tobias Billstrom, left, attended a rally in support of Ukraine in Stockholm in December.Credit…Henrik Montgomery/EPA, via Shutterstock

But the financial retreat by the United States, which has provided more military aid than any other single country to Ukraine, could also give political cover to European officials looking to diminish their backing for the war.

“Personally, I think we need to act faster and more decisively to support Ukraine, because Russia represents a major strategic threat to the European Union, even if I have to admit that not all member states agree on the nature of this threat,” the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell Fontelles, wrote in an essay this month.

He added: “Does disunity on this existential issue threaten the future of the European Union? It is impossible to say at this stage.”

Experts say most European governments remain committed to helping Ukraine defeat Russia — in part to avoid the prospect of President Vladimir V. Putin reaching farther west with his imperialist ambitions. After Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Europe coalesced around Ukraine with more unity than it showed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, said Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

But overall support for the war effort is waning. A poll conducted by the European Commission and released last month showed that backing among Europeans for giving Ukraine additional financial and military aid dropped slightly this past fall from the summer.

Even if Europe’s political backing holds firm, Mr. Gould-Davies said governments may be hard pressed to maintain the level of military and economic aid that has been flowing to Kyiv.

“At this point, the real concern is not whether the West, whether Europe, will continue to support Ukraine,” Mr. Gould-Davies said. “It’s whether it will continue in practical terms to commit the degree of resources necessary, especially militarily.”

Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nauseda, speaking with the news media in Brussels last month. He recently expressed continued support for Ukraine amid war fatigue.Credit…Omar Havana/Associated Press

He called that “partly a factor of will and partly a factor of capacity.”

Some political cracks have already surfaced.

Chief among them is Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, who last month blocked a European Union plan to send about $52 billion in aid to Ukraine. And Slovakia’s recently elected prime minister, and a far-right Dutch politician who is seeking to become the Netherlands’ next prime minister, have also called for cutting aid to Ukraine.

Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, described “a lot of fatigue” among Ukraine’s backers during a September telephone call in which she believed she was speaking with African envoys. As it turned out, she had been lured into a prank call from two Russian comedians, and a recording of the conversation that was released in November included Ms. Meloni declaring: “We are near the moment in which everybody understands that we need a way out.”

Officials in the Baltics, in Nordic states and in Eastern Europe say they increasingly fear that rifts could lead to a near-term defeat of Ukraine that would embolden Mr. Putin to send troops into former Soviet republics and satellite states.

“Every neighbor of Russia has good reason to be worried,” said Kalev Stoicescu, the chairman of the National Defense Committee in Estonia’s Parliament. “Russia behaves literally as a predator,” he said. “It has the taste of blood.”

A recent report by Estonia’s Defense Ministry outlines in stark terms what it wants NATO to do to prevent that and win the war in Ukraine.

It says Ukrainian forces must be given enough training and firepower — at least 200,000 rounds of 155-millimeter artillery shells each month — to kill or severely wound at least 50,000 Russian troops every six months. That is far beyond what the European Union and the United States combined can currently deliver.

A Ukrainian artillery crew member in the Zaporizhzhia region last month. The war has stretched on for nearly two years.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

In Germany, officials approved plans by Chancellor Olaf Scholz to double support to Ukraine this year to about $8.8 billion, and a recent shipment of weapons to the war front included more air defense missiles, tank ammunition and artillery shells.

But the government has balked at sending long-range Taurus missiles that could strike Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, or deep into Russian-held territory. That reluctance has prompted some to “look at our actions with concern and ask myself whether our support is sufficient,” as Germany’s former president, Joachim Gauck, said in an interview published on Sunday.

On Monday, Mr. Scholz said Germany’s contributions “alone will not be enough to guarantee Ukraine’s security in the long term.”

“The arms deliveries for Ukraine planned so far by the majority of E.U. member states are in any event too small,” Mr. Scholz said during a news conference with Luxembourg’s prime minister. He added: “Europe must demonstrate that it stands firmly on the side of Ukraine, on the side of freedom, international law and European values.”

One upcoming test of Europe’s resolve, Mr. Gould-Davies said, is whether the European Union agrees to give Ukraine billions of dollars in frozen Russian central bank assets that are being held in European financial institutions. The United States is considering similar proposals.

“That would ease the pressure, incidentally, on Western taxpayers,” Mr. Gould-Davies said. He said Europe also needed to increase its defense industry production to arm Ukraine — a process that could take years — but pointed to the 12 rounds of sanctions that the bloc has imposed on Russia as a sign of continuing support.

European Union countries and bloc institutions have jointly donated about $145 billion in military, financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine as of October 2023 — nearly twice as much as the United States in the same period, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

That is expected to continue — even if to a lesser extent.

For now at least, support to Ukraine “remains the Swedish government’s main foreign policy task in the coming years,” the Swedish foreign minister, Tobias Billstrom, said this week.

Constant Méheut and Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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