Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Polish President Andrzej Duda (Photo by Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The drowning man of Europe?

The cooling of Western attitudes towards Ukraine

Artillery Row

A public rupture between Poland and Ukraine has wider implications for the limits of NATO’s support for Kyiv. What seemingly started as a dispute over cheap Ukrainian grain flooding into Poland has, in an escalatory fashion, evolved into the Polish government announcing that it will no longer supply Ukraine with weapons. Granted, a Polish election is on the horizon. There is likely some degree of campaigning afoot — but that fact does not diminish that this shift in tone is finding fertile ground in Poland.

It cannot be overlooked that Warsaw has been one of Kyiv’s most stalwart supporters since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. Poland has taken in refugees, offered billions in aid, and also floated some very hawkish ideas to defend Ukraine and escalate NATO’s involvement in the conflict. In the opening weeks of the war, Poland proposed a NATO peacekeeping mission in Ukraine. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki acknowledged that it could involve an air and ground force, meaning NATO troops (read: U.S. troops) risking direct conflict with Russia to defend Ukraine. In March 2022, the Polish ambassador to Ukraine voiced support for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone in Ukraine, which would likewise mean direct conflict between U.S. and Russian jets — an act of war between the only two nuclear superpowers.

Those proposals stand in marked contrast to recent statements from Poland’s officials. Morawiecki has told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to never “insult Poles again”, and Polish President Andrzej Duda has likened Ukraine to a desperate “drowning person” who might “drown the rescuer”.

What was behind Poland’s staunch support for Ukraine? According to one popular narrative, it was an anxiety that should Ukraine fall, Poland would likely be the next target of an imperialist project of expansion launched by Vladimir Putin. It’s a scary story, but an inaccurate one. Poland’s public break with Ukraine and decision to halt the supply of weapons to Kyiv betrays the truth: Warsaw’s interests in Ukraine are limited — and Ukraine winning or losing is not an existential question for Poland.

If it is true that the Ukraine-Russia war is not existential for Poland, a neighbour of Ukraine and home to a people whose national character has been shaped by centuries of rotten relations with Moscow, then how much more must this be true for the rest of the West, including the U.S.?

Washington cannot maintain this level of support forever

The level of support the U.S. has offered Ukraine is unsustainable, even as U.S. officials acknowledge a desire to prepare for a long war. In dollar terms, the U.S. should seek limits on the aid. Russia may be one of Washington’s top two rivals, but the defeat of Russia is unnecessary for the core U.S. interest of survival. Russia’s invasion has been blunted — in no small part thanks to U.S. aid, but Washington cannot maintain this level of support forever. Americans are being asked to fund not only the military effort, but also to subsidise Ukrainian small businesses and even Ukrainian government salaries and pensions. Zelensky has floated the idea that he will only permit elections if the West offers to help fund them. Taken as a whole, this scheme has notes of a nation-building project, which should be outrageous given the unpopularity of such a goal in Afghanistan. Making Ukraine dependent on outside assistance can hardly be described as a path to ensuring Ukraine’s sovereignty.

In strategic terms, it appears unlikely that either Ukraine or Russia will achieve an outright military victory. From a basic moral consideration, the U.S. should desire an end to the war and not a prolongation of the carnage. Even if the U.S. government sees weakening Russia as a goal, this has already been achieved. Ukrainians may be willing to die to defend their homes, but the U.S. is under no obligation to enable this indefinitely, especially as the conflict takes the shape of a war of attrition.

Considerations like these have led to what is termed “Ukraine fatigue”, where a growing number of people in the West are voicing their discontent with the constant stream of aid to Ukraine. Poland’s “Ukraine fatigue” is capturing headlines today, but it is also becoming more palpable in the U.S. as Americans enter an election season.

This cuts through the narrative that Ukraine’s fight is our fight — that Russia must be stopped, or Putin will reestablish the Soviet Union and march on Warsaw. Poland’s interests are limited here, and so are America’s. It would be far better for Washington to own this fact and acknowledge that whilst we may want to see Ukraine succeed against Russia, the benefit to our country is more narrowly circumscribed.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the U.S. refusing to define its limited interest in Ukraine concerns the question of NATO membership. Ukraine seeks this avidly — even to the point of calling for action as a response to an attack on “collective security” when a Ukrainian missile inadvertently crashed in Poland, and Kyiv initially blamed the damage on Russia. Here the drowning man metaphor is especially apt: a rescue by NATO — that is, direct U.S.–Russia conflict — could have unimaginable consequences. Poland and the U.S. both exhibited restraint in the case of the errant Ukrainian missile, again revealing that there is a deep and prudent desire to keep NATO out of conflict with Russia. Put bluntly, avoiding a NATO–Russia conflict is a core interest — rescuing Ukraine is not.

Looking to the future, this should be explicitly stated: Ukraine will not be in NATO. Such a plan would gamble with U.S. security. Washington’s interests in Ukraine are not boundless. Recognizing this is an essential step in bringing this war to an end and forming a better U.S. foreign policy.

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