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Does Economic Pain Mean NATO and the West Cut Ukraine Loose?

U.S. Army
U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to 2nd Cavalry Regiment (2CR) send a round down range firing a M1128 Mobile Gun System during a live fire exercise as part of Exercise "Dragoon Ready" at the 7th Army Training Command's Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Oct. 17, 2018. Dragoon Ready is a 7th Army Training Command/Joint Multinational Readiness Center led exercise designed to enhance readiness and qualify 2CR in Unified Land Operations.

How does the Ukraine War End? Last Wednesday at the Aspen Security Forum, CIA Director William Burns argued that “Putin’s view of Americans is that we always suffer from attention deficit disorder, and we’ll get distracted by something else.” Burns thinks that Putin is wrong. But he might miss what Vladimir Putin actually thinks. The Russian president may not be banking on Americans simply getting distracted, but on U.S. and European populations focusing on a broader picture, favoring their own national interests and measuring the domestic pain caused by Western support for Ukraine’s war effort. If civil displeasure rises to sufficient levels, political support for Kyiv could rapidly evaporate in Western capitals.

The chances of that happening are higher than many believe.

This analysis is the third in a series of assessments of potential outcomes of the war between Russia and Ukraine. The first one looked at the potential for a protracted stalemate and a partial Russian victory. The second installment considered an outright Russian victory and an outright Ukrainian victory.  In this final evaluation, we consider the implications of a collapse in Western public support for continuing the war and the impact on the battlefield of such a phenomenon.

Most Likely Scenario (Collapse of Western Support)

This scenario examines issues off the battlefield that are far likelier to affect the course of the war than the purely tactical situations previously discussed. Regardless of which way the battlefield trends move, the war’s outcome will almost certainly be decided by factors far away from the fighting: economic issues, energy supplies, and popular will among Western populations.

Without remarkable levels of financial and military support from Western countries, Russia might well have conquered far more territory, and far faster, than it already has. Moscow might have even forced an end-of-war settlement on Kyiv by now. Throughout, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Cabinet ministers have routinely expressed gratitude for the support provided, but they have also been relentless in demanding more.

For example, as of July 20, the United States had provided or promised 16 of its most modern HIMARs rocket launchers to Kyiv. The launchers have had a definitive impact on the battlefield, reportedly striking dozens of important Russian ammunition depots and command posts. Last Tuesday, however, Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov argued that his forces need an additional 100 launchers. That would amount to approximately one-fourth of all HIMARs launchers that were in the active inventory of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps as of November 2020. Such a request is unlikely to be granted, as it would negatively impact America’s conventional strength – and this illustrates a larger and growing problem.

Zelensky has worked hard to shame the West into giving Ukraine unprecedented levels of military support. Up to this point, he has succeeded largely, but not entirely. For example, though dozens of countries have combined to send tens of thousands of anti-air and anti-tank missiles as well as howitzers, tanks, and other tools of war, all have thus far balked at Ukraine’s request for fighter aircraft. They have also refused to impose a no-fly zone or any other form of direct engagement against Russian forces. The reasons the West has refused to provide the kinds of assistance that might draw it into the conflict are instructive, and they presage increasing trouble for Kyiv later this year.

Reflex vs Contemplation

Most Western countries have a reflexive opposition to Russia. They regard Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine with a combination of anger, fear, and for some, hatred. All Western governments believe that Moscow’s invasion was illegal and unjustified, and they want Putin to fail. But each nation is also primarily concerned about its own national security and interests. That self-interest balances their desire for Russian failure. They do not want their support to cross a line and draw them into conflict with Russia.

An additional and often overlooked factor is that some Western governments view the threat of a conventional attack from Moscow to be negligible. They have given minimal support – enough to be seen as “doing something,” yet not enough to risk harming their own militaries or their own economies, or to risk being dragged into the conflict themselves. Even the United States, by far the largest donor of money and arms, has thus far offered only modest numbers of Vietnam-era armored vehicles and towed howitzers, as well as 16 modern HIMARS launchers. 

What happens if the calculus changes for Western countries?

Western contributions have been painful but still doable until now. That dynamic may start changing later this summer. By the fall and winter, it is increasingly likely that European and American leaders will come under strong pressure to slow or stop the flow of money and weapons to Kyiv.

Already the economies of the West are showing signs that a recession is coming. In part as a result of massive sanctions levied on Russia, gasoline prices have risen to historic highs, global food supplies have risen to near crisis-levels (raising the price of nearly all groceries), and inflation in the U.S. and UK remains at a four-decade high. But the gas situation in Europe may prove to be the trigger for a retrenchment of Western support to Ukraine.

There are fears within Germany – which still gets nearly 30% of its daily gas from Russia – that Moscow may cut off all supplies before winter. That fear grew on Monday, as Russia’s Gazprom announced a halving of the gas that flows through its Nord Stream 1 pipeline, down to 20% capacity. Berlin is aggressively trying to mitigate the loss of Russian gas, but Germany and other EU countries are already looking at rationing for their citizens this fall and winter. 

If the war drags on through the summer and into the winter, the impact on virtually the entire Western world will be acute. The pressures on individual governments by angry citizens to end support for Ukraine and push for a settlement will likely mount, and they might reach decisive levels.

The reality is that Russian conventional forces pose little credible threat to NATO countries. Even the Baltics, which are more militarily vulnerable than any other NATO member, have little to fear from a Russian army that has shown severe limitations in projecting power – and has now lost significant capacity owing to combat losses from the first five months of war. 

The Coming Privation and Its Consequences

The populations of Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and other Western European nations, however, recognize there is effectively no conventional threat to them from Moscow. Why, they will begin asking with increasing stridency, should they sacrifice their own economic security, struggle to put food on their tables, and scramble to heat their homes during winter so that their governments can support Ukraine in a war that is not necessary for European security? 

Any population that suffers privation and poor economic conditions rail against its leaders. In an environment where the proximate cause of their misery is their government’s decision to sanction Russia in ways that harm their own people’s interests, the civil angst directed against governments could be severe.

There could well be significant pressure throughout the United States and Europe this fall and winter to end support for Ukraine and encourage all parties to end the war on whatever terms necessary so that the negative pressures on their economies are relieved. It seems unlikely that politicians in Western countries that wish to be re-elected are going to place the needs of Kyiv above the needs of their own citizens. In such an environment, the chances that Ukraine is left on its own militarily rise considerably.

Russia Can Hold Out. Can Ukraine?

Earlier segments in this series have examined the four military scenarios that are most likely to play out through the rest of this year. The assessments were based on diplomatic, economic, and military conditions as they presently exist, and assume that conditions external to Ukraine remain static. As we note here, however, it is actually very likely that the situation outside Ukraine will change, and likelier all the time the closer we get to winter. A loss of popular support among the citizens of multiple Western countries would probably have a dramatic negative impact on Ukraine.

Russia has had many years of learning how to live under Western economic sanctions. By all appearances, the major sanctions levied on them since February have had a severe impact, but not a decisive one. Russians have adjusted to the privations and appear able to continue supporting the war at current levels through at least the end of 2022. If, however, Ukraine begins to lose significant support from its Western backers by the fall, it is almost certain to have a negative effect on their war effort.

For example, by mid-June, numerous reports indicated that Ukraine was running out of its Soviet-era ammunition, especially for its howitzers. Continuous Russian strategic bombing has nearly eliminated Ukraine’s industrial capacity to make new artillery shells and other instruments of war. The only way Ukraine can maintain the volume of fire necessary to hold off the Russians is to get a steady supply from Western backers. 

If that pipeline dries up, Kyiv’s troops will be physically unable to continue resisting. The same is true of the continual need for replacement howitzers, tanks, and armored personnel carriers: If the West stops providing replacements, Ukraine cannot continue the war. 

The morale effect of dwindling Western supplies, however, could be the most consequential. 

Ukraine – already suffering severe battlefield losses and psychological trauma – may not be able to survive if they know they are on their own. Their morale would take a serious hit. Conversely, if Western populations demand their governments end any of the sanctions on Moscow, the Russian war effort will receive a major physical and emotional boost.  In all probability, the combination of the loss of the physical necessities to continue fighting and the declining morale would result in Ukraine losing its war with Russia, or forcing it to sue for peace on the best terms available – which will result in the permanent loss of some of its pre-2014 territory.

The possibility that worsening economic conditions start to impose real pressures on Western governments this fall and winter is not minuscule. European capitals, Washington, and Kyiv must begin now, before the onset of these pressures, to game out how they will respond if the pressures become too acute for Western governments to withstand. It will not do to wait. Once they are faced with domestic pressure, most countries can be counted on to prioritize their own national interests above those of Ukraine. 

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

29 Comments

29 Comments

  1. Ezra Teter

    July 25, 2022 at 9:30 pm

    By my count, there have already been three countries (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Italy)that have had their governments overthrown in one way or another since the start of this war. Don’t think that high fuel and food prices have nothing to do with the discontent in these countries.

  2. Goran

    July 25, 2022 at 10:11 pm

    -“If, however, Ukraine begins to lose significant support from its Western backers by the fall…”

    -“If that pipeline dries up, Kyiv’s troops will be physically unable to continue resisting.”

    -“If the West stops providing replacements, Ukraine cannot continue the war.”

    -“if they know they are on their own. Their morale would take a serious hit.”

    -“if Western populations demand their governments end any of the sanctions on Moscow”

    -“if the pressures become too acute for Western governments to withstand”

    That’s a lot of ‘ifs’ Daniel. Or as Inuits would say, “If a grandma had an extra extremity, she would be a grandpa”.

    Yes, decoupling the Russian economy from the West would hurt Germany over the next few years but would be devastating for Russia over the next few decades.

    • Jim

      July 26, 2022 at 11:26 am

      Yes, there are a lot of “ifs”.

      But uncertainty is the nature of war.

      If there were no “ifs” we wouldn’t be where we are.

      Your litany of “ifs” sounds like an excuse to sit back on the couch, do nothing, and wring hands after Ukraine is destroyed and the U. S. is damaged economically, politically (our alliances), and culturally.

      The Ukraine project is a failure and those responsible for this debacle will be held account.

      And the worse the outcome, the more they will be held to account.

      Peace now is better for everybody even the misguided neocons & neoliberals who got us into this mess.

      Mindless cheerleading for death & destruction is not a policy… it’s a form of Nihilism masquerading as tough guy masculinity.

  3. KB

    July 25, 2022 at 10:31 pm

    And here we go again. Does Putin pay by the word?

    • Roger Bacon

      July 26, 2022 at 2:01 pm

      I really, really, really, really, really hope so. 🙂

  4. pagar

    July 25, 2022 at 11:52 pm

    It doesn’t matter how much money biden is willing to shovel into the bottomless hole that is ukraine.

    Pretty soon, biden will have to decide if ukraine needs nuclear weapons from US to rescue itself from the hole it has dug for itself with big help from US, NATO, CIA, DoD and stoltenberg….

    Biden better be well prepared now. Don’t wait until the eleventh hour. Decide now.

    • Jack

      July 26, 2022 at 11:55 am

      Well if Ukraine falls, then Russia will go for the other invasion routes. You know the Baltic states, Finland, and Norway. They have to or Russia will be undefendable. When that happens then? The US and NATO will end up in a war, and they will trounce the Russians based on their performance in Ukraine. What happens then? NUKES! NATO needs to do whatever it takes to bleed Russia in Ukraine the same way Britain did to Napoleon in Spain.

  5. TG

    July 26, 2022 at 8:34 am

    Interesting thoughts, but I think you make a couple of faulty assumptions.

    The public in the west is now largely disenfranchised. I mean in the United States, the government has effectively declared war against the working class, throwing open the borders to unlimited third-world immigration in a deliberate push to drive wages and living standards down for the many, and rents and profits up for the few. The standard of living of the average American has already dropped 10% this year alone, but nothing will happen, the elites will sail over it all in their private jets and there will be no revolt. The elites basically own the government, and the news media, and both political parties. The masses have nowhere to turn.

    And recall also, the western elites don’t care so much about Ukraine “winning,” they just want to make Russia bleed. That could be relatively cost-effective, I should think.

    • Steven

      July 26, 2022 at 11:53 am

      Bingo!

  6. Neil Ross Hutchings

    July 26, 2022 at 10:29 am

    Agree wholeheartedly with this well written article and the previous comment by TG. Ongoing support for Ukraine from the U.S. and Europe will be determined by polls and ballot boxes. This is America’s proxy war against and if the polls turn south before the mid-terms then I suspect that Washington will stop military support and push for a negotiated deal. The energy engineer’s in Europe are no doubt daily recalculating the date at which European gas supplies wouldn’t be sufficient for winter at the constantly changing supply levels, both by pipeline and tanker. This is likely to reduce public support in Europe well before public opinion dwindles in the U.S. Would the U.S. continue to back Ukraine militarily if Europe stops it’s support? Probably, but only as long as there’s public support in the U.S. and Poland. Remember Zelensky made statements about being open to negotiations right up to the visit by Blinken. America’s decision to stop bleeding Russia likely will be decided by events that occur far from the battlefield.

  7. Neil Ross Hutchings

    July 26, 2022 at 11:35 am

    HIMARS sales to their NATO partners seem to be going well, so maybe the decision out of Washington may be a little delayed.

  8. James Vaughin

    July 26, 2022 at 1:20 pm

    Oh,yes.. Money, Profit, Interest..!

    Who cares about international law and human principles !

    Am I right Mr. Davis ?

    • Jim

      July 26, 2022 at 1:59 pm

      “Who cares about international law and human principles!”

      Not the United States, that’s for sure.

      The U. S. makes the “rules based order”, which means the U. S. is the administrator who sets the “rules” and as in any administrative setting the administrator is judge, jury, and executioner, the “decider” of the “rules based order.

      Sorry, but that setup is not an International Law based order, it’s something else.

      It’s an Empire dictating “our way or the highway”.

      You care about “human principles”? I got news for you, most of the world thinks the U. S. is the principle abuser of human rights. Like the Global South.

      They see us as hypocrites.

      We need to get back to a sound foreign policy… this foreign policy is a debacle.

      • Goran

        July 26, 2022 at 3:02 pm

        A simple experiment; having which country on your side brings credibility, Finland or North Korea? Netherlands or Belarus? To be imprisoned for calling war in Ukraine a war is freedom or lack of it?

        • Jim

          July 26, 2022 at 5:19 pm

          Sure, Finland is better than North Korea and so on.

          But “rules” imposed by us doesn’t make International Law.

        • from Russia with love

          July 26, 2022 at 6:24 pm

          Do you want to say that 175 years in prison that threaten Julian Assange for publishing materials about CIA crimes is a sure sign of a totalitarian state?😲

          • Kermit

            July 26, 2022 at 9:56 pm

            From personal experience most of what Assange has “revealed” is half truths and out of context. It’s as if he was a Russian agent doing the 100 year old Russian playbook of trying to create doubt and chaos.

      • Marco

        July 26, 2022 at 5:57 pm

        Not true.
        As bad as USA is, it is not THIS bad.

        For Example:
        In recent times Russian army has deliberately used destruction of entire cities and terrorizing of civilian population in Chechnia, Sirya and Ukraine…
        The USA, as bad as it has been, has tried hard to avoid or limit civilian casualties in all the recent wars.
        Even in Vietnam the US Army was not as barbaric as the Russian army is being now.. and Vietnam was 40 years ago.

        It’s shallow to say that US is as bad as (e.g.) Russia.
        In the moment of truth, everybody would choose to be taken prisoner by the US army, rather than the Russian army.
        People in “the global south” know this as well (altough they might repeat your same talking points to gain some leverage).

        Greetings from Europe

        • from Russia with love

          July 26, 2022 at 7:36 pm

          “The US, as bad as it is, has gone out of its way to avoid or limit civilian casualties in all recent wars.
          Even in Vietnam, the US army was not as barbaric as the Russian army is now … and Vietnam was 40 years ago.”
          name at least one case when the United States tried to minimize civilian casualties?
          while you’re thinking, I’ll remind you something… I’ll remind you about Iraq, where, according to the most conservative estimates, the United States killed several hundred thousand civilians. Let me remind you about the Iraqi Masul, which still lies in runes. about the Syrian Raqqa, which is also still in ruins. remind you about Belgrade. Reminds me of Afghanistan. remember the terrorist attack at the Kabul airport when about 50 people were killed by an ISIS bomb and more than 100 from the bullets of panicking American soldiers. Let me remind you about 12 children whom the United States killed with a missile from a drone. By the way, did anyone answer this? Vietnam? read the materials of the Rssel tribunal. the whole world knows about the tragedy of the village of Mai Lai where Sergeant Kelly’s unit shot over 200 women and children. and there were hundreds of such villages. Are you saying that they did this by “trying their best to avoid or limit civilian casualties”?!
          I’m wondering if you can also pretend that there was no holocaust and there were no 14 million civilians killed in the USSR and tell that “Hitler is not such a bad guy”?

          indeed, it is silly to say that the US is as bad as (for example) Russia. The United States is more suitable for comparison with Germany of the 1944 model.
          “At the moment of truth, everyone would prefer to be captured by the US army, and not by the Russian army.”
          absolutely right! like the Germans in 1945. they knew what they would do to those who would do to them what they did in the USSR. they had every reason to be scared as hell. any bastard will try on their actions on themselves. are you afraid too? 😎

  9. Frej

    July 26, 2022 at 2:27 pm

    Whats the broblem with you americans . If you want to fight the russian why dont you do it? Biden has make trouble in Ucraina sins 2014 or more . I feelt some hope for you under Trump , but now you are just warmongers . I live in Sweden and I am so f..ing tiered of NATO and EU just making problems for the sitizent . If yoy want war with Russia attack by your self , and dont lett other do it Fu..ing proxywar you allways do . Let the war to USA if you want fight Russia . Fu..ing cowards …:) Sorry for my bad English

  10. richard

    July 26, 2022 at 3:19 pm

    there is no scenario where ukraine is not utterly smashed by russia should it decide to do so. in fact the odds are likely ukraine will no longer exist once the war ends. the west including the usa has no chance to turn this around any more than russia would prevail by using mexico as a battering ram into the usa.

    logistically only an armchair warrior idiot thinks russia does NOT have total escalation dominance in its own backyard while the west has to haul in whatever it needs and washington has to do it from 1000’s of miles away while russia destroys it as soon as it arrives.

    ukraine is a big deal for washington because coming so close on the heels of the afghanistan debacle the unfolding ukraine debacle effectively ENDS the american unipolar we make the rules order.

    when this is over america becomes just another nation, a big one and a strong one sort of, but nothing more than that. THIS is what american elites are traumatised about and why the dying of ukraine is so distressing to them. american elites power to dominate is ebbing away as the ukraine army is ground into bits.

    • from Russia with love

      July 26, 2022 at 6:57 pm

      add to the reputational losses quite real material losses. this is not only loans that no one will return and weapons that no one will pay for, but it is also 17 million hectares of agricultural land that American corporations bought and which they are guaranteed to lose. confiscating Russian property abroad was a very bad idea.

    • KB

      July 26, 2022 at 7:01 pm

      “[T]here is no scenario where ukraine is not utterly smashed by russia should it decide to do so.”

      Then why hasn’t it? Does Russia like watching its tanks and ammo dumps destroyed on Twitter?

      The simple reason: it can’t. Russia is a corrupt third world country (“Upper Volta with nukes”), that probably has more Mercedes for its oligarchs than washing machines for its people (it has more now since they’ve looted so many from Ukraine). It’s economy was stalling before the sanctions because the ruling elite stole almost everything that wasn’t nailed down. Desperate to change the narrative, Putin struck outward. He had hoped that all the money he had allotted to the army had been spent modernizing it but the bottomless corruption had hollowed it out as well. All those fires at defense installations in Russia a few months ago? Not terrorism, but the Russian audit process. Trying to cover for inventory that should have been there but wasn’t. Too bad Ukraine can’t be attacked with mega-yachts, dachas and Cyprian bank accounts.

      At the start of the pandemic, Russia sent ventilators to the US as a goodwill gesture. They were unusable due to their tendency to catch fire. The same pursuit of quality appears to have gone into Russian weapons production, showing us fighter jets with civilian GPS locaters attached to their instrument panels being shot down by their own air defense, missiles turning around and hitting their own launchers, multi-million dollar Pantsir systems with cheap tires, and of course tanks that launch their turrets into the air. Countries that purchased Russian weapons are now looking elsewhere.

      And now, seeing Russia flounder, the ethnic enclaves all over the federation are starting to think that they may not have to be part of Russia anymore, either.

      The only future for Russia is as a satellite of China; its gas station.

      • from Russia with love

        July 26, 2022 at 7:53 pm

        ha ha ha! 🤣 I love you guy! 😂👍
        your every post is a chic set of fakes! of course, not entirely fakes😉 these are the failures of the USA and their allies that they are trying to attribute to Russia 😁 remind me, it’s not you I poked your nose into the photos of Ukrainian soldiers “evacuating” a washing machine from a supermarket? about the American Patriot who covered himself with his own rocket is also gorgeous!👍 in Saudi Arabia. remember? about the Odessa air defense, which fired at Russian Caliber and shot down its own S-300 missiles is also not bad.😎

  11. Arash P

    July 26, 2022 at 6:58 pm

    US will throw Ukrainians under the bus the same way it threw under the bus those Afghans hanging from Airplane tires!

    Any country the relies on the US promises is doomed.

    Putin will next move on Finland and the Baltics.

    Are Americans really going to die for Estonia or Lithuania? I don’t think so! NATO has overreached its actual powers.

    Putin is going to call American bluff and destroy the alliance that should have been disbanded a long time ago.

    • KB

      July 26, 2022 at 9:03 pm

      Please. The Russian Army can’t even manage Ukraine, never mind full NATO members.

      By the way, I hope the Russians trying to escape from Kherson don’t mind wet feet. The bridges really got smacked tonight.

  12. Kermit

    July 26, 2022 at 9:53 pm

    Russia is in fact playing a game of economical Chicken with Europe, especially Germany.

    Russia desperately needs the revenue from natural gas sales. Oh sure the reported revenue is in the billions for oil, but reality is that a little over $1 billion per month after accounting for lifting costs and the $40 per barrel discounts Russia is having to give to buyers.

    Additionally, Russian AF is not flying over Ukrainian held ground except the actual front, due manpad effectiveness. It is rapidly depleting its artillery and using up replacement artillery tubes with most being made under Soviet metallurgy, craftsmanship, meaning poorly made. Same with a lot of its ammunition.

  13. Rusnet

    July 27, 2022 at 11:18 am

    The only way to stop this war and prevent WWIII is to make sure that Russia is losing in Ukraine. If Russia is allowed to win, there are very little doubts that Moldova will be annexed next and than it will come turns of Baltic countries and Poland. Lessons of 1938 must be learned: you don’t bend to modern day Hitler! Because if you do, he will not stop and sooner or later will come to your steps!

  14. Eladia Papineau

    August 20, 2022 at 11:41 am

    I find the study material extremely instructive.

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