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Are the Western allies still committed to helping Ukraine defeat Russia after two years of the Russia-Ukraine war?

The European Union is facing a potential dilemma of supporting Ukraine without U.S. military assistance.

A serviceman on combat duty at dusk.
One of the mobile air defense units of the 5th Slobozhanska Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine on combat duty in Ukraine on February 27, 2024. Photo by Ukrinform/NurPhoto via AP

With the Russia-Ukraine war crossing into its third year, Ukraine faces a dilemma because it cannot win the war with only European Union support and no further U.S. military funding, Northeastern University experts say. 

On the eve of the second anniversary of its invasion, Russian forces made advances in northeastern Ukraine, capturing the city of Avdiivka and other small strategic points. The Ukrainian army, overwhelmed with the large numbers of Russian troops and air and artillery firepower, was forced to retreat. 

If the U.S. Congress doesn’t release $61 billion in funding that has been earmarked by the Biden administration, the Ukrainian army, low on ammunition, will lose more troops and make no successful advances, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a CNN interview.

Northeastern University foreign policy expert Mai’a Cross agrees.

“It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the European Union to help Ukraine defeat Russia on its own, especially in the short run,” says Cross, dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy and director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern.

“When it comes to military equipment, even if the EU were to send as much as possible, it would not be enough without U.S. support,” Cross says.

Western allies’ support for Ukraine currently looks somewhat weaker, she says, than it was a year ago. Countries are starting to express some differences of opinion about the degree of assistance they are willing to provide both in the form of weaponry and funding.

“There is a tremendous disappointment that this war isn’t over and Russia isn’t defeated,” Cross says.

Promise of financial support

The EU has been mostly following through, she says, on its promises of financial support. 

According to the Germany-based Kiel Institute for the World Economy, European aid — including military, financial and humanitarian support — has been higher than U.S. aid both in terms of commitments and actual aid allocations. EU commitments reached 144 billion euros, or about $132 billion, with about 77 billion euros, or $71 billion, allocated as of Jan.15. The U.S. sent Ukraine 66.6 billion euros, or about $61 billion in the same period.

“Europeans have certainly taken seriously the fact that there is much more of a threat on the continent to EU member states than there was before [the war],” Cross says.

Still, the EU depends on the procurement of U.S. weapons for Ukraine. As of Jan. 15, the U.S. had allocated 43 billion euros, about $39.5 billion in military aid, compared to 35.2 billion euros provided by the EU, according to the Kiel Institute.

headshots of Mai'a Cross and Calderon Martinez
Mai’a Cross, left, director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern and Pablo Calderon-Martinez, associate professor in politics and international relations at
Northeastern University London. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Courtesy Photo

Since Republican members of Congress have blocked new aid, leveraging their border security demands, Europe would have to double its current level and pace of arms assistance to fully replace U.S. military assistance in 2024. 

The EU has been working on increasing its production capabilities of military equipment, Cross says, and has been making strong moves to increase EU defense spending to be more self-reliant in regard to foreign policy and defense. 

In 2024, NATO allies in Europe will invest $380 billion in defense, for the first time reaching the goal of 2% of their combined GDP, according to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

There have been ongoing discussions about Brussels becoming the home of a true European initiative in defense.

“I think they still really very much want to emphasize NATO, but having a strong European pillar within NATO is key,” Cross says. 

Elections in Europe

The future EU support can be greatly affected by numerous elections happening in Europe in 2024, says Pablo Calderón-Martínez, an associate professor in politics and international relations on Northeastern’s London campus. The U.S. presidential election will have a huge impact on European support of Ukraine as well.

Since Ukraine has become a hot topic of political debate in the U.S., he says, more far-right parties in Europe began to get somewhat greater traction, for example, in Portugal and Austria. Political realities might change in England as well if the Labour Party wins parliamentary elections and the conservative opposition shifts more to the right.

“[Far-right parties] have very much questioned the validity or the wisdom of providing support to Ukraine and the amount of support,” he says.

Calderón-Martínez believes that Europe doesn’t have the resources to continue assisting Ukraine on its own if the U.S. were to withdraw its support. The U.S. defense budget and military spending around the globe is bigger than that of any European country or the EU as a whole, he says.

The U.S. economy has also recovered better from the COVID-19 pandemic, he says, and has been outperforming major European economies. 

“It doesn’t have to deal with many of the same economic problems that are besieging many European countries,” Calderón-Martínez says. “Germany, which [has] a very sluggish growth. The U.K. is technically in recession again.”

Will NATO preserve its authority?

If the U.S. steps away from supporting and defending Ukraine, Russia might be emboldened to try to go after a NATO country, Calderón-Martínez says. Ukraine is a NATO partner country, which means that it is not covered by the security guarantee in the alliance’s founding treaty.

“Without the U.S. military, NATO is not really relevant,” he says. 

Sweden’s recent acceptance into NATO is significant, he says, because it signals a strengthening of NATO, contrary to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of deterring the alliance’s expansion with the war in Ukraine.

Cross agrees that doubling NATO’s common borders with Russia helps promote the geopolitical authority of the Western allies and their resolve in responding to any further Russian aggression.

“It is much preferable for all concerned to help Ukraine defeat Russia in some way than to allow space for Putin to push further into Europe,” she says.

Does Russia have enough economic resources to win the war?

Russia has managed to find loopholes in the European and U.S. sanctions, Cross says, and to gain support from a handful of allies, such as China and India, that are willing to provide it with some supplies.

But it would be a complete mischaracterization, she says, to say that the strategy of the Western allies and the sanctions are not working, although it’s been slower than expected.

“If they had actually put quite a bit of the resources that they’re now willing to give in terms of air defense, longer-range missiles and so forth at the beginning, Ukraine would have had a better shot of defeating Russia earlier,” Cross says.

Cross is convinced that the momentum behind Russia’s economic growth is due to the regime’s spending on military equipment and the war itself.  

“That gets clumped into GDP,” Cross says.

The real measures of the economy show that the sanctions are working, and the Russian people have difficulty with supplies and infrastructure on a day-to-day basis.

“Putin is reaching the end of the rope in terms of population support and drumming up of volunteers,” Cross says.

It would be self-defeating for Putin, she says, to actually expand the war to a member of the EU and NATO. 

Should there be peace talks?

There might be a scenario, Calderón-Martínez says, in which Ukraine would be comfortable with some sort of arrangement of shared sovereignty to some extent. Maybe Russia and Ukraine could potentially agree on some conditions for regions in Eastern Ukraine in terms of protection for ethnic Russians and Russian language.

But Putin and domestic politics in Russia are unpredictable and hard to understand, he says, as they lack any democratic element.

“I would imagine if you can avoid the death of thousands of your population, most of us would think, yeah, why wouldn’t you do it?” he says. “Authoritarian politicians to an extent are different. They don’t operate by the same principles.” 

Most of the EU allies and the U.S. understand that it is hard to negotiate under these conditions. 

“Putin has talked himself into a corner. He is stuck in all these big games — genocide in Eastern Ukraine and stopping fascism emerging in Ukraine again,” Calderón-Martínez says. “I don’t know how you could roll back from that.”