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West’s public image tested in battle for eastern Ukraine

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KYIV, UKRAINE - JUNE 6: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY – MANDATORY CREDIT - "UKRAINIAN PRESIDENCY / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during his meeting with journalists within Journalists' Day in Kyiv, Ukraine on June 6, 2022. Zelenskyy presented state awards to the family members of media workers who lost their lives in the Russian attacks. ( Ukrainian Presidency - Anadolu Agency )
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Jun 21, 2022 - 10:16 AM

WARSAW (AA) – Fears that Western leaders would put pressure on Ukraine to accept a peace deal favorable to Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to have eased after a high-profile EU visit to Kyiv and the promise of EU membership.

But how much of this is about PR management for domestic audiences in the UK, France and Germany and how much of it is substantive?

“My colleagues and I came here to (Ukrainian capital) Kyiv today with a clear message: Ukraine belongs to the European family,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a joint press conference last week with French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.

Meanwhile, a survey last week in nine EU member states plus the UK found that while support for Ukraine remained high, concerns had shifted to the conflict’s wider economic impact.

Russia also upped its strategy of selective intimidation, with its war ships entering Danish waters and the Kremlin threatening to cut off Germany from a major gas pipeline.

Putin earlier warned Scholz and Macron against sending heavy arms to Ukraine, saying it would risk “further destabilization of the situation.”

“Russian veiled threats — first with nuclear escalation (and) now with partly realized targeted embargoes — as the war of attrition wears on may start a sort of solidarity fatigue, as energy shortages loom and Euro inflation shows no sign of abating,” said Albrecht Rothacher, an author who worked for 30 years in the European Commission.

A changing war

As the war in eastern Ukraine changes with the frontlines becoming less fluid and combat more attritional, long range weapons are becoming more important.

But despite Western words of support, weapons on the ground are in increasingly short supply.

Zelenskyy has repeatedly called on Western nations to send Ukraine more heavy weapons. “There is a direct correlation: the more powerful weapons we get, the faster we can liberate our people, our land,” he said.

Ukraine’s senior presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Ukraine needs 1,000 howitzers, 1,000 drones and 500 tanks.

US in with a but

The Biden administration has expanded the quality and volume of arms the US is willing to provide and committed $20 billion in military support approved by the Congress in May. The administration said it will provide Ukraine with high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS).

But this aid came with strings attached. Ukrainian forces were asked not to use the weapons to hit targets inside Russian territory and the equipment reportedly will not reach the battlefield for several months

And with midterm elections later this year, all eyes are on the Republicans — many at best ambivalent about the war and some pro-Russia.

“EU heads of government — whose positions are often shaky — largely cater to their domestic audiences, hence as we soon enter the fifth month of war the much needed solidarity with Ukraine enters the quicksands of unpredictable domestic agendas. This also applies to the US where conflicts with China over Taiwan will immediately take precedence over the fate of the Ukraine,” Rothacher said.

Regional allies

Since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, Ukraine has received billions of dollars of weapons and military equipment from at least 28 countries, 25 of which are NATO members.

Poland said it sent $1.6 billion worth of arms. Warsaw has reportedly supplied 200 tanks, which would make it Ukraine’s second-largest weapons supplier after the US.

Britain said on May 20 that it has committed $566 million so far to supporting the Ukrainian military. UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson. on a surprise visit to Kyiv last week, said the UK was prepared to train 120,000 Ukrainian troops every 120 days.

In mid-April, the French government said it had delivered more than $107 million of military equipment to Ukraine. But Macron’s trip to Kyiv last week came three days before the parliamentary elections in France and for many looked very much like a foreign trip with a domestic audience in mind.

But both Macron and Johnson have weak support at home and often appear to use posturing over Ukrainians as a way of trying to boost their domestic images. In neither case does it seem to be working very well.

“Obviously arms shipments are not announced with press releases,” said Rothacher. “But clearly many EU countries are strong on promises but weak on delivery — like the Berlin coalition of Olaf Scholz — with any amount of embarrassing excuses for the delays,” he adds.

Key in Berlin’s hand

But the key lies, perhaps, in Berlin. Germany has stepped up its commitment to NATO — pledging to meet the suggested threshold of 2% of spending on defense — but Scholz has been accused by opposition leader Friedrich Merz of “dithering and timidity.”

Scholz has argued that there was no point of sending complicated modern weapons without first training Ukrainian troops how to use them. He has also defended Germany’s line as “strategic ambiguity.”

The situation is made more awkward by Russian threats to cancel its gas exports to Germany. Russia’s Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Czyzov warned last week that the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline may be “temporarily shut down.” He added, poignantly, that a cessation of flows would be a “catastrophe” for Germany.

“The justification of the Russian side is just a pretext. This is, of course, a strategy aimed at creating uncertainty and increasing prices,” German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said. But the question remains: what price are German consumers prepared to pay for Ukrainian sovereignty?

Zelenskyy has, meanwhile, also ramped up pressure on the German chancellor. “The chancellor knows exactly what Ukraine needs. It’s just that the (weapons) deliveries from Germany are still less than they could be,” Zelenskyy told Die Zeit, a German weekly.

The potential emergence of a new alliance in Europe, with the approval of the US, the UK, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states, also poses questions for Berlin.

In response, it said it will also send heavy weapons to Ukraine: IRIS-T anti-aircraft systems.

Delays cost lives

But leaked documents published by German weekly Welt am Sonntag revealed that Germany has sent only two deliveries of weapons to Ukraine since March 30.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said in a televised address that military forces have received only 10% of the military assistance requested from Western allies.

“No matter how much effort Ukraine makes, no matter how professional our army, without the help of Western partners we will not be able to win this war,” Malyar said.

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