The Need for Strategic Patience in Ukraine
Such commentators repeat the mantra that public patience is wearing thin, that Western governments cannot afford to continue providing military, humanitarian, and economic support to Ukraine, and that resources are limited and needed at home. Some observers lament that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has not advanced to a quick and decisive victory. Others suggest that the West should be pressuring Ukraine to seek a diplomatic solution and negotiate an end to the war with Putin, who would be only too eager to lock in another land grab for the territorial collection he began in Georgia in 2008, followed by Crimea and the Donbas in 2014.
This impatience reflects in part the frenetic pace of today’s world, in which the news cycle moves on to fresh stories with a click or a swipe. Impactful events—even major wars—are too quickly relegated to the sidelines by newer, less vital issues or by new crises such as the one in the Middle East or those looming in Taiwan or North Korea. Such impatience and limited attention spans not only undermine the West’s ability to push back on Russian aggression, but also threaten its ability to deter other, inescapably interconnected aggressors and threats—among them China, Hamas, and Iran.
A look at the lessons of history is instructive. Imagine what would have happened if, twenty months into World War II, when the British people were fighting alone and their cities were being bombed nightly in what came to be known as the Blitz, the United States had decided to pull the plug on its indispensable military support and had never introduced the Lend-Lease Act.
Or consider how the world might look if, after only a few years of Cold War nuclear threats between the West and the Soviet Union, the United States and Western Europe, instead of launching NATO to deter Soviet aggression and further expansion, had decided that such an effort would take too long and be too costly.
In the US war of independence, the Continental Army, like Ukraine, faced a militarily superior foe. But they fought seven long years with few victories until the end. George Washington wisely avoided defeat and fought on until Britain’s priorities shifted and independence was won. Given this instance of extraordinary strategic patience at the heart of its national story, the United States should recognize the necessity of full, long-term support for Ukraine in its fight for freedom and independence.
All these outcomes—the defeat of Nazism in WWII, the demise of the Soviet Union and the restoration of freedom across the European continent, and the fight for American independence—required strategic patience. This patience involves a willingness to persist in the face of a determined adversary, overcome hardships, and maintain unity—internal and external—in confronting threats to security, prosperity, and democratic values.
The lessons of history are not lost on the Ukrainians. On a visit to Washington, DC, as part of a delegation of Ukrainian soldiers and civil society leaders (see video recordings here and here), Junior Sergeant Ihor Semak of the Armed Forces of Ukraine appealed to the United States and other countries to stay the course. “It is very real for us, this inspiration of America”, he said. “I also hope that the Americans nowadays live up to the heritage of greatness and do not forget who they really are.”
Today’s advocates for scaling back support to Ukraine and pressuring Ukrainians to enter into negotiations with a willful, calculating foe with dreams of restoring empire reveal to the world Western impatience with complex, long-term challenges that require persistence and determination. Those who seek to curtail support to Ukraine or call for negotiations need first to explain why they expect Ukraine to succeed in defeating a much larger, dug-in Russian enemy in its first months of a counterattack. The Allies fought for six years, after all, to defeat Hitler in World War II.
Putin is increasingly aware that his ill-fated invasion faces severe headwinds because of unified US and European support for Ukraine, and that his best hope of diminishing these currents now depends on Russia’s ability to feed a narrative of exhaustion and high cost. Its mis- and disinformation efforts are aimed squarely at this target in Western public opinion.
The United States and European nations need to resist their propensity for impatience and stand firm against the flood of disinformation from Putin’s Russia. To build strategic patience, leaders need to push back against so-called “Ukraine fatigue” with a truthful and comprehensive narrative that makes clear what is at stake in this war, how difficult it will be to achieve the objectives, and what must be done to support Ukraine for the road ahead. Transatlantic publics need to understand that this is a long-term fight that requires consistent US and European support, but one that Ukraine is determined to wage. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill girded the British public for a long, agonizing struggle with impassioned speeches that reinforced the will of British people. Speaking in August 1940, at a time when the German Luftwaffe was pounding British cities nightly, he urged his compatriots forward: “[We must] methodically prepare ourselves for the campaigns ahead,” and two or three years is not a long time … "[as we have] the honor of being the sole champions of the liberties of all Europe”.
Today, US and European leaders must make clear that their countries’ future security and prosperity depend critically on what happens in Ukraine. They must build continued bipartisan support for a long war. National leaders should seek to set expectations not only about the duration and cost of this challenge, but also about the ultimate benefits. First and foremost, the West’s persistence and support can liberate Ukraine and restore its sovereignty, while making clear to a militarily depleted and diminished Russia that it can no longer achieve territorial gains through military force. This would restore stability and security in Europe, which Russia’s repeated aggressions have undermined since 2008. Pushing back on aggression by aiding Ukraine also sends a powerful message that would reverberate in Asia and the Middle East, giving pause to other would-be aggressors. Finally, a common resolve would reinvigorate the liberal, rules-based global order, democratic values, and the security and prosperity that authoritarian governments throughout the world are so eager to undermine.
If, by contrast, the West loses patience and seeks shortcuts, as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did in 1938 when he appeased Hitler, believing he could achieve “peace for our time”, the costs will once again become higher and more devastating. History offers a clear lesson for Ukraine that the West would do well to heed: partners who share a commitment to defending their values in the face of authoritarian challenges must foster and sustain strategic patience among their people. If the United States and Europe do so, they can persist in supporting Junior Sergeant Semak and the courageous and determined people of Ukraine to defeat Russian aggression while at the same time strengthening vital alliances and partnerships in an increasingly dangerous world.