The Threat of War Fatigue

January 09, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s New Year’s Eve message to his people was the “moral, historical rightness” for his invasion of Ukraine that will soon mark a tragic first anniversary.

His declaration aligns with his longstanding belief that Ukraine is really a part of Russia, and Kyiv has no right to self-determination. That position may not be new, but it may eventually find fertile ground if war fatigue grows in some quarters in the West. 

There are already signs that this is happening. The Guardian reported in November that US officials were warning of worsening “Ukraine fatigue” among allies if Kyiv continues to reject negotiations to end the conflict. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s surprise December visit to Washington to address Congress was made, in part, to address this concern. Recent public opinion surveys in Germany indicate support there for Ukraine may be on shaky ground. One poll revealed only a minority wants to increase weapons deliveries to Ukraine while another showed a majority calling for greater diplomatic effort to end the war. 

The German public is not alone in its thinking. A number of German intellectuals called on their government, in an open letter issued last May, to stop delivering weapons to Ukraine. More recently, in an essay for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Reinhard Merkel, a professor emeritus of criminal law and legal philosophy and former member of the German ethics council, argued that even the attacked party, Ukraine, has a duty to pursue peace talks if the cost of continuing the war becomes disproportionate. Admittedly, the essay, which caused quite a stir following heated debate about German overgenerosity toward Ukraine, sparked criticism. In a response, Helmut Philipp Aust, a renowned international law professor at the Freie Universität Berlin, accused Merkel of applying the law arbitrarily. Aust also criticized Merkel’s notion that Ukraine should accept the 2014 annexation of Crimea and must refrain from efforts to recapture it.

Germany is not alone in trying to have its cake and eat it, too: supporting Ukraine while striving to avoid Russia’s complete isolation. France is attempting a similar balancing act. Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe noted in December that “while Paris and Berlin continue to support Ukraine, their mixed signals toward Russia have unnerved some European partners as well as Kyiv. This ambivalence could puncture EU unity.”

The ambivalence comes despite the steady stream of reported atrocities that Russian forces have committed and are likely still committing in occupied Ukrainian territory. The lines between perpetrator and victim are increasingly blurred although the Kremlin started the war, an unchallenged Putin is unlikely to end his aggression in Ukraine, and NATO was not a threat to Russia. A narrative nevertheless persists, repeatedly trumpeted by Putin himself, of a nuclear power encircled by enemies that had no choice but to defend itself.

This view has garnered many adherents in Russia and beyond. According to a November poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, 36 percent of Russians agree that most Western countries “blindly obey the United States and NATO”, while 31 percent believe that “the world has always been against Russia” and 19 percent that the Western public has been “misinformed by the Western media”. A Bertelsmann Foundation survey conducted in the fall showed Italians may also be falling for the Kremlin narrative. Only a minority of 36 percent favored sending weapons to Kyiv.

Meanwhile, many ominous signs suggest that Putin's original—and ongoing— plans extend beyond Ukraine. One is his vision of a new Russia, which sees expanding Moscow's control over the Slavic world and weakening the West. Achieving the latter goal could involve unleashing the wave of migration that saw millions of Ukrainian refugees heading toward the EU and other democracies, straining their social and financial resources.

Another sign, as Russian historian Alexander Gogun recently noted in an article for taz, a German daily, is Putin’s perception of successful Slavic democracies, such as Ukraine’s, as a fundamental threat. "A free and reasonably vibrant country where almost half the population speaks Russian, a functioning Eastern Slavic democracy—this is an example that could also give the citizens of the Russian Federation food for thought. And it is a place of emigration for Russian opposition figures who continue to criticize the Kremlin from there. This Ukraine is a natural nemesis for Putin's dictatorship," Gogun wrote. Other neighboring countries, such as Moldova, have every reason to worry about their future security.

As for NATO’s supposed threatening posture, the military alliance launched a series of post-Cold War initiatives to improve relations with Russia and allay fears of an attack. These included the Partnership for Peace program, which Russia joined in 1994, the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, and the signing, in that same year, of the Budapest Memorandum, a byproduct of the START arms-control talks that led to Ukraine’s surrendering its nuclear weapons to Russia. On top of these came efforts to tie Russia more closely to the West, such as through the EU-Russia Strategic Partnership of 1999 and the German-Russian Modernization Partnership of 2010, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, declared that “we want to create an area of stability and security on the European continent without dividing lines and borders.”

Undoubtedly, events such as NATO's involvement in the 1990s Balkan war and Russian military intervention in Georgia complicated cooperation. But communication channels remained open. The Kremlin’s disingenuous portrayal of a currently hostile NATO is simply a pretext for belligerent behavior that goes back at least to the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbass in 2014. 

This background will be an important consideration in any talks on ending the ongoing hostilities. Confronting Putin’s world view will be key to avoiding any future chapter of death and destruction that his perspective engenders. The war in Ukraine may be going badly for him now, but there is no indication that he is renouncing his long-term goals. 

If Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbors are to have true and lasting security and stability, the West will need to adopt a two-pronged approach. It must continue to signal its unwillingness to make concessions when international law is breached. The inviolability of borders is the backbone of non-negotiable Western insistence on the rule of law. At the same time, the West must ensure that Russia does not lash out and destabilize Europe further. Russia, at some point, needs to rejoin the international community.

It remains too early to draft a road map for that. Fundamental prerequisites, such as a change of regime in the Kremlin, the release of opposition figures, and a return to an open society, seem a long way off. But the option of Russia’s rejoining the international community must be on offer.


Markus Ziener is a visiting senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund and a former Moscow correspondent for Handelsblatt.