Two Years Into the Ukraine War, Europe Has No Strategy

On Thursday, European leaders released another €50 billion in funding for Ukraine. The funds are a lifeline for the Ukrainian military — but waning US support and the stalemate on the front line are chipping away at Europe’s commitment to Kyiv.

A man walks with his bike near destroyed residential buildings as the Russia-Ukraine War continues in Izium, Ukraine, on January 28, 2024. (Ignacio Marin / Anadolu via Getty Images)

After ratcheting up pressure on Hungary in recent weeks, European leaders have convinced premier Viktor Orbán to stop blocking a crucial extension of aid for Ukraine’s war effort. The deal emerged from a meeting of the European Council in Brussels this Thursday, where European Union (EU) heads of government agreed on an aid package in the form of a four-year, €50 billion lifeline to Ukraine.

With the Russia-Ukraine conflict descending into a near-hopeless war of attrition in recent months, support for Kyiv from the United States and Europe has appeared increasingly fragile. In Washington, Ukraine funding is caught in the mire of Republican efforts to exact steep concessions from congressional Democrats and the Biden administration on immigration. The EU debate also saw Ukraine become a bargaining chip. Orbán’s far-right government, which has faced a series of fiscal sanctions from Brussels for its attacks on civil society and the judiciary, has been desperate for leverage over EU planners in its efforts to unwind frozen EU funds destined for Hungary as part of the bloc’s recent stimulus packages.

The European Council had last met to discuss Ukraine funding in December, when Hungary blocked an agreement. This came despite the body’s move to free up €10 billion for Budapest, nominally on the grounds that Orbán had made progress in acceding to EU demands for liberal political reforms as EU officials alleged, although it was not hard to see geopolitical priorities trumping concerns about rule of law. However, this olive branch from the European Commission only served to clear the Hungarian veto during a vote on granting Ukraine candidacy status for EU membership. Orbán left the room during the final tally, effectively abstaining from a vote that would otherwise have been vetoed by the opposition of a single member state.

In the lead-up to this Thursday’s meeting, EU officials had threatened drastic retaliatory measures against Hungary if it persisted in blocking a new European aid package requiring unanimous approval. According to the Financial Times, Commission officials were drawing up plans to provoke a run on the Hungarian currency, the forint. Orbán at first dismissed what he called “blackmail” from Brussels, but those threats appear to have been successful. The Hungarian premier retreated to the less ambitious demand that an annual vote be held on the Ukraine funding package. In the final agreement that emerged on Thursday, this was reduced to an annual debate with the possibility for a substantive review after two years.

Ukrainian Purgatory

The EU’s securing of Ukraine funding should be cause for relief. There is much to be said about the deeper causes that made Russia’s full-fledged invasion possible, but Ukraine’s war (since 2014, and especially since it caught the full attention of Europe and the United States from February 2022) is categorically defensive, preventing a reordering of borders by Russian tanks. The aid that has already been delivered has helped prevent the collapse of Ukraine in the face of a foreign invasion. Securing a financing package over four years will insulate that support from the political vicissitudes of an EU lumbering from crisis to crisis.

But another round of propping up Ukraine’s defenses will not make up for the glaring absence of a serious strategic debate about where this conflict is going and what is to be expected of Europe’s investment in it. Instead, there has been much chest thumping and finger wagging — both at Orbán, deemed the EU’s own Vladimir Putin, or indeed anyone lured by so-called “Ukraine fatigue.”

Publicly, Ukraine’s backers have long insisted that only Kyiv will decide the terms and content of negotiations with Russia, whenever they are eventually held. EU powers are by no means cobelligerants in this conflict, even though they have made Ukraine’s self-defense into their own national interest. Yet by extending substantial backing they should at least be discussing what can be expected or hoped for from their engagement in the conflict. After two years of interstate war, however, talk about the contours of a possible settlement is nowhere to be found in mainstream coverage and political debate.

“We call on friends and partners of Ukraine to recommit to sustainable long-term support for Ukraine as a joint European responsibility,” five EU heads of government, including German chancellor Olaf Scholz, wrote in a public letter on the eve of the EU Council meeting in Brussels. “Russia doesn’t wait for anybody and we need to act now. If Ukraine loses, the long-term consequences and costs will be much higher for all of us.”

The aid package secured on Thursday is no doubt crucial for helping Ukraine to not lose this conflict. European — and possibly US — aid will help check further Russian advances, but it’s been largely unable to fundamentally tip the scales of the conflict. Today, it’s increasingly unclear just what a Ukrainian victory could look like. As the Ukrainian military’s own commander-in-chief, Valery Zaluzhny, told the Economist in November, the war has arrived at a ”stalemate.” Zalushny is rumored to be facing a possible removal from command as a result of his souring relationship with president Volodymyr Zelensky.

When I spoke with the veteran French international relations specialist Bertrand Badie this time last winter, he argued that the first year of the war and the failure of Russia’s initial blitzkrieg demonstrated the limits of military power for achieving concrete political objectives. One year later, those observations offer useful lessons about the disappointments of Ukraine’s own counteroffensive — and caution for those expecting maximalist results from the current and future aid packages. Since Ukraine’s last major successes in late 2022, when Russia’s demoralized army retreated from Kharkhiv in the northeast or Kherson in the southwest, the conflict has been largely stuck. For months, the reports of Ukraine’s offensive, or the occasional Russian counter-maneuver, have been measured in hundreds of meters of land taken by either side through brutal trench warfare.

Strategic Wandering

The EU’s strategic wandering is especially jarring given that the bloc may find itself even more isolated as soon as this November. Planners in Brussels could of course hope that institutional inertia in the Pentagon and the State Department will check any Trumpian desire to withdraw US backing for Ukraine (and resolve the conflict in a day, as the former president has said). But these calculations are based on a lot of wishful thinking. Donald Trump’s very possible return to power casts serious doubt over continued US support for Ukraine. And Europe is dangerously lacking in partners elsewhere.

After all, wavering US interest and engagement is only one part of the provincialization of the Russo-Ukrainian War, which is perhaps the greatest advantage that Vladimir Putin has gained since February 2022. In this, Europeans also have themselves to blame. Beyond checking any further Russian advances, an actual settlement advantageous to Ukraine will only come with intense diplomatic pressure from the world beyond Washington or the capitals of Western Europe — just those actors from which Europe has isolated itself even further in the months since Israel launched its own full-scale invasion of Gaza.

This week has really had two funding dramas, which together perfectly encapsulate European incoherence. Before eking out an agreement with Hungary on Ukraine funding, would-be defenders of international law like France, Germany, and the EU have pulled the plug and suspended aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), following allegations from Israel that a handful of its workers had participated in the Hamas-led October 7 attack.

Europe’s case for Ukraine has been made in the name of international law, in opposition to a flagrantly illegal land grab by Russia. But those claims fall on deaf ears when people around the world consider the bloc’s hollow and muted criticism of Israeli war crimes. The International Court of Justice’s hearings on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were hailed by Western leaders; South Africa’s own case against Israel for genocide has received prudish and curt replies from European capitals. In a global situation in which they are no longer able to force their desired outcome, Europeans can no longer afford such inconsistencies.