Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 21 December 2023

Time is of the essence in defending Ukraine

Gwendolyn Sasse The writer is director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), Berlin, and author of ‘Russia’s War against Ukraine’ · Dec 21, 2023

Time keeps ticking relentlessly. The challenge of crisis management and policymaking more generally is to get ahead of it rather than watching days, months or years go by. From the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia’s war against Ukraine has been characterised by diverging time horizons and the expectations that go with them. To date, connecting the different time zones of this war has proved impossible, but the urgent necessity of doing so has increased steadily. Time zones that drift apart create room for manoeuvre — in this case, for Russia and for those in western countries who want to polarise and undermine democratic values along the way.

Ukraine now has to get through its second winter since the full-scale invasion. The US presidential elections loom large over western support for Kyiv. The Israel-Hamas war reduces the already diminishing public attention span for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Next June’s European parliament elections may make the EU appear more fragile than ever. In the meantime, Russia has adjusted economically and politically to sustain a much longer war than initially intended.

What are some of the time zones of this war? Before 2022, the west underestimated the time it had left to manage security risks emanating from Russia. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine felt like a surprise despite the preceding stages. Conversely, the Kremlin believed its own rhetoric and underestimated Ukraine: the plan to quickly take Kyiv and replace the Ukrainian government failed, turning the conflict into an uncertain and much longer war.

By definition, for Ukrainians, assistance always comes too late. Uncertainty about western countries’ longterm commitment adds to the pressure on Ukrainian politics and society. Many Nato and EU states have made significant aid pledges, but much of it has yet to be disbursed. Making a promise for the future is one thing, delivering on promises in the present is something else.

The language framing the war is also marked by references to time. German chancellor Olaf Scholz coined the term Zeitenwende (change of an era) to describe the onset of new strategic thinking in Germany and beyond. (And certainly by historical standards, the speed at which Germany rethought essential pillars of its post1945 strategy is noteworthy).

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government have kept up the pressure on western capitals by focusing not on past or ongoing assistance, but on concrete requests for future weapons deliveries. Vladimir Putin himself thinks in centuries of continuity of Russian imperial rule.

The mantra of “supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes”, a common but vague temporal reference point in the German political debate, which echoes in other western policymakers’ speeches, increasingly resembles self-reassurance rather than a futureorientated strategy. Moreover, frequent references to “Ukraine’s victory” have turned this phrase into a means for politicians to position themselves rather than act. In times of war, a word or phrase carries particular weight. But even a principled position is not sufficient in itself and has to be measured against current and future action.

These days there is more openly voiced concern about a potential “Russian victory”, as time increasingly seems to be on Moscow’s side. Outlining a future scenario can underpin joint efforts to prevent it, but it risks turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It spreads a sense of uncertainty and creates space for those considering or calling for peace negotiations. Such proposals ignore the fact that the Kremlin shows no interest in peace. They distract from the daily reality of war at the front and in Russian-occupied territories.

Western and in particular European governments have a decisive role to play at this juncture. Europe needs a strategy that takes seriously the possibility of Donald Trump’s return to the White House. This must include a decision on using the remaining window of time to step up military assistance to Ukraine and military production in Europe. The EU, meanwhile, must push ahead with Ukraine’s membership negotiations.

Thinking about Russia’s war against Ukraine in temporal logic underlines that time is of the essence. The time zones of Ukraine and its western allies need to be reconnected before entirely new ones open up in 2024.

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