Support for Ukraine to regain its territory, to receive military aid, and to be a part of the Western world still seems high and resilient. This was actually a surprise to a large group, some in power and others in the analytical community, who were expecting a significant drop in support for Ukraine and had started building their narrative around that months ago. These “experts” were those who started writing that the war was a stalemate, Ukraine could not win, and now have reached the point of saying, that indeed Putin is winning.
BY PHILLIPS P. OBRIEN FOR PHILLIPS’S NEWSLETTER
Ukraine cant win the war arguments that I’ve been warning about for months now are coming thick and fast. Maybe the silliest of these was the headline and story in the Economist which claimed that Putin seems to be “winning the war” in Ukraine presently. Its fascinating because the article actually tries to argue for a point that is not true, in a way that might make people change their minds and think it is true. The big fib is that Putin is “crucially” “undermining the conviction in the West that Ukraine can—and must—emerge from the war as a thriving European democracy.”
Its hard to know where to begin with such a strange view—though it may be at the end. There is no evidence that the West is losing it belief that Ukraine should be a democracy. Its interesting that the authors of the piece seemed to chicken out, and not say that people in the west no longer believe that Ukraine can win the war—but instead chose to say that they are losing faith in Ukraine being a successful democracy.
I will lead on this story, but also discuss increasing Ukrainian attacks on Russian infrastructure (see bridge picture below) and President Zelensky’s interesting speech this week.
Europe and US Public Opinion remains remarkably solid
There is precious little evidence for this—and actually much evidence of the opposite. As this story is hot of the presses, just came out a little over a day ago, and the whole idea of who is winning the war seems so intense these days, I thought I would go into one element of that discussion in detail as part of this weekend update. That element is the public opinion war. Much of the statements in articles seems based on what people expect to find, as opposed to what is actually the case. People are thinking that support for Ukraine should weaken after the counteroffensive, and tbh some governments might want it to to try and force Ukraine to negotiate now. However, the evidence so far is that public opinion in NATO countries is holding up much better than those making these arguments expected.
Europe is notoriously difficult to speak about in terms of public opinion (lots of different countries with different cultures). However, there is some excellent academic research on the subject which was just published in the journal International Affairs, gives a (mostly) quite positive vision of European public opinion and Ukraine. You can download you’re own copy (complete with slides) at this link in the notes.¹
Most of the polls are good news—Russia is clearly the country Europeans blame for the war, and there remains strong support for sanctions, etc. I will put two slides up, which might be the worst for Ukraine and the best (in an unexpected way). The least comforting seems to be that much of Europe has not made up its mind to support Ukrainian membership of NATO. Here is the results in question:
The countries where a majority support NATO admitting Ukraine are not surprsing, Poland, Finland, Estonia and the UK. On the other hand, France and Germany still retain some skepticism, with only a third supporting NATO offering membership.
However, in some ways thats hardly surprising—the war is going on, and many people have said that NATO membership should wait until the war has ended. The fact that so many are pushing for NATO membership now, is not a bad sign at all. Also, its not clear that those who don’t support the proposition actually support it, as its not clear how many people were in the don’t know group (and from the methodology its clear that people were given a neutral/don’t know option).
On the other hand, there were some very strong results for Ukraine, which show quite a deep well of support for Ukraine to win the war and become integrated into Europe as a whole country. Maybe the most interesting of these was the results showing how few Europeans support for Ukraine ceding territory to Russia in some sort of peace deal.
This was really fascinating. Except for some far right populists in Hungary, Italy and Germany (thanks AFD) no major political grouping in Europe had more than 40% of its supporters say Ukraine should make territorial concessions, and on average it looks like less than 30% overall was of this view (is interesting to see how rock-solid UK public opinion is for Ukraine not ceding any territory—with all political parties tightly grouped around 15%). In other words, it seems a very solid majority in almost all of Europe supports Ukraine getting all of its territory back, including Crimea. That is a rather impressive level of support for a whole and free Ukraine.
Overall, its hard to see that saying support for a thriving and democratic Ukraine is being undermined in Europe.
The most recent polling from the USA is, if anything, more supportive than people were expecting. There was one poll in November which set off alarm bells which showed half of the US population expressing reluctance to support Ukraine with more aid.² However since then, there have been a string of polls showing continuing, solid support for Ukraine, Basically from 60% to 75% of Americans in different polls support military aid to Ukraine and Ukrainian victory.³
The most recent poll was this Reagan Institute.⁴ Here is their executive summary.
Three-quarters of Americans say that it is important to the United States that Ukraine wins the war against Russian aggression, including bipartisan supermajorities of Democrats (86%) and Republicans (71%). Independents lag significantly behind partisans at 58%. Americans are less sure of who is currently winning the war between Russia and Ukraine, with 31% saying Ukraine, 27% saying Russia, 25% saying neither, and 17% saying that they do not know.
Overall, a strong majority (59%) of Americans support sending U.S. military aid to Ukraine, including 75% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans (with 41% opposed). Again, Independents are significantly less likely than partisans to support Ukraine aid, with 39% in favor and 39% opposed. Among Ukraine aid supporters, the most compelling reason is that standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine will discourage Russia from invading other neighboring countries (37%). Nearly as many (30%) said the best reason for continued aid was that it is important to help protect freedom of people and sovereignty of counties wherever we can. Support for Ukraine aid has not wavered since the November 2022 Reagan National Defense Survey, which found that 57% of Americans supported aid.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs Poll was particularly interesting. If you look at the Dark Blue/Black line, that is overall US support for military assistance to Ukraine. What you will see is that over the last year support for military aid to Ukraine has remained remarkably steady (declining from 65% to 63%).
So, actually, support for Ukraine to regain its territory, to receive military aid to do so, and to be a part of the western world still seems high and resilient. My guess is that its actually a surprise to a large group, some in power and others in the analytical community, who were expecting a significant drop in support for Ukraine, and had started building their narrative around that months ago. These were those who started writing that the war was a stalemate, Ukraine could not win, and now have reached the point of saying, as the Economist has, that indeed Putin is winning.
Not to return to earlier work, but in early October I tried to warn people that the Ukraine cant win, Russia is starting to win narrative was about to explode (partially led by those who had drastically overrated the Russian military before February 24, 2022) It was in this update.
And the Economist, it should be noted, was maybe the most vociferous publication in pumping out stories of Russian military might just before the full-scale invasion. XIt even basically said the Russian army could do to Ukraine what the US did to Iraq⁵ This was after years of pushing the Russian army was great narrative.⁶
However public opinion does not so far seem to be doing what this group wants it do to—which makes their arguments seem rather an attempt to push public opinion than report on it. Support for aid to Ukraine has remained robust, and if Putin’s plan to get something out of the war is based on eroding European or American support for Ukraine, so far there is no sign that he is winning. If anything, his way of fighting is helping keep support for Ukraine high.
Also, he is not winning the war militarily (I will build my next update around that) and if you look at Russian public opinion, that is actually showing far greater war weariness than Ukrainian public opinion. An October telephone poll of Russians (admittedly not easy in such an oppressive system, showed that support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine was smaller than opposition,⁷ —indeed Russian public opinion was overall quite pessimistic about the future. Here were the key points.
Pro-war Russians are in the minority , and there are significantly fewer of them than opponents of continuing the war
The core support for war in 2023 has almost halved and is 12% (in February 2023 it was 22%)
44% of respondents report a decrease in family income. 20% of respondents reported that medicines important to them had disappeared from sale (in October 2022, this was 16%). Only 5% of Russians expect their situation to improve due to increased military spending.
52% of Russians have recently experienced attacks of anxiety or depression. Moreover, the lower people assess their financial status, the more often they report attacks of anxiety or depression.⁸
So, just be careful of people casually saying what they think should be happening with public opinion—as opposed to what seems to be happening with the actual data.
Ukraine launches more attacks on infrastructure
I think we can say safely now that Ukraine has put together quite a detailed campaign this autumn winter to attack Russia’s ability to prosecute the war by hitting high value targets in Russia. This was something that first became apparent more than a month ago, and I wrote a little about it 3 weeks ago if youre interested.
However this week these Ukrainian attacks have accelerated with really the most audacious (and potentially most important) attacks so far. The Ukrainian caused not one but two explosions on the rail links which connect Russia to China. They attacked both a major bridge and a major tunnel (pictures below) in quick succession. Indeed the Ukrainians seem so pleased with the results that Ukrainian intelligence quickly leaked their involvement in them to the public.⁹
A few things really stand out on these attacks. As attacks they were very well conceived. This is what the Ukrainians have done.
- The attacks occurred very close in time to each other (not allowing the Russians to beef up security).
- They occurred on the parts of a rail line that are most vulnerable because they are much trickier and more difficult to repair (tunnels and bridges).
- They used Russian resources to do much of the damage (they seemed to have blown up long trains carrying fuel from Russia to China).
So they have given themselves the best chance possible of shutting down or restricting rail traffic from China to Russia (and vice versa obviously). Russia needs access to the Chinese economy to continue fighting.
The other thing stands out is that these attacks occurred many thousands of miles from Ukraine—in the Russian Far East (Buryatia Oblast). Here is a map which includes Ukraine (far in the west) and Buryatia oblast surrounded with red dots (far in the east).
So, we have seen the Ukrainians pull off a complex operation thousands of miles from their country, with potentially major economic repercussions (fixing tunnels is particularly difficult).
Its another sign why the stalemate narrative is particularly pernicious. The difference so far this winter is that while the Russian campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure so far seems less effective (though lets not count our chickens) the Ukrainians are fighting an entirely new campaign against Russian infrastructure. This is not stalemate.
President Zelensky gave an interview on the state of the war with the AP this week, and it received alot of coverage.¹⁰ He ranged over the state of the war, and made some comments on the summer counteroffensive which are worthy of note.
“We wanted faster results. From that perspective, unfortunately, we did not achieve the desired results. And this is a fact,” he said.
Ukraine did not get all the weapons it needed from allies, he said, and limits in the size of his military force precluded a quick advance, he said.
Zelensky also mentioned that the war will be entering into a winter phase for a while, which will change the way Ukraine will fight. What does it mean? Well, I certainly dont want to speak for Zelensky, but from his discussion of Ukraine not receiving the weapons it needed and his statement that a new phase of the war has started, I think its pretty clear that on the front line, Ukraine will stay on the defensive for a while. This only makes sense. The war has shown that attacking is really difficult (more difficult than I expected, and I was a doubter to begin with about fast breakthroughs, etc). Basically if either side goes on the offensive in this war, because neither side has air superiority (their are UAVs zipping around constantly for both sides—and that seems to be something that is unavoidable) and both sides have effective artillery that can react quickly when attacking targets reveal themselves, the attacking side will suffer heavy losses. Even if its infantry advances a few metres, the losses can be extreme.
In this war, Ukraine should stay on the defensive and let the Russians attack for as long as possible. It does seem now that Putin is throwing whatever force he can to try and take places like Avdiivka—and if he wants to attack, Ukraine should not only let him—the Ukrainians should encourage him.
Hopefully Ukraine wont go back on the offensive again until Russia has been seriously weakened (which is possible). Russia will have fewer shells, tanks and advanced artillery systems in 2024 than they had in 2022 and 2023. Let the Russian use up what they have attacking.
If that means we have many months (and that could be well into the second half of 2024) before Ukraine is willing to attack again—so be it.