'We're pretty much done': 'Unwavering' support for Ukraine starts to waver

Congress is haggling over funding for the Ukraine war and one of Kyiv's staunchest allies saw a pro-Russian political party take the top prize in recent parliamentary elections as the brutal conflict rages on with no end in sight.

President Joe Biden and the State Department pledge "unwavering support" for Ukraine, and EU's Josep Borrell reaffirmed the bloc's "unwavering support" for the Kyiv government with militarily and humanitarian aid as well as efforts to join the EU.

But is the unwavering support wavering?

"It may well be − people are tired of war, they’re tired of bad news, and that response is reasonable," says Mary Kate Schneider, director of global studies at Loyola University Maryland.

Schneider says the true challenge will be confronted when the U.S. faces another serious national security threat. Russia is betting on Western support fading for Ukraine, but allowing Russia to win the war would "embolden other actors who reject a rules-based international order for a might-makes-right international order," she said.

Steven Myers, an Air Force veteran who served on the State Department's Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy under two secretaries of state, says the war was never winnable and that the Russian strategy is working. Ukraine is "reduced to pin pricks" that have no strategic relevance, he said.

The U.S. ultimately will provide modest support such as training Ukrainian F-16 pilots for a defensive role "in pretending to protect" western Ukraine while Russia continues to press forward in the east, Myers said.

"How much treasure and political will is the world to expend on a cause that was irrational from the start?" Myers said. "The action by Congress is a signal to the world that we’re pretty much done."

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Ukraine funding is a 'football for American politicians to toss around'

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, speaking at a briefing Monday, said the vast majority of available Ukraine funding has lapsed because the aid was stripped from the stopgap funding measure approved by Congress to keep the government running. The Pentagon said in a letter to Congress, obtained by The Associated Press, that there was $1.6 billion remaining of $25.9 billion to replenish military stocks.

The administration is "continuing to work through" what can be provided to Ukraine, but Congress must approve the funding quickly, Miller said.

Most experts agree that the continuing resolution won't create a serious problem for Ukraine in the short term. Schneider called it a political stumbling block but added that U.S. support for Ukraine will continue for the foreseeable future. The amount of money involved is modest compared to other U.S. spending, and Ukraine remains critically important to U.S. national interest, she said.

"Ukraine is an easy political football for American politicians to toss around because we have very little direct involvement," she said. "There are no U.S. troops to support, and Russia is not threatening to invade us."

Cadets light candles as they pay tribute to fallen Ukrainian soldiers at the Lychakiv Cemetery to mark Defenders Day in Lviv.
Cadets light candles as they pay tribute to fallen Ukrainian soldiers at the Lychakiv Cemetery to mark Defenders Day in Lviv.

Trump-led GOP softens stance on Russia

In the longer term, however, Ukraine could be dragged into partisan infighting in Congress and become "another wedge issue" for the far right, says Jeff Levine, a former U.S. ambassador to anxious Russian neighbor Estonia.  The Republican Party that stood for strong national defense and a willingness to confront Russia has mutated under Donald Trump, whose backers support appeasement, Levine said.

"The Democrats and reasonable Republicans have the votes necessary to continue U.S. support for Ukraine," Levine said. "But the far right is working hard to prevent cooperation."

Miller said strong majorities in both houses of Congress support continued assistance. That means supporting them with immediate needs and then helping Ukraine rebuild its devastated cities with a democratic government integrated into Europe, he said.

"We cannot under any circumstance allow America’s support for Ukraine to be interrupted," Miller said. "Our allies, our adversaries, and the world will be watching."

Myers says claims by President Joe Biden and multiple congressional leaders that most Americans support the U.S. position on Ukraine is "utter nonsense."

Americans care far more about inflation, a listless stock market and the high cost of fuel and food that have conspired to reduce net median household income, he said. They are concerned about border security, crime, quality education, he said.

"And yet, what do they hear from the both the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate?  That the single most important priority is funding Ukraine to protect us against the evil empire of Russia, with a GDP of New Jersey," Myers said. "They are utterly tone deaf."

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Slovakia moving toward Russia 'a smart play'?

The pro-Russian party that won parliamentary elections in Slovakia likely will seat a new prime minister who has vowed to halt aid to Ukraine. Robert Fico, a former prime minister, has pledged to block Ukraine membership in NATO, questioned Ukraine's ability to defeat Russia and urged a negotiated settlement to the 19-month war.

Myers said countries such as Slovakia need to start hedging their bets against the day when they must normalize relations with Russia.

"It’s the smart play. They know how to read a map," Myers said. "The U.S. and NATO had no strategy to win, and now after 18 months of failure by any measure, can’t even get Congress to fund" the war.

Slovakia is not the first NATO ally to clash with Kyiv. Poland, Ukraine's staunches European supporter and home to about 1 million Ukrainian refugees, is at odds with Kyiv over grain shipments. Hungary's Viktor Orban has balked at sanctions, war funding and efforts to expedite Ukraine membership in the EU.

Levine describes Hungary and Slovakia as outliers and says he does not see a sea change in European support.  As long as the major European powers "hold steady, support will continue. But the issues indicate the need for Ukrainian President Volodymyr  Zelenskyy to show gratitude and "recognize the political price some of his supporters are paying."

Ukraine races against time, seasons

Winter slows the pace of operations, giving an advantage to the defender, said Zev Faintuch, senior intelligence analyst at Global Guardian, a security firm with boots on the ground in Ukraine. Russia is laboring to hold off Ukraine's counteroffensive and hold on to the territory it seized in the early months of the war.

"Right now, the game is get to Melitopol or any point near the Sea of Azov or bust," Faintuch said. Ukraine is pressing forward at three locations "but as far as we’re concerned, disrupting Russia’s lines of communication is the only one that will move the needle strategically and make the domestic political case for Ukraine’s benefactors to continue doubling down on this level of support."

Russian mines and trenches have been able to limit the value of expensive Western-supplied armor, he said. Artillery has been crucial for both sides, but the burn rate is "unsustainably high," he said. Russia is calling in favors from its friends − such as Iran and North Korea − to restock artillery shells and tubes, cheap drones and rockets.

"Should strategic gains not be secured by Ukraine soon, time will be her greatest enemy as the probability of this turning into a frozen conflict increases," Faintuch said.

Where we go from here

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said he expects the war to last at least until 2025. Levine was unwilling to predict how or when the war will end but said Russian leader Vladimir Putin can't emerge from it on his own terms if Ukraine is willing to continue facing unrelenting hardship.

Schneider says the war will continue until a third party can persuade both countries to negotiate − or one of the combatants overwhelms the other before that can happen.

Myers believes Russia has no interest in Ukraine territory west of the Dnipro River. There are two possible outcomes for the war, he says: a new cold war that could last indefinitely or a U.S. president meeting with Putin to resolve the conflict.

"The terms for the West will be much worse of course than the terms would have been if the West had negotiated in good faith before the war started," Myers said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We're pretty much done': 'Unwavering' support for Ukraine wavers