Roger Hilton, expert of the GLOBSEC analytical center: "The manifestations of the West's fatigue with Ukraine are not of particular concern"

on 02.08.2023

Interview with Victoria Vlasenko, Brussels correspondent, Uriadoviy Kurier

Mr. Hilton, Russia's war against Ukraine is now in its 17th month. During this time, Western partner countries have provided Ukraine with unprecedented military, financial, and humanitarian assistance. Millions of Ukrainian refugees have found shelter and protection in the EU. Recently, however, the phenomenon of Ukraine fatigue has been increasingly mentioned in the public space. Have you noticed any signs of this fatigue?

Ukraine fatigue is emerging, and not recognizing it would be a serious political shortcoming, given that the war with Russia, in my opinion, will not end quickly.  I would distinguish four levels at which this fatigue can appear: governmental, social, corporate, and what I call the "news cycle."  All of them are interconnected, but each of them requires a special approach and a long-term solution.

How strong are the manifestations of fatigue at these levels you mentioned?

Governmental fatigue exists among Western politicians who are directly involved in decision-making. They have been fulfilling their obligations for quite some time now, supporting the main priorities of defense and foreign policy.   In my opinion, what happened in Vilnius, when Ben Wallace (UK Secretary of Defense) said that Ukraine should show more gratitude to its Western partners, to which President Zelensky reacted quite sharply, is a rather natural reaction. It is quite clear that in the context of an ongoing war and incredible pressure, people's endurance is not what it used to be.  However, I think this whole story was blown out of proportion. After all, everyone wants the same thing - for the war to end with Ukraine's victory.  And I don't think that there is a global problem in intergovernmental communication and that governmental fatigue is significant. Moving forward, I think it would be better for President Zelensky, and his team, to refrain from using words like "unacceptable" or "Un-European" in public statements, as it shows disaccord between Kyiv and its partners. The recent issue with Ukrainian grain causing political headaches in Poland or Romania  are bound to happen, but what is important is that everyone wants to find a solution.

When President Biden or any other political leader declares support for Ukraine's victory in the long run, it may not be so pleasant for Ukrainians to hear, given the daily deaths and destruction that the war is causing. However, I think Ukraine should take it positively. After all, the West declares its commitment and readiness to reshape its foreign policy and defense priorities, and the governments of partner countries openly state that they are ready to stay by Ukraine's side for this long haul. History has shown that on major foreign and security policy issues, like the Cold War, the west and especially America have a good track recording of fulfilling its promises. 

It is also important that Ukraine is now actively communicating with its Asian partners. In my opinion, the security assurance  to Ukraine from the Group of Seven countries, including Japan, have not gained as much recognition c as they should have. These are actually long-term multiyear commitments to financial and military support, and it means that Ukraine  now has major industrialized  countries from different parts of the world committed to Kyiv. . And while some of them may get tired of Ukraine, others, such as Australia or South Korea, will not at the same time.  Therefore, if we look at this collectively, I do not see a significant problem with government fatigue. And here it would be appropriate to draw a comparison with Russia. Today, Ukraine has the highest level of diplomatic relations with partners in North America, Europe, and Asia. Russia does not have anything like that. 253 billion of foreign capital has been withdrawn from Russia since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. moscow has lost the ability to build alliances, so it is forced to turn to countries such as Cuba, Iran and North Korea. Even the latest Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg was not the major diplomatic success the Kremlin was hoping for.   Therefore, despite certain manifestations of fatigue, strong intergovernmental relations continue to be an important basis for Ukraine's position. 

But what about social fatigue? Europe has sheltered more than 4 million Ukrainians. Despite the assurances of the EU leadership that the bloc is ready to continue supporting refugees from Ukraine, some member states are beginning to grow irritated with Ukrainians and the war.

The situation here is somewhat more complicated. It will largely depend on the results of the elections to be held in the US, Poland, Slovakia, and the EU in the near future.  However, one of the strongest tools that can influence social fatigue, in my opinion, is the work of President Zelenskyy's strategic communication team. They, for example, create impressive videos and speeches that are individually targeted at either audience  in Canada, the  UK, or even more international. And Ukrainians need to know that their government has an impressive strategic communications team, in my opinion, simply the best.  However, they need to change their tactics when it comes to asking for Western assistance.

It is quite clear that the Ukrainian authorities want to get everything they need as soon as possible. After all, we in the west  are not the ones burying people, we are not the ones worried that civilians may be hit by drones. And I think the level of what Ukraine can get from the West is still quite high. Remember: it all started with ammunition and Javelins, and it has moved on to HIMARS artillery systems, and soon Ukraine will receive F16 fighter jets.

And I am quite sure that you will receive ATACMS (American-made long-range missile systems - Ed.).  But in dealing with Western partners, when it comes to requests for such things, the Ukrainian side should learn to understand when to take a step back and when to be more assertive. If they keep asking for things, it will stop working.

You mentioned corporate fatigue, i.e., are you talking about the fatigue of Western business from Ukraine? Does it exist?

There are very interesting trends here.  Last week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that the weapons plant to be built in Ukraine by the German arms company Rheinmetall would become a "legitimate target" for Russian missiles. However, Rheinmetall responded that they were not afraid of these threats and promised to protect the plant with air defense systems of their own production. This means that a private company is going to protect its own investments in Ukraine without even asking for permission from its government. This is a very telling sign that shows that corporate fatigue does not exist. This is partly because of the benefits they can get by dealing with Brave 1 and Ukroboronprom. But also because they want to show their creativity, their ability to reorient existing technology by providing “out of the box” applications.  Google and Microsoft continue to provide their products to Ukrainian agencies for free. They want to cooperate with Ukraine because it has unique data from the battlefield.  So whether it's heavy industry, the latest technology, or energy projects, there is no sign of Western companies getting tired of cooperation with Ukraine. It is great public relations and good for shareholders.

News about the war in Ukraine is gradually disappearing from the front pages of Western media. Is this also a manifestation of fatigue?

This is the fourth level of fatigue. This refers to the news cycle. Its functioning is conditioned by objective circumstances: a large number of events that take place in parallel in the world, and the fact that news has a very short shelf life. Remember the news about the Prigozhin riot. It happened on Saturday, but by Monday morning it was no longer the number one news. It's very difficult to keep the media's attention on a particular issue. After all, there is an unprecedented heat wave in Europe, a flood in the United States, rising prices, and inflation. Under these conditions, Ukraine cannot hope to always dominate the news. And I think Ukrainians should take this into account in their communication strategy.

What can the Ukrainian government do to prevent this fatigue from growing and turning into indifference?

We should not be afraid of these processes. Sometimes it is worth letting go of some things and letting them run their course. But if the Ukrainian authorities want to maintain public interest at the level of ordinary citizens, they need to create an appropriate media environment that will allow them to promote their policies. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Zelensky has been making video addresses every day. It is truly incredible. I remember when he spoke at the GLOBSEC 2022 Bratislava Forum  last year, each of his messages was personalized, he made the audience think that he was addressing everyone.  I think his team needs to create more of these media products  that create this special atmosphere, this connection. Supplying ammunition, tanks, HIMARS is important, but people want to feel connected to each other.  Therefore, I think the less militarized messages there are and the more references to common interests, coexistence, and working for each other, the better it will help to establish a connection between people. 

So, in your opinion, despite the fact that fatigue with Ukraine has begun to manifest itself in the West, it does not pose a direct threat to support for Ukraine?

As I said, all these manifestations of fatigue have their natural explanation, they appeared after quite a long time - 17 months of war. Despite some misunderstandings that occurred in Vilnius, which can be explained by a normal human reaction to the fact that events are not developing as they should, the Ukrainian government maintains excellent personal relations with all political partners. This is a huge plus in addition to the successful strategic communication of the Zelenskyy team. Therefore, these signs of fatigue do not cause me much concern.

The original version of this article appeared in the Uriadovy Courier


roger hilton

Media Presenter and Research Fellow



roger hilton

Media Presenter and Research Fellow