In the absence of societal support, maintaining financial and military assistance to Ukraine will obviously become more challenging. This may well lead to further Ukrainian military failures - in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy - which would be completely contrary to the most basic security interests of the EU and NATO.

Following the failure of Ukraine’s 2023 counter-offensive, there is a growing feeling, both in the West and at home, that the odds are against any kind of Ukrainian victory and that Kyiv should sit down to negotiate a ceasefire with Moscow as soon as possible, even at the cost of territorial integrity. It is no longer just the opinion of Russia’s propagandists or their mouthpieces within the Hungarian ruling party – loyally conveying the Moscow narrative – that believe Ukraine has no chance of victory, but also professional correspondents at home and abroad. Veteran domestic security experts also share in the opinion that time is working for Putin, and even respected foreign policy journal Foreign Policy is publishing articles of the opinion that Western support for Ukraine is unsustainable.

I attempt to show how Western public discourse has been changing as events in the war have progressed. While it may seem strange at first, it is no mere question of Western narratives passively following changes on the front line. The situation is much more complex than this. Public discourse is itself exerting an influence on the evolution of the war through assistance – or lack thereof – from the West.

Simply put, if influential Western opinion makers believe that Ukraine has a chance of success, Kiev will receive more weapons, ammunition, and further equipment. If Ukraine is deemed to have little chance of success, military aid can – and will – be reduced as a result. Opinions dominating public discourse are exerting a far from negligible effect.

Analytical exaggerations

There have been countless instances over the past decade in which Western opinion makers and experts have exaggerated Russia’s military capabilities, to its advantage and its detriment alike. While Moscow won the 2008 war in Georgia, their military action testified as to the staggering unpreparedness of the Russian armed forces – it is no coincidence that this military operation provided the stimulus for the reform of the armed forces, a reform named after the contemporaneous Defence Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov. Most Western assessments, however, failed to take account of these changes within the Russian military, and, for years after, Moscow’s military capabilities were still assessed in view of the lessons learnt in 2008.

In the light of this, it is no wonder that the rapid Russian invasion of Crimea in the spring of 2014 so brutally shocked the West. The pendulum swung the other way. Western discourse has, in the years since, been dominated by a fear, in many respects unwarranted and exaggerated, of the hybrid warfare that was demonstrated in Crimea. While analysts at the Swedish Defence Research Agency were warning as early as the summer of 2014 against absolutising the Crimea experience to view the Russian military as some kind of invincible Nemesis, little common sense has prevailed.

Aftermath of a Russian missile attack in the city of Kharkiv. 8th January 2024.
Aftermath of a Russian missile attack in the city of Kharkiv. 8th January 2024. YEVHEN TITOV/Anadolu via AFP

Little changed on the Ukrainian front between 2015 and February 2022. The Ukrainian army successfully held the Donbas front and Moscow showed no interest in shifting away from the low-intensity conflict of the time towards either peace or a full-scale war. This state of affairs became the norm for the West over these next seven years, so it was easy to believe that, even at the tail-end of 2021, there would be change to the situation.

As such, throughout January and February 2022, few people – myself included – were of the opinion that Russia would indeed attack Ukraine. Despite the indicators of such strengthening and in the face of the increasingly explicit US warnings, a significant section of the Western and the Hungarian public still would not consider the possibility of Russian attack. Nor was the Hungarian government the only one which did not wish to believe this could happen: German leadership was so sceptical that the head of the foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Bruno Kahl, was in Kyiv on 24th February and was only able to evacuate in a gruelling two-day journey accompanied by special forces.

Ukraine achieved several operational successes in the summer and autumn of 2022 and recaptured significant territory from the Russians, including the part of the Kherson region west of the Dnieper River and almost all of the Kharkiv region. From this, it was hoped that the Ukrainian army would be able to achieve similar, but also larger-scale successes, in the next year (2023), despite questions already being asked before the counter-offensive as to the readiness and level of supplies of the Ukrainian army. During this spring I, too, believed that a significant victory was possible. Although I still had my doubts about the Ukrainian forces.

It is perhaps easy to see how an analyst may fall into these various cognitive traps. Throughout the course of the almost ten years of war – as we have seen above – there have been numerous examples of attempts of linear extrapolation from past lessons to gauge present and future conditions. We can see as similar pattern in the assessments of the situation after the failure of the summer counter-offensive. This failure has led many to proclaim Ukraine’s total defeat – and this is not limited to self-proclaimed geniuses, but experienced professionals as well. As I explained in my article at the beginning of December, the failure of the Ukraine counter-offensive signifies just one thing: the prolongation of the war. Any final outcome will be influenced by many more variables than one single failed offensive can forecast with absolute certainty.

One reason for inflated hope

Overblown hopes for the Ukrainian counter-offensive were loudly being expressed in much of the West in the spring and early summer of 2023. These kinds of expectations lead to a lesson that is of the utmost analytical importance, and a lesson that even today cannot be said to have been fully learnt. That is, from late spring 2023 onwards, a significant portion of the Ukrainian, Western, and, to a certain extent, Hungarian public opinion began to believe that some kind of major military breakthrough could be achieved. This belief was backed-up by a number of optimistic statements from Ukrainian politicians and also, for example of the 14th June, by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who expressed cautious optimism about Ukrainian troops liberating greater and greater amounts of territory.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. October 2023
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. October 2023 HANDOUT/AFP

It is also worth highlighting that at this time a number comments highly critical of their own forces were emerging from the Russian side. On June 21st, for example, Wagner commander Yevgeny Prigozhin accused the Russian high command of concealing the reality from the population that Ukraine had, in fact, regained significant territory.

Although the slow progression of the Ukrainian offensive had already become apparent by late June and early July, heightened expectations persisted in many quarters despite increasingly worrying facts coming through. One ingredient of this was that, as nothing concrete was known about Ukrainian plans, there was no way of comparing them with how the advance was playing out in reality. It was, therefore, possible to hope that the sluggishness of the first few weeks was all part of the plan and that the expected breakthrough would come later. In other words, "wishful thinking", since no fact-based comparison could make a clear case for failure.

More important than this, though, was the other factor, which led many leading politicians and military experts, even as late as July or August, to remain extremely optimistic about a breakthrough in Robotnye in the Zaporizhzhia region. An optimism held even though the Ukrainian advance appeared to be moving exceedingly slowly, amounting to, at best, a few hundred metres a day.

Overvaluing Western Support

The other factor, as far as it is possible to reconstruct, is that a great many people – myself included, I might add – have overestimated the importance of Western intelligence and operational planning support. Off the back of how effectively Western support aided Ukraine in the first year of the war, including the successes in Kharkiv and Kherson in 2022, it was hard to believe the extent to which this support failed to anticipate the strength of Russian defences, dooming the original counter-offensive plans to failure. Put differently, it was believed that, with both Ukraine and the West working together, such a mistake could not occur and, sooner or later, Russian defences were expected to "crumble".

We now know that this would not be the case. Even after Ukrainian forces were able to drive a wedge into the first main Russian defensive line between Robotnye and Verbove in mid-August, the operation could not be sufficiently developed into any form of greater breakthrough. As late as 26th August, US Chief of Staff Mark Milley suggested that the Ukrainians were achieving sustainable results by penetrating through the first line of Russian defence. Although they were making slower progress than planned, he added, this was not unusual in war. Russian forces were, however, able to hold their positions, even at the cost of horrendous losses. Since 26th August the front line towards Zaporizhzhya have barely changed.

Only after the war will the exact information the Western and Ukrainian military leadership had about the strength of Russian defences become known. Until then, the situation remains the same as it was at the end of the second month of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. And we have to live with the fact there are some very important things which we just don’t know.

The importance of self-reflection

It is, however, important to draw the necessary lessons from what we do already know in order to avoid a repeat, now in 2024, of such mistakes as those of the analysts with the Ukrainian counter-offensive. While some here at home still seek to make a prestige issue out of who was right and who was wrong (let us add that there are those predicting total destructing of Ukrainian forces on a weekly basis and boasting of their foresight when failure does occur), the real stakes are far higher.

It is vital to avoid a repetition of these mistakes. The events of February 2022 were such a shock that the West is still getting over the surprise – and adapting to the consequences – both politically and economically. This slow adaptation has huge implications for the West’s ability to respond to the fundamentally altered security landscape in Europe in the aftermath of such a large-scale Russian attack.

In the case of Ukraine in particular, there is a lot at stake in the West’s possession of a realistic picture. This is because the country under attack is entirely dependent on external economic, financial, and military support. If, due to the aforementioned unrealistically inflated expectations, public opinion and decision makers see the performance of Ukrainian forces in 2023 as a failure, this will lead to a decline in public support for the country.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

In the absence of societal support, maintaining financial and military assistance to Ukraine will obviously become more challenging. This may well lead to further Ukrainian military failures – in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy – which would be completely contrary to the most basic security interests of the EU and NATO. It is no word of an exaggeration to say that if Ukraine loses this war, it could spell the end for the entire Western world order. Despite this, current trends in the levels of support are far from encouraging. Data from the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine Support Tracker clearly shows a significant decrease in Western military and financial support to Ukraine in the wake of the failure of the 2023 summer counter-offensive. Between August and October of 2023 (current data is only available until 31 October 2022), levels of support dropped by almost 90 percent (!) compared to the corresponding period of the previous year. Last year, between August and October, only $2.11 billion of new aid was pledged, an 87% decrease on the same period a year earlier. A surge in the appetite to give aid resulted off the back of the successes in Kherson and Kharkiv in 2022, while the frustration of the 2023 counter-offensive – and the clear failure of any breakthrough to appear in the summer – has radically tempered it, as illustrated by the graph available here.

This loss of appetite is happening despite the fact that there is absolutely no question of Ukraine having lost the war. What is clear is that that more and more donors are no longer considering supporting Ukraine to the extent that they had been before as worthwhile, as, clearly, they are incapable of breaching Russian lines.

It is readily visible that if aid is not again increased in the short term, Ukraine will be unable to repeat any of the successes that it has achieved (while in possession of stronger aid). In this sense, therefore, how the West assesses Ukraine’s chances will have a direct impact on those chances through the amount of military and economic assistance Kyiv receives.

Protesters demanding tougher sanctions against Russia in Warsaw. 9 January 2024
Protesters demanding tougher sanctions against Russia in Warsaw. 9 January 2024 WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP

In January 2024, we stood at a transitional moment in many respects, including aid to Ukraine. Since last autumn, the US administration has been unable to agree on the disbursement of this year’s funds to Ukraine, and 2023’s funds were already completely exhausted by the end of the year. While it is hoped a decision on continuation will soon be reached, it is still far from definite. Support from within the EU is similarly uncertain. The Hungarian government’s veto in December

prevented an agreement on €50 billion to be disbursed to Ukraine over the next four years. Even though an agreement was reached at the European Council meeting on 1st February 2024 with the famous coffee break of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Budapest’s resistance led to a delay of at least a month and a half.

In summary, we currently at the beginning of this year we were at a nadir in terms of support for Ukraine. Although, since that period should only be considered temporary, the critically low levels of aid ought not be extrapolated into the future. The extent to which the West is willing and able to move from that low point, i.e., whether it is prepared to support Ukraine again to such a level which will prevent Kyiv from losing the war, will depend to a large extent on how public opinion and the decision-makers interpret the war’s outlook. This responsibility, therefore, also falls squarely on the shoulders of the experts, journalists, and commentators following and analysing what is happening in Ukraine.


This article was written in the framework of The Eastern Frontier Initiative (TEFI) project. TEFI is a collaboration of independent publishers from Central and Eastern Europe, to foster common thinking and cooperation on European security issues in the region. The project aims to promote knowledge sharing in the European press and contribute to a more resilient European democracy.

Members of the consortium are 444 (Hungary), Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), SME (Slovakia), PressOne (Romania), and Bellingcat (The Netherlands).

The TEFI project is co-financed by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.