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Two years on, the war in Ukraine becomes a test of Western staying power

As world leaders made their way to Kyiv to commemorate two years since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, questions remain about the strength of Western support for the embattled country.

Russia wants to convince the world that Ukraine is a lost cause, expert says

A group of world leaders pose for a photo.

Anniversaries — like birthdays — can be awkward events.

And the more of them you have, the more awkward they become — especially when you're called upon to mark the onset of the enormous carnage, misery and loss that has been the experience of Ukraine for the last two years.

Almost in passing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — after signing a long-term security assurance package with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday — remarked how 24 months ago, no one expected to be here.

While it was partially a reference to the well-worn assertion that Moscow — and many in the West — had expected a swift Russian victory following its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Trudeau, perhaps inadvertently, touched on the dismay that is at the heart of wavering support among the world's democracies.

How could this still be going on?

This weekend saw a deluge of military, economic and political explanations and prognostications that dissected where we've come from and where we might be going.

WATCH | Trudeau discusses strength of Canadian support for Ukraine:

Canadians still support Ukraine despite 'faltering' by Conservatives, Trudeau says

16 hours ago

Duration 1:17

Speaking from Kyiv as world leaders marked the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians remain 'overwhelmingly in favour' of supporting Ukraine despite 'Russian misinformation and disinformation' and what he called an 'unfortunate' decision by federal Conservatives to vote against economic measures for Ukraine.

What was largely unspoken in Kyiv but implicit in the security packages signed this weekend by Canada and Italy (and earlier by the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Denmark) is that with this anniversary, we have crossed a Rubicon, one that Western democracies have not had to face in such a visceral and substantial way since the Second World War.

The early wars of the 21st century, in Afghanistan and Iraq, may well be viewed through the long lens of history as a test of patience, rather than what Ukraine is shaping up to be.

The long, bloody, expensive and excruciating road ahead will be a test of the staying power of societies — within Ukraine and perhaps even on a grander scale.

We're seeing signs of it in Ukraine with the debate over expanded troop mobilization to fill dwindling, exhausted ranks. There are slightly more opaque flashes within Russia, where in Moscow over the weekend, Russian military wives protested after being told their husbands were gone for the duration of the war.

War over morale

And in this contest of wills, experts say, political messaging is important.

"What the Russians want to do now is to convince everybody that the Ukrainian case is hopeless," said Eliot Cohen, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former counselor at the U.S. State Department.

The narrative seeping into the political discourse in the West, he said, is that "the Russians are relentless, have resources that are essentially infinite and an infinite willingness to suffer. Now, I don't think any of those things are true, but I think that's a large part of what the Russians want us to believe."

WATCH | World leaders commemorate second anniversary of invasion:

Why leaders visited this Ukrainian airport on anniversary of Russia's invasion

14 hours ago

Duration 1:44

Hostomel Airport, located just outside of Kyiv, was the site of one of the first battles between Ukrainian troops and invading Russian forces two years ago. CBC's Margaret Evans explains the significance of the visit to the airport by leaders from countries such as Canada.

Trudeau, speaking to Canadian reporters in Kyiv after a virtual G7 leaders' meeting Saturday night, wasn't prepared to acknowledge what we're seeing as a contest of wills but instead described it as people buying into Kremlin propaganda.

"We've seen the impact of Russian misinformation and disinformation in countries all around the world," Trudeau said, while underlining how he believed Canada's $3-billion security assistance package demonstrated a depth of commitment.

"I just got off a call, a virtual video conference with the other G7 leaders, where we are all aligned and filled with resolve that we will continue to stand with Ukraine and continue to ensure that Russia does not win this war."

Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, said he's seeing signs of increased European resolve, but he wonders how much staying power there is in Canada.

He pointed to the federal government's reluctance to increase munitions production and its steadfast refusal to say whether the country will attempt to meet NATO's benchmark of two per cent of gross domestic product for defence spending.

The Europeans, Arel said, are no longer looking at Ukraine as "a one-off" and have begun to recognize and steel themselves for a long struggle, rather than just hoping the war will be over tomorrow.

Importance of the U.S. stance

Emily Harding, director of the intelligence, national security and technology program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the recent death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the disclosure that the Kremlin may soon put a nuclear device in orbit were unmistakable signals from President Vladimir Putin meant to instil fear in Europe.

"The fact that Putin allowed this right before the Munich [Security] Conference is quite interesting," Harding said during a recent online panel at the centre marking the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine.

"It's quite a bold message that here we are on the two-year anniversary of this war, and his No. 1 political critic he feels like he can eliminate, with little to no blowback … I think was a very scary message to the Europeans. And I wish that we would get there, as well."

Whether the United States, the biggest military and economic backer of Ukraine, has the strength of will for the long haul is suspect.

A lot of attention has been paid lately to the refusal of congressional Republicans to go along with the latest $60-billion US aid package proposed for Ukraine. Harding said the incremental approach of the Biden administration has helped create the circumstances today.

"The U.S. response has been dithering," she said about the debates within the administration concerning which donated weapons systems might provoke a response from Russia. "I think uncharitably you could say that we've been fiddling while Rome burns."

As part of the ongoing contest of wills, Harding said, the West, led by the U.S., cannot allow Moscow to "continue to push forward without pushing back."

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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