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Victory over Russia could take years. How long will the world #standwithukraine?

When it comes to imagining the outcome of the war, there may be no more important question.

Hear more from Joshua Keating about this story:

Today, Ukrainian leaders are the first to admit that this resistance depends on the steady flow of money and weaponry, as well as continued economic and political pressure on Russia. The Ukrainians are also aware that the task is likely to get harder in the coming months, as the conflict drags on, other crises compete for international attention and foreign governments waver in support of a cause they never imagined would last this long.

“#StandWithUkraine” has been a rallying cry for dozens of governments and hundreds of millions of people. How long, in terms of that tangible support, will the world continue to stand with Ukraine?

Looking for an exit

Oleksii Movchan, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament representing Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party, told Grid that it’s too late to strike a bargain with the Russians. “They have killed too many people,” he said. “They have destroyed too many cities. They have raped too many women. If the war stops now and the world tries to accommodate Putin, then international law will have no meaning.” Movchan argued that accommodations that allowed Russia to hold onto Ukrainian territory after 2014 emboldened Putin to push further. “There have been so many promises. It’s not about negotiations. Everyone must respect the territory of another country,” he said.

Liana Fix, program director for international affairs at the Körber-Stiftung, a German think tank, told Grid that one reason why Ukraine’s supporters don’t always appear to be on the same page is that “victory” hasn’t been clearly or consistently defined. At the outset of the assistance effort, “there was no strategic goal agreed upon among allies. So it is not clear what the aim of arming Ukraine was in the long term or what our ultimate goal was.”

Ukraine fatigue?

Coming up on the four-month mark, the blue and yellow flags are still up — at least in this correspondent’s Washington, D.C., neighborhood — but there are signs that public fatigue is setting in. Data from the media monitoring service Newswhip show that global public interest — as measured in social media interactions with the term “Ukraine” — first spiked after the initial invasion in February, then peaked again on March 16 at more than 11 million, and has now fallen to around 629,000. Published news articles have fallen from a post-invasion peak of almost 77,000 a day in March to a little over 10,000 this week. It’s no longer surprising to see a New York Times front page with no Ukraine story above the fold.

In fairness to the public, there’s been a lot going on, far from Ukraine. In the U.S., the war has had to compete with major stories including the Supreme Court’s leaked Roe v. Wade decision; the Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, mass shootings; and the Jan. 6 congressional hearings. Some less serious stories have dented interest as well: Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who researches the use of social media in war, said that the first time he noticed a story pushing Ukraine out of the spotlight was when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars on March 27.

The changing nature of the war has played a role as well. The early stories of Kyiv under threat, Zelenskyy in his underground bunker and huge flows of refugees are gone; now the war is largely confined to areas of eastern Ukraine where these two countries have been fighting (and which the world has been largely ignoring) for the last eight years.

Media coverage is not a trivial issue. As Brooking told Grid, “This is a dangerous moment. Western attention will diminish, and as it diminishes, it’s possible that in the future, aid may be less forthcoming. The danger is that this just becomes the backdrop the way the war in Syria was for so many years.”

The patience of Putin

Fix said policymakers and the public in Western countries should keep in mind that “even if Ukraine manages to push Russia back and accomplish what we call a small victory, it will not mean that this is over. Ukraine will have to defend itself for the next few years, maybe for the next decade, because Russia is not going to accept this.” What this means is that if Western governments are serious about “standing with Ukraine,” they need to prepare their publics for the long haul.

Putin may have underestimated how much the world would care about Ukraine back in February, when he launched his invasion. But as the war drags on, it’s becoming a contest of wills. His new bet may be that the international partners on whom Ukraine depends for its defense will lose their patience and resolve before Russia does.

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