Ukrainians reacted with surprising equanimity last week when Donald Trump all but clinched the Republican nomination for president by winning the New Hampshire primary. Most mainstream media outlets here in Kyiv treated the looming possibility of the 45th president’s return to office as a second-tier story, despite his hostility to Ukraine’s war for survival and his determination to scuttle a U.S. border security deal that would pave the way for $61 billion in aid to Kyiv. The Telegram channels where most Ukrainians get their news hardly seemed to notice his victory over former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, a fervent advocate of aid to Kyiv. There were no screaming headlines, angry political speeches, or sardonic commentary by Telegram subscribers.
The Trump victory comes at a dark time for Ukraine: stalled fighting in the country’s southern and eastern regions, intensifying Russian missile strikes, growing fears that Ukrainian fighters—those on the front lines and those defending civilians against air attacks—are running out of ammunition. Kyiv depends on Washington—more than $75 billion has flowed here since February 2022, when Vladimir Putin invaded in full force. (Russian forces have controlled Crimea since 2014.) The outcome of this week’s debate on Capitol Hill is as important for Ukraine’s future as anything that happens on the battlefield.
It’s not that Ukrainians aren’t worrying about a Trump reelection. They are. I recently gave a talk to some university students in Kyiv. My lecture combined a brief history of American isolationism with an analysis of the current Washington debate about aid to Ukraine. “I just don’t understand,” one young woman said. “After all Trump has said and done and all the awful things everyone knows about him, why do Americans still want to vote for him?” “Is it really true?” asked another student. “It’s just so hard to believe. Is it really possible that Trump will exit NATO?”
No one in Ukraine is blind to the broader ebbing of American support. Ukrainians have seen this movie before, and many are ready to be disappointed. As the Telegram channels regularly remind subscribers, the U.S. was among the Western countries that promised to stand by Ukraine in 1994 when it signed a treaty giving up its nuclear weapons and then again in 2014 and 2015 when Kyiv agreed to a ceasefire with Russian proxy fighters in the eastern Donbas region. But none of those agreements were worth the paper they were written on when the U.S. and other Western allies failed to keep their promises.
Today, most Ukrainians are grateful for American aid but also wary. Many noticed Washington’s shifting mood well before the Biden administration ran into trouble passing a new aid package last year. From September 2022 to October 2023, the number of Ukrainians who agreed with the statement that “the West is tired of Ukraine and wants concessions from Ukraine in favor of Russia” more than doubled.
Ukrainians also recognize that American support has been enough to prevent Russia from winning but not enough for them to achieve victory. According to Gallup, from summer 2022 to summer 2023, the share of Ukrainians who approve of U.S. leadership dropped from 66 percent to 53 percent.
President Volodymyr Zelensky doesn’t hide his concern about a potential Trump victory. The Ukrainian leader sees Trump’s repeated promises to stop the war in 24 hours by forcing Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow as “very dangerous.” “He’s going to make decisions on his own, without us,” Zelensky predicted on British TV, and he isn’t shy about taunting Trump with the possible consequences.
“The question is what Trump will do,” Zelensky asks acidly, “if after [overrunning] Ukraine, Russia occupies a NATO country.” (The truth is that crossing NATO’s bright line might or might not matter to a Trump administration.)
Other Ukrainian leaders are more philosophical. “Let’s be honest,” an editorial in the widely read news outlet Trukha Ukrayina stated recently, “the people of the United States no longer support Ukraine so enthusiastically. But it’s too early to commit suicide.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, agrees: “Trump’s election need not be the end of the world.” He has given Ukraine weapons before, the thoughtful career diplomat explains, and he “is a person with whom you can work. You just need to know how to work with him.” In the long run, Kuleba concedes, “there are a lot of ‘ifs.’ But Ukraine should not fear anything – no elections and no current or future politicians.”
Still other Ukrainians are openly bitter about what one pollster, Kyiv International Institute of Sociology’s Anton Hrushetsky, calls the “hypocrisy and betrayal by our so-called [Western] friends.” In the early months of the war, the pollster explains, Ukrainians put their trust in America. “We considered the struggle against Russia as a common cause. We saw the successes of the Ukrainian army as a joint achievement.” No longer.
“That is why it’s so regrettable and so painful,” Hrushetsky continues, “for Ukrainians to see what lies behind the pathetic promise that ‘We stand with Ukraine.’”
“We thought we had unconditional support,” an almost tearful Ukrainian friend added recently over dinner. “Now, it turns out that was bullshit.”
Some Ukrainians are still hopeful, and no one doubts the value of Western aid. Asked if they think Ukraine can still win the war, an overwhelming majority—87 percent—said it can “if the West will properly support Ukraine with weapons, finances, and sanctions against Russia.”
Asked about what their nation should do if Western aid plummets, 58 percent of Ukrainians opted to go on fighting. That’s nearly twice as many as the 32 percent willing to accept that “the hostilities would cease,” even if accompanied by “serious security guarantees by the West.”
But most Ukrainians are brutally clear-eyed: Washington will do what it does no matter what Ukrainians feel.
Besides, whoever sits in the White House and whatever policy they pursue does nothing to change Ukraine’s fundamental predicament—the fact that it is waging an existential war, defending not just its territory but its national identity.
Foreign minister Kuleba made the case pungently in mid-December. “If we don’t get weapons, fine,” he said. “Then we’ll fight with shovels.”
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