Eight thinkers shed light on the state of the war.

Two Years On, What’s Next in Ukraine?

ber of a Ukrainian special police unit falls after firing a D-30 howitzer toward Russian positions near Kreminna.
A member of a Ukrainian special police unit falls after firing a D-30 howitzer toward Russian positions near Kreminna, Ukraine, on July 7, 2023. LIBKOS/AP

As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its third year, the apparent impasse on the battlefield masks decisive shifts. The war’s main front is now political, with Russian President Vladimir Putin betting that divisions and hesitations in the West will hand him the victory he has failed to achieve on the ground.

Worried about the consequences for their continent’s security if Washington disengages and Ukraine falls, European governments have increased aid in recent months. Collectively, they have now supplied or pledged more weapons to Kyiv than Washington—and more than double the assistance if economic aid is included. That marks a significant change from the war’s early days, but it hasn’t been enough to turn the tide for Ukraine.

When and how will this war end? The Kremlin has made it abundantly clear that the only negotiated end it will accept is Ukraine’s surrender, while the Ukrainians have made it equally plain that they will continue to resist being subsumed into Moscow’s empire. Two years on, peace in Europe is nowhere in sight.

To shed light on these and other shifts in the war, Foreign Policy asked eight prominent thinkers what comes next.—Stefan Theil, deputy editor

Ukrainian service members perform a medical evacuation during a military exercise in the Donetsk region on Feb. 3.

Ukrainian service members perform a medical evacuation during a military exercise in the Donetsk region on Feb. 3. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Bracing for a Long War

By Angela Stent, author of Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest

As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its third year, the current dynamic stalemate looks set to continue. Neither side is winning or losing. The Russians are making incremental territorial gains at the cost of enormous casualties and lost equipment. The Ukrainians, having failed to achieve the objectives of their 2023 counteroffensive, are on the defensive and also experiencing significant casualties. This war of attrition is taking its toll on Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelensky recently parted ways with his top military commander, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, after fissures between the two became public. Both countries need to mobilize more troops, but there will be no Russian mobilization before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sham reelection next month. For Ukraine, whose population is less than a third the size of Russia’s, it will be more difficult for to mobilize the forces it needs.

The war is not only about troops but also about the continued supply of weapons. Russia is purchasing drones from Iran and increasing amounts of artillery ammunition and some missiles from North Korea. Ukraine is dependent on weapons supplies and financial support from Europe and the United States. The European Union’s recent approval of $54 billion in financial assistance will enable the Ukrainian state to continue functioning, and European NATO members will supply some additional weapons. But the United States remains key: It is the most important supplier of advanced weaponry, and its dysfunctional domestic politics may jeopardize Ukraine’s ability to continue to fight Russia. If Congress does not approve the requested $60 billion in assistance to Ukraine and if the U.S. government does not speed up the supply of advanced weapons, then the outlook for Ukraine’s ability to push back against Russia in 2024 is much bleaker.

There is little prospect of negotiations to end the war in 2024, nor can either side achieve a decisive victory. The Kremlin has made clear that it has no interest in negotiations that do not lead to Ukraine’s surrender, including the permanent loss of the four territories illegally annexed by Russia in 2022. The stated Russian goal remains the so-called “de-Nazification”—Russian lingo for regime change—and demilitarization of Ukraine. No Ukrainian leader would ever agree to such terms. Putin is awaiting the result of this year’s U.S. election and hoping that the next U.S. president will eschew support for Ukraine and return to business as usual with Russia. In that case, Ukraine’s ability to survive as an independent, sovereign state would be in question, with all the knock-on effects on the security of Europe and beyond.

Proposals for how the war might end—including the Korean model, which would involve an armistice, no peace treaty, and Western security guarantees for Ukraine—presuppose that Russia would ever accept an independent Ukraine. As long as Putin or a successor who shares his worldview is in power, that is unlikely to happen.

A destroyed bridge, clogged with ice and snow, is seen from above in the village of Bohorodychne, Ukraine, on Jan. 27. ROMAN PILIPEY/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

A destroyed bridge, clogged with ice and snow, is seen from above in the village of Bohorodychne, Ukraine, on Jan. 27. ROMAN PILIPEY/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Like It or Not, We Are Now in Cold War II

By Jo Inge Bekkevold, senior China fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies

When Russian troops crossed into Ukraine in February 2022, it was immediately clear that the invasion would accelerate the geopolitical divide between the United States and its allies on one side and the emerging Sino-Russian axis on the other. In 2024, we are now significantly closer to a bipolar global divide reminiscent of the Cold War than only two years ago.

For one, the war has fostered the Sino-Russian embrace by increasing Beijing’s sway over Moscow. Largely isolated from the West as a result of the war, Moscow now increasingly depends on China as a market for its oil and gas exports, as a provider of a wide range of consumer goods, and as a partner for developing new technologies. Beijing’s support of Russia’s war effort has also widened divisions between China and Europe. This is evident in Europe’s rejection of China’s so-called peace plan for Ukraine, Beijing’s remarkable loss of influence in Central and Eastern Europe (with the high-profile 16+1 dialogue largely dead and buried), and the inclusion of China in NATO’s latest Strategic Concept.

Europe’s prewar dependence on Russian energy was the kind of vulnerability that the West now wants to avoid vis-à-vis China. Washington and Brussels are taking steps to de-risk their close economic ties with China; Beijing, for its part, is increasing its own self-sufficiency. Finally, Russia’s aggression has enhanced trans-Atlantic unity, prompted European NATO members to increase their defense budgets, pushed Finland and Sweden into NATO’s arms, and forced the United States to boost its military presence in Europe again.

Nonetheless, the current situation is different from the original Cold War. Today, the Sino-Russian partnership rests on a stronger geopolitical foundation than the Sino-Soviet one. At the same time, the trans-Atlantic unity created by Russia’s attack on Ukraine is fragile. Some European states are dragging their feet on defense spending, prolonging Sweden’s accession to NATO, advocating autonomy from the United States, or disagreeing with efforts to de-risk from China. Each case on its own may not be a threat to Western unity, but seen together, they matter. The most visible and important sign of Western fractures, though, is former U.S. President Donald Trump questioning the role of NATO and the U.S. security guarantee to its alliance partners during his presidential campaign.

Russia’s war has thus exposed the increased frailty of the Western bloc. Europe still suffers from its post-Cold War dreams and delusions. Accustomed to three decades of peace and globalization, many European politicians seem to be reluctant to face up to the realities of war, whether it comes in the form of an ongoing Russian invasion or it takes shape as a new cold war. Russian aggression also casts another spotlight on the rise of nationalism, populism, and polarization in the United States and a number of European countries. During the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, Washington was able to exploit the differences between Beijing and Moscow, whereas today, Beijing and Moscow are in a stronger position to exploit the differences within the Western bloc.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Feb. 8, 2023. SARA MEYSSONNIER/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Feb. 8, 2023. SARA MEYSSONNIER/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Can Europe Go It Alone?

By Kristi Raik, deputy director of the Estonia-based International Centre for Defence and Security

If Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 were wake-up calls reminding the West about Russia’s aggressive great-power ambitions, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was an electric shock for Europe’s continuously decaying defense. If that wasn’t enough, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has now openly invited Russia to attack European NATO members.

Now that Ukraine is entering the third year of a massive land, sea, air, and information war, there is a real threat that Russia will gain the upper hand on the battlefield. Already, U.S. military aid to Ukraine has dwindled to a trickle, and the prospect of Trump’s election victory in November means that European leaders face the gravest strategic challenge to their continent in generations. If Europe fails this test, Moscow would be emboldened to go further in restoring its sphere of influence and undermining its main enemy, which it has clearly said is NATO.

European leaders openly acknowledge the need to prepare for Europe being abandoned by the United States, but big words by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have yet to be matched with deeds. The actual steps Europe has taken to increase defense spending, boost arms production, and help Ukraine win the war are falling short. Western debates on Russia keep signaling a lack of strategic clarity and resolve. A Russian defeat is feared so much that many in the West would rather have it both ways: Russia shouldn’t win and neither should Ukraine. For Russia, such wavering is an invitation to continue fighting until victory. As we’ve heard many times, Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that time is on his side.

Both the United States and Europe have much at stake. Ukraine’s defeat would likely do more damage to Washington’s credibility around the world than the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. It would mean losing a conflict that was eminently winnable—but that Washington did not choose or dare to win.

2024 is a critical year for proving Putin wrong and paving the way for Ukraine’s victory. According to calculations by the Estonian Defense Ministry, Western countries would need to invest just 0.25 percent of their GDP in military assistance to Ukraine in order to enable the country to continue defending itself in 2024 and prepare for a new counteroffensive in 2025. This investment would be crucial for changing Russia’s calculus regarding not just Ukraine but European security architecture at large. A long-term Western commitment would force the Kremlin to draw the conclusion that it cannot achieve its goals in Ukraine by waging war. It would also send the message that Europe is committed to its defense—and that Russia has no chance of gaining anything by attacking its neighbors.

Looking beyond 2024, Ukraine can win the war if the West steps up support and makes the cost of war unbearable for Russia. Moscow can win if the West fails to mobilize the necessary resources and, more importantly, will.

Should Russia win in Ukraine, there is a chance that this would finally be the effective shock to compel Europe and the United States to get serious about stopping Russian expansion. I’d rather avoid that test.

A Norwegian Home Guard instructor jumps above a Ukrainian soldier during a training exercise in Trondheim, Norway, on Aug. 25, 2023.

A Norwegian Home Guard instructor jumps above a Ukrainian soldier during a training exercise in Trondheim, Norway, on Aug. 25, 2023. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Time to Call Putin’s Bluff

By Anders Fogh Rasmussen, founder of the Alliance of Democracies and former secretary-general of NATO

After two years of war, a dangerous narrative has emerged in Western debates: The conflict is at a stalemate, and Ukraine is close to the limits of what it can achieve on the battlefield. This assessment is wrong—the means to deliver a Ukrainian victory remains firmly in the West’s hands. But leaders in Europe and the United States must show the political courage to make it happen.

A Ukrainian victory relies on two principles: first, ensuring that Ukraine has all it needs to defeat Russia on the battlefield; and second, a viable plan for a secure and prosperous Ukraine to emerge after the war.

Western leaders have been far too hesitant to supply Ukrainian forces with what they need to win. The long delay in providing tanks and armored vehicles allowed Russia to dig in and fortify its defenses, which made it far more difficult for Ukraine to recapture its territory. Similarly, the failure to prepare Western defense industries for a long war means that Russia—aided by impoverished North Korea and heavily sanctioned Iran—is now outproducing the combined might of the democratic world. This is unconscionable. The West must put its industries on a war footing to make clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that his strategy of outlasting the West will fail.

2024 must also be the year when Ukraine’s supporters set out a clear plan for the country’s future. This should be built on three pillars: long-term security guarantees, accession to the European Union, and NATO membership. On this, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked me last month to co-chair a new working group to develop proposals on Ukraine’s security and Euro-Atlantic integration.

On security guarantees, there has already been significant progress. Last summer in Vilnius, Lithuania, the G-7 agreed to work on a series of bilateral security arrangements with Ukraine. Today, more than 30 countries are in negotiations with the Ukrainian government; Britain finalized the first security agreement in January, followed by Germany and France last week.

The prospect of EU membership provides a framework for Ukraine to rebuild after the war and can provide additional security guarantees through the bloc’s mutual defense pact. But ultimately, NATO membership remains the only surefire way to guarantee Ukraine’s long-term security. On this, there is still too much hesitancy in Western capitals.

NATO leaders need to realize that if Ukraine is again left in the waiting room, it will only encourage further conflict and instability. As Sweden and Finland have recognized—and as Russia’s invasions of Ukraine since 2014 have made abundantly clear—gray zones are danger zones when it comes to Russia. At this year’s NATO summit in Washington, leaders should call Putin’s bluff and issue an invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance. Membership would not happen overnight, but it would send an unequivocal message to Putin that he cannot stop the process and that his war is futile. In that way, a membership invitation for Ukraine can help pave the path to peace.

A destroyed Russian tank sits in a snow-covered wheat field in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region on Feb. 22, 2023. ANATOLII STEPANOVAFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

A destroyed Russian tank sits in a snow-covered wheat field in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region on Feb. 22, 2023. ANATOLII STEPANOVAFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Sanctions Need Time to Work

By Agathe Demarais, columnist at Foreign Policy and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

What have we learned from two years of Western financial and economic sanctions on Russia? Three themes will define the path forward. First, Moscow is winning the information war on sanctions, as the prevailing narrative is that these measures are ineffective. Arguing otherwise is difficult: The Kremlin and its backers do a great job at intimidating anyone who dares to highlight sanctions successes. (A genuine question: If sanctions really are useless, why is the Kremlin so busy trying to discredit them?) That the Western public debate appears skewed toward sanctions failures does not help, either. Newspaper headlines typically focus on circumvention schemes that support Russia’s efforts to get hold of semiconductors. Smuggling certainly exists, but the reality is more nuanced than splashy headlines suggest. The big picture is that Russian imports of top-notch technology have sunk by around 40 percent compared with prewar levels—at a time when Russia’s high-tech needs have probably never been higher. This is not enough to stop Moscow’s war machine, and more needs to be done to beef up export controls. Yet a 40 percent drop remains a significant, albeit untold, sanctions success.

Second, the impact of sanctions on Russian businesses is becoming increasingly visible, especially in sectors that have been deprived of Western equipment and know-how, such as aerospace and energy. Faced with gradual wear and tear while lacking access to U.S. and European technology, Russian firms face growing maintenance headaches. S7, a Siberian airline, had to ground its Airbus jets and reduce head count in January for lack of access to engine parts. In the same month, Lukoil, a major Russian oil refiner, had to shut down a cracking unit after a Western-made compressor broke down. More such stories are likely to emerge in 2024, illustrating the important fact that sanctions are a marathon, not a sprint. Their cumulative impact will be high and highlight the fact that, grand claims of unlimited Sino-Russian friendship notwithstanding, Chinese gear cannot fully meet Russia’s high-tech needs. At least not at this stage.

Third, the Western debate on the future of Russia’s central bank reserves will remain heated, dominating discussions among like-minded allies. On the one hand, the United States and Britain are pushing for Western countries to seize Russia’s foreign exchange assets and transfer them to Ukraine. Their argument is a moral one: The aggressor must pay. On the other hand, several European Union countries—including Belgium, France, and Germany—oppose this plan, arguing that it would undermine trust in Western financial infrastructure and currencies. The European Central Bank (and, more intriguingly, the International Monetary Fund) has joined this cautious camp. With most of Russia’s immobilized assets held in Belgium, nothing can happen without getting EU states on board. Yet Brussels, Paris, and Berlin will likely not budge, especially as trans-Atlantic relations enter a wait-and-see mode ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November. As a result, a seizure of Russian reserves looks unlikely in 2024. Given the potential unintended consequences of such a move, this may not be bad news.

A Ukrainian service member carries a Leleka reconnaissance drone after it landed in the Donetsk region on June 27, 2023.

A Ukrainian service member carries a Leleka reconnaissance drone after it landed in the Donetsk region on June 27, 2023. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

How Ukraine Can Help Itself

By Franz-Stefan Gady, consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies

To reduce its reliance on Western weapons deliveries, Ukraine is increasingly focusing on producing more of its own. The results have been evident, for example, in the Black Sea—where sea drones developed and produced in Ukraine have decimated the Russian fleet—and deep inside Russia itself, where there has been a sharp rise in reported explosions at defense-related facilities and infrastructure, such as refineries and fuel depots. While Kyiv rarely comments on these attacks, they are widely believed to come from Ukrainian-made drones.

These Ukrainian successes are important, but turning the tide in the war will require a decisive advantage in firepower on the battlefield, principally artillery munition and strike drones. That, in turn, will require a significant increase in military production not just in Europe and the United States but also in Ukraine itself. The challenge for Kyiv is substantial: Prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion, Ukrainian defense companies specialized in making Soviet-era equipment and struggled to meet the Ukrainian military’s demands for advanced weaponry. That’s why Ukraine’s 2024 defense budget still allocates the majority of procurement funds—about $6.8 billion—to purchases of foreign equipment.

As Ukraine scrambles to retool and expand its arms industry under wartime conditions, it’s getting help from Western governments, defense companies, and private initiatives. Germany’s Rheinmetall, for example, aims to begin producing armored vehicles in Ukraine this year. Kyiv’s Alliance of Defense Industries has recruited more than 60 companies, including dozens of foreign firms, to facilitate investment in the Ukrainian defense sector and localize production. Baykar, the Turkish manufacturer of the Bayraktar drone, announced this month that it had started construction of a drone factory in Ukraine.

There is substantial Western interest in Ukraine’s defense sector—in particular, homegrown drone technology. But Russian attacks still deter many U.S. and European defense contractors from investing in the country, since one Russian missile or drone could wipe out a multimillion-dollar investment. The Ukrainians have been trying to get around this risk by spreading production to smaller, dispersed facilities that are harder for Russian intelligence to detect and collectively wipe out.

Ukraine is also turning into a laboratory for new ways to develop and manufacture weapons. Without much government direction, private sector and citizen-run initiatives have created a decentralized innovation ecosystem for collaboration on electronic warfare systems, cybersecurity, strike drones, naval drones, loitering munitions, battle management technology, and more. Kyiv has set up coordination platforms that have generated hundreds of project applications from these initiatives, in turn producing dozens of defense contracts. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has also reformed and expedited its certification process, with new weapons directly tested on the battlefield. The challenge is not how to innovate but how to scale up production, given skilled labor shortages, supply chain bottlenecks, corruption, and Russian attacks.

One possible way forward is to expand Ukraine’s military industrial base on NATO territory using joint ventures with Western companies underwritten by a dedicated investment fund. That would not only give Ukraine a steady supply of NATO-standard weapons immune to political whims in the West but also send a strong signal to Moscow that it may not have time—and Western fickleness—on its side after all.

Ukrainian soldiers look up at a starry sky during night training in the Donetsk region on Aug. 17, 2023.LIBKOS/AP

Ukrainian soldiers look up at a starry sky during night training in the Donetsk region on Aug. 17, 2023.LIBKOS/AP

Where Will the War Go From Here? It Depends.

By David Petraeus, chairman of the KKR Global Institute, former director of the CIA, and retired U.S. Army general

Any answer to a question about the future of Russia’s war in Ukraine has to begin with: It depends. Because the course of the war will, indeed, depend on a number of critical developments.

Foremost will be the level of assistance on which the U.S. Congress finally agrees. This is hugely significant, as Washington has supplied nearly as much military aid as all of Europe put together. What’s more, U.S. decisions on delivering certain types of weapons, such as Western tanks and aircraft, have often led the way for other countries.

Of equal importance—given that Europe has provided twice as much assistance to Ukraine as the United States when nonmilitary aid is included—will be the level of support from the European Union and its members, as well as other Western countries.

Also critical will be the U.S.-led effort to tighten sanctions and export controls on Russia—and cut off schemes to evade them. Despite considerable success so far, evasion schemes continue to evolve, and continued focus will be needed.

Within security assistance, several items will be particularly important. In the near term, these include systems that enable Ukraine to identify, track, and destroy incoming drones, rockets, missiles, and aircraft. Ukraine’s critical needs also include longer-range precision missiles, Western aircraft, artillery ammunition, and additional cluster munitions, which have proved particularly important in fending off Russian attacks.

Needless to say, the course of the war will also depend heavily on Ukrainian and Russian resolve—and their respective ability to recruit, train, equip, and employ additional forces and capabilities. As much as Russian President Vladimir Putin appears in control, one should not assume that the Russian people will continue to go along with his war as enormous casualties mount and quality of life erodes.

Much depends, as well, on each side’s ability to refine new unmanned capabilities, such as the impressive sea drones deployed by Ukraine to force Russia to withdraw most of the surviving Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol, Crimea, where it was based for more than two centuries. In fact, Ukraine’s campaign in the western Black Sea—using sea drones and missiles—has largely pushed Russian warships out and enabled Ukraine to restart large-scale grain exports that are critically important to Egypt and other countries.

Of enormous impact, as well, would be providing Ukraine with the nearly $300 billion in Russian reserves currently frozen in Western countries. This long-overdue initiative would also send a very important message to the Kremlin about Ukraine’s ability to repair the damage Russia has done and to build out its own military-industrial complex.

Finally, the course of the war will depend on each side’s ability to learn and adapt as the battlefield evolves; to develop, produce, and employ new weapons systems and other technologies; and to improve the capabilities of leaders, staffs, individual soldiers, and units.

This year promises to be another very difficult one for both countries’ military forces on the ground as well as their homefronts. Two years on, there does not appear to be a conceivable end to the war in sight.

Ukrainian soldiers ride an armored vehicle at the front line near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Aug. 13, 2023. LIBKOS/AP

Ukrainian soldiers ride an armored vehicle at the front line near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Aug. 13, 2023. LIBKOS/AP

Western Divides Will Decide What’s Next

By C. Raja Mohan, columnist at Foreign Policy and visiting professor at the National University of Singapore

The lack of decisive military gains for Ukraine in 2023 has produced deep divisions within the West. These divisions might be unexpected, but they are not surprising. All major wars have a powerful effect on the domestic politics of the countries involved; military setbacks can often sharpen internal political crises. The unity in Europe and the West triggered by Russia’s invasion in February 2022 has now yielded to serious differences on the major issues relating to the pursuit of war and the terms of peace. These divisions are acute within the U.S. political class, between the United States and its European allies, between Western and Eastern Europe, and within Central Europe. Ukraine, which has paid an enormous price in defending itself against the Russian invasion, has also not been immune to differences on the conduct of war. All these open divisions stand in contrast to the apparent unity in Russia, which has seen President Vladimir Putin consolidate his position after the Wagner mercenary army’s astonishing mutiny and march on Moscow last June.

2024 will test the capacity of all sides to preserve internal coherence amid the war’s rapidly rising costs. While its authoritarian system might help Russia suppress its own domestic divisions, it is hard to believe that the massive economic and human costs of Putin’s war of choice will have no political impact. For now, though, the question is whether the West can prevent the multiple fault lines in Ukraine policy from becoming a split. On the face of it, the West’s massive economic superiority over Russia should readily allow Ukraine to prevail in a prolonged war with Moscow. The West has been slow in responding to this imperative, and 2024 can tell us if the West can devise a strategy for assisting and supplying Kyiv to hold the current line of contact with Russian forces in the short term and prevail over Putin in a war that will likely last longer than many expected when it began.

For Europe, the war in Ukraine offers two different paths. One is the continent’s rapid strategic diminution in relation to the United States and Asia as a result of Europe’s continuing reluctance to defend itself. The other is a path of geopolitical rejuvenation by strengthening its defense capabilities, developing a more strategic view of its role in the world, and thereby retaining a say in how the long-term balance of power in Eurasia is shaped. If Europe is ready to seriously address the security front, it will be easier to keep the Americans in and persuade a future Russian regime to discard its territorial expansionism in favor of security guarantees and a regional order in which Moscow can play a legitimate role. Alternatively, the Europeans should expect a future U.S. president to define the prospects for their continent in a direct negotiation with Moscow—and, for that matter, Beijing.

Source: Foreign Policy