Kyiv’s forces are likely to remain on the defensive for much of next year, writes Keir Giles. That is unless the West finally gets fully behind the idea that Putin’s war aims will only change if his hand is forced
The year draws to a close with yet another bitter reminder of how the international community could have done more to assist Ukraine against Russia, but chose not to. Threats to shipping in the Red Sea have triggered a strong and immediate international military response to protect commerce there – a galling sight for supporters of Ukraine after the international community’s refusal to do the same in the Black Sea to relieve Russia’s stranglehold on Ukrainian grain exports.
International resolve is what has set the conditions for Ukraine’s continued struggle for survival in 2024. There won’t be the same hopes for a major Ukrainian breakthrough as there were in early 2023. Reporting in the US describes recriminations between Kyiv and Washington over the plan for Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive. But there is no disagreement that Ukraine was called upon to conduct a campaign without air superiority in a way no Western military would have contemplated. And now, not only aircraft but supplies of other essential war materials are under threat because of domestic politics in the US and Hungary.
The announcement by the Netherlands that it will provide 18 F-16 fighters is welcome, but the timeframe is still to be laid out completely. But Kyiv will be concerned that it is heading into the New Year without the confirmation of tens of billions of pounds of fresh financial support from both the US and EU.
The White House had already concluded that confronting Russia was not in the US national interest, but now Washington’s ongoing political nervous breakdowns raise the prospect of support ceasing altogether. A possible second Donald Trump presidency was the expected point of crisis for aid to Ukraine – and for the future of Nato this coming year. But a combination of hesitancy and self-deterrence by Joe Biden’s administration and Republican opposition to ongoing funding means the crisis for Europe is already here.
Europe itself may begin at long last to face up to the prospect of holding back Russia without the US support it has historically relied on. Nevertheless the fact the EU will have to wait until January to confirm its own £43bn in funding thanks to the stalling of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, an ally of Vladimir Putin, means that Kyiv is having to plan for the worst. Military operations have already been adapted to being even more starved of munitions. But this situation was entirely predictable. The mathematics of the war dictated that there was a limited opportunity to bring it to a swift conclusion: and Kyiv’s Western backers chose not to take it.
That means that Ukraine is likely to remain on the defensive for much of 2024, and indeed construction of fortifications along Russia’s main potential lines of advance has already begun. Russia, meanwhile, can either wait for a Trump presidency to tilt the balance of power further in the Kremlin’s favour along with a new conscript army, or go all-in with a new offensive to push for new territorial gains ahead of Vladimir Putin’s own re-election in March 2024.
Not all the news for Kyiv is bad. It’s true that a long war favours Russia, with its deeper reserves of manpower, political patience, and tolerance for self-inflicted misery. But that doesn’t mean Russia’s forces in Ukraine are invincible. The staggering rate of Russian losses there will force harder and harder choices as Moscow looks to dredge the country for new manpower to send into the meat grinder. And rushing substandard North Korean artillery shells directly to the front suggests that Russia isn’t yet capable of meeting its ammunition needs from domestic stocks or production.
Meanwhile, a focus on the immobile front line obscures major Ukrainian successes in the war. One of these is regaining freedom of movement in the Black Sea independently after overt Western support was not forthcoming. Home-built defence technologies including maritime attack drones, part of Kyiv’s ambition to gain advantage through innovation, have been an important enabler. The UK aims to build on that success by helping Ukraine toward sustainable maritime defence in the long term.
It has always been the case that more support for Ukraine, earlier, will be the cheaper option for the West in the long run than allowing the war to drag on and the Russian threat to remain unchecked. And a plan put forward by Estonia – one of Ukraine’s most committed backers – shows how, given sufficient political will, the tide of the war could be turned. The plan lays out the maths, and calculates the cost of denying Russia success at approximately €120bn – just a fraction of the amounts spent by Europe on other strategic challenges, such as recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Others are already stepping up. Japan recognises the implications for global security of defeat for Ukraine, and has now augmented its existing financial and humanitarian support with a plan to backfill US stocks of Patriot missiles in order to release supplies for Kyiv.But none of these solutions will fully compensate for the potential loss of US support, with or without the possible re-election of Trump
A focus on campaigning for single high-profile weapons systems for Ukraine, such as main battle tanks or fighter aircraft, has obscured the continuing flows of less glamorous ammunition and equipment. The paradox is that the US has been by far the greatest provider of military support to Ukraine, but also the target of the greatest criticism for its reluctance to offer critical capabilities, and for the limitations Washington places on their use.
Support for Kyiv from the EU will remain hostage to members like Hungary. For all the symbolic value of an EU promise of future accession, it’s of much less immediate help than the aid that Hungary under Orban has so far successfully blocked. There is little point in the EU holding out the prospect of membership for Ukraine if Ukraine does not survive to achieve it.
Nevertheless it’s more widely recognised than ever that if Russia remains undeterred, the implications for European and global security are desperate. More western capitals must come to realise that they are in a war that must be won, not a crisis that can be managed. But a failure to seize the opportunity to rearm across the continent has left many European land forces still poorly prepared to face the Russian threat. In addition to the direct Russian threat to Nato, the world would also have to reckon with the cascade effects of Russian success encouraging other aggressors globally.
But supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes” is a public declaration that there is no initiative, no plan, and no strategy. The US fear of the consequences of confronting Russia hands Vladimir Putin a “get out of jail free” card, and Russia can continue to wage its war without fear of suffering the direct consequences that would befall any country behaving similarly without the security blanket of nuclear weapons.
As ever, the resilience and fortitude of the Ukrainian people is the essential component for continued resistance. But for all that Ukrainians recognise that their struggle is for nothing less than their continued existence, the final outcome of the war is unlikely to be decided in Ukraine.
Ukraine is highly unlikely to capitulate, even if international support slips still further. Ukrainians know the dire consequences of surrendering to Russian domination, and they know that the chances of Russia honouring any ceasefire agreement are negligible: so fighting on is the only rational choice. But decisions made earlier by Kyiv’s Western backers – and the interminable delays in making them – ruled out success for Ukraine in 2023, and have almost certainly done so for 2024 as well.
And, crucially, Putin’s war aims will not change – unless they are changed for him. The fighting in Ukraine may one day come to an end. But that won’t end Russia’s broader war against the West. Now, as ever, it is only defeat of Russia’s ambitions that will bring peace for Europe. But Europe needs to make the decision to defend itself. The coming year will show whether it is willing and able to do so.