Opinion: Ukraine’s Prospects in 2024
Nearly a year ago, I wrote a column in The Cipher Brief arguing that Ukraine had just six months to win the war. Looking back at the arguments months later, I was right on three points but wrong on one.
The United States and Europe have indeed begun to lose patience with a war that is costing billions and is interfering with domestic elections. The chances of a successful counter-offensive were overrated, and Ukraine did indeed fail to win back substantial amounts of territory. And thirdly, I stressed that a negotiated deal would be disastrous for Ukraine.
Where I was wrong was in thinking that a negotiated deal (however disadvantageous) would be available for Ukraine when it finally decided that it could no longer win. In fact, President Putin gave the strong impression in his press conference on 15th December that he wants to carry on and achieve his original goals.
Having weathered a torrid year, which included the Wagner mutiny and being forced to relocate the Black Sea Fleet from Crimea, Putin now sees an opportunity to make real territorial gains. He also knows that the West’s capacity and willingness to sustain a long campaign is limited. Furthermore, the diversion of Western political attention (and some American military hardware) towards Israel and Gaza was an unexpected windfall for him.
Ukraine is not ready for talks either. The summer of 2023 was not as disastrous as Western pundits are claiming. Fortunately, Kyiv discovered very early that the Leopard tanks were not ‘game changers’ and by losing several Leopards in one day in mid-June, Ukraine did not expend too many precious lives on repeated attempts to break through Russia’s layered defences in a utopian thrust to the Sea of Azov. Instead, they launched a successful missile campaign against the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea and a number of drone and missile attacks against Russian air force bases, destroying transport aircraft and long-range bombers.
However, as President Zelensky’s Commander-in-Chief correctly observed, there is now a deadlock along the whole eastern front.
The prospects for 2024 are already becoming clear. For Ukraine, the war will return to being primarily defensive. This is a good thing. It is much easier to defend than to attack, and Russia will lose thousands of troops in trying to gain ground. But it is a 600km defensive line and Ukraine needs to install similar obstacles to those used so successfully by the Russians last winter.
However, United States support will become increasingly problematic. It is possible, even likely, that President Biden will finally unblock a $60 billion package of military assistance but that may well be the final one of that size, even if Biden were to win the Presidential election in November. If Trump were to win, there may be no further aid to Ukraine at all.
This poses some major questions for Europe. So far, Europe has treated this war as a discretionary conflict rather than an existential one. The genuine prospect of a Russian dominated bloc which could threaten Poland, Georgia, Moldova and above all, the Baltic States, should be enough to shake Europe out of its complacency.
First, Europe needs to work out whether it could continue to support Ukraine militarily if U.S. assistance were to end. If so, it needs to start three-shift working in its ammunition factories, starting soon. For example, Thales in Belfast, which manufactures the highly successful Swedish NLAW anti-tank missile, should be working a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 155mm artillery shells need to be churned out in bulk across all of Europe.
This level of effort would require emergency budgets and would inevitably impact domestic spending on hitherto untouchable social programmes. Europe needs to work out now whether it can replicate the U.S. logistics chain which has been so effective in getting munitions to eastern Ukraine.
Second, Europe needs to get serious about three issues which have been discussed ad infinitum. Is it going to seize the £300 billion of Russian assets in the West or not? Is it going to close the gaping loopholes on purchasing Russian energy products on the secondary market? And is it not time to suspend all Russian visas to Europe?
Thirdly, Ukraine’s EU membership needs to be fast-tracked. Even after the welcome recent news about accession talks, French President Emmanuel Macron spoiled the effect by suggesting it would take a decade. Clearly, Ukraine cannot join NATO while the fighting is still ongoing but the promise must be there of membership immediately after the war is over.
Both these issues raise the question of what to do about the blockers. The objections of Prime Minister Orban of Hungary to EU membership and President Erdogan of Turkey to NATO accession need to be addressed soon.
2024 must be the year when the Ukraine war stops being viewed in Europe as a nearer version of Iraq and Afghanistan where we can get bored and walk away. Ukraine can almost certainly survive throughout 2024, but 2025 will be another matter. If Trump were to make a deal with Putin similar to the deal he made with the Taliban, is Europe ready to continue supporting Ukraine? At present, that is unthinkable given the state of Europe’s military spending and capabilities. However, the alternative is to have Russia on Europe’s doorstep with the proverbial “snow on their boots”, just one incident away from a major war in Europe.