What was supposed to be a quick conflict is now marking its second anniversary. But the war in Ukraine is anything but a stalemate. Davide Genini analyses why the Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed, and predicts that 2024 will be a decisive year
The war in Ukraine has lasted longer than expected, and its future is far from certain. Putin was swiftly disabused of his assumption that Kyiv would fall within days, and Russia's brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has now become a war of attrition that marks its second anniversary in February 2024. European and North American public opinion is almost unanimous in viewing this conflict as having reached a stalemate.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive failed in 2023, but this has not undermined the chances of NATO countries and partners changing the course of the conflict in 2024. But the West must respond to Ukraine's priorities and take key decisions now, in relation to three lines of action.
The European Union and United States must avoid political uncertainty. To date, the EU bloc and the US have pledged more than €70 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the outbreak of the war.
Recent political developments, however, have called into question the sustainability of military aid to Ukraine. Hungary is blocking the eighth tranche of EU military aid to Ukraine from June 2023. Meanwhile, the US Republican Party has withheld any future US commitment to Ukraine until sufficient funds are spent on resolving the migration crisis at home. In 2024, Ukraine risks remaining isolated unless its two largest donors improve the predictability of their military support. This would enable Ukraine to defend itself effectively, and would restore state-to-state relations based on international law.
The US has committed future administrations inescapably to NATO. EU leaders recently voted to open accession negotiations with Kyiv. Both developments are important steps towards ensuring predictable and long-term military support for Ukraine.
At the same time, these steps represent a missed opportunity to adopt more ambitious plans. EU foreign ministers failed to reach agreement on €20 billion earmarked for Ukraine under the European Peace Facility. US funding ran out at the end of the year after a $250 million pledge:
We will obviously continue to support [Ukraine], but it is imperative that we have the funds needed to ensure that they get the most urgent battlefield capabilities that they require...Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Major General Pat Ryder, december 2023
And after meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the White House, President Biden called upon US lawmakers to authorise additional funding:
Ukraine will emerge from this war proud, free and firmly rooted in the West unless we walk awayUS President Joe biden, december 2023
In 2023, Ukrainian armed forces were dangerously under-trained. The EU, US and NATO countries provided training for Ukrainian soldiers, but underestimated the time needed to learn to handle technologically complex weapons. During the Second World War, UK infantry underwent a 22-week training programme. Today, the UK's Interflex programme aims to train Ukrainian troops in just five weeks.
As a result, today's Ukrainian army is an understaffed brigade command unable to ensure continuity of military action. Indeed, it is forced to make stop-and-plan operations every time Ukraine regains territory.
The lack of preparation is still affecting Ukrainian preparations. 'We would have had a lot of time to study the jet completely in peacetime,' said a Ukrainian military pilot, 'but we do not have the time'. In peacetime circumstances, it takes several years to train an F-16 fighter pilot. A Ukrainian pilot today has only six months.
All this makes Ukraine's counteroffensives unstable and exhausting. There will need to be a focus, this year, on time reorganisation to ensure that the Ukrainian army is fully prepared and trained for a war that will last for several more years.
Since February 2022, the EU and the US have provided unprecedented military support to Ukraine. However, it is worth noting that Ukraine's priorities are changing, following the pace of the war. Ukraine has liberated about 50% of what Russia occupied since February 2022. This is due in the main to Russia's lack of preparation, and Ukraine's courage and ability to use its strategic superiority in defence.
But in 2023, Ukraine's strategy shifted from defensive to offensive. Ukraine's supporters delivered increasingly complex weaponry to retake occupied territory. Russia, meanwhile, moved to compact its troops, making any Ukrainian counteroffensive plan more fragile.
The EU made a specific commitment to supply up to one million rounds of ammunition to Ukraine by 2024. So far, however, only 300,000 rounds from existing EU member state stocks have been deployed. The reason for this failure is that Europe's defence industrial base is underprepared and unable to meet Ukraine's priorities. As the German Minister of Defence pointed out:
There is a question of whether one million was ever realistic. One million is easy to decide and the money is there, but the production has to be thereboris pistorius, german minister of defence, 14 november 2023
As a result, the Ukrainians are likely to face equipment shortages as the year progresses. In fact, Ukraine has used up to 7,000 rounds on the heaviest days and an average of 45,000 rounds per week. This means that the entire current European capacity would be used up in just two months.
A serious, predictable path of military assistance to Ukraine is essential for Ukraine's right to self-defence. This assistance is also strategic for the West to avoid a permanent security threat on Europe's borders. Sustained support for Ukraine could be a turning point in what has become a static and open-ended war.
Moreover, a message of political support from the West would give Ukraine more credibility in the eyes of its people. It would encourage Russia to come to the negotiating table and discuss a just and lasting peace in Europe. The onus is on the EU, the US and NATO to achieve this in 2024.