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Europe must wipe the smile off Putin’s face

Amanda Paul

Date: 14/03/2024
Ukrainians are paying the price of Western weakness. The precarious situation on the battlefield is a direct result of the West's failure to arm Ukraine adequately in 2023. With US support for Ukraine hanging in the balance, Europe must “man up” and take the necessary steps to guarantee Ukraine’s ability to defend itself from Russia. European Security depends on Ukraine’s security.

With Russia’s war in Ukraine now in its third year, Vladimir Putin’s resolve to eliminate the Ukrainian state and identity has only hardened, despite Russia making only incremental territorial gains, at a huge loss of life. Putin’s confidence emanates from the cowardice of many of Ukraine’s allies to give Kyiv the necessary tools to drive Russia from its territories. This has emboldened Putin, leaving Ukraine vulnerable, and hampered by a serious shortage of ammunition, and other vital weapons to fend off Russia effectively.

With US aid still blocked in the House of Representatives, what the EU and other allies do in the coming weeks and months is crucial.  While there are some promising signs that Europe is finally getting its act together and stepping up, transforming promises into meaningful, long-term, strategic actions will determine Ukraine’s future and the security of the entire European continent. It is past time for Europe to demonstrate political bravery and wipe the smug look off Putin’s face.

Too little too late

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainians have repeatedly exceeded expectations. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about many of their European allies whose dithering, indecisiveness and, in some cases, plain spinelessness have undermined Ukraine’s war effort and cost lives.

Weapons deliveries were slow to start and insufficient – only enough to keep Kyiv in the fight rather than achieve an outright victory. This wasted precious time, delaying Ukraine’s Spring counter-offensive, making it harder for Kyiv to capitalise on Russian weaknesses quickly. This allowed the Kremlin to build robust defence lines.

Major delays in the European production of 155 mm artillery shells have left Ukrainian troops rationing artillery munition, with Russia having a reported 10:1 advantage. Ukraine’s limited air defence systems are also under huge pressure due to the dwindling supply of missiles. Moscow is taking advantage of this to make gains in key locations. Without adequate ammunition and missiles, Ukraine cannot effectively defend its population let alone hold the line at the front indefinitely. As French President Emmanuel Macron stated, in the current conditions, a Russian advance towards Odesa or Kyiv is possible. Ironically, Macron has been one of the leaders who was guilty of holding back key weapons, for fear of escalating with the Kremlin.

Still, some EU member states have consistently called for a more robust approach. Since the start of Russia’s invasion, the Baltics, Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic, among others have clearly understood how high the stakes are for Europe and have gone above and beyond for Ukraine. Estonia, for example, has given Ukraine numerous military packages, including all its 155mm howitzers.

Other countries, including France and Germany, have taken a more cautious approach. Germany has repeatedly refused to supply long-range Taurus missiles. Furthermore, too much time is spent discussing and bargaining. While the EU recently agreed to a €5bn top-up to the European Peace Facility (EPF) to buy more weapons for Kyiv, the prolonged negotiations and disagreements, wasted precious time. All together this has reinforced Putin's belief he can win.

Feeding off Western weakness

Since the failure of his initial Blitzkrieg attack in February 2022, Putin’s strategy has been to outlast the West while gradually overwhelming Ukraine. Framing the battlefield as a new great patriot war, Putin has thrown everything into this fight. He has industrialised warfare and prioritised bolstering the defence industry. Russia's defence spending for 2024 is $157 billion, a whopping 7.5 per cent of GDP. Factories produce ammunition, vehicles, and equipment around the clock.

Russia has ramped up its air campaign to overwhelm Ukraine’s limited air defence capabilities. While Kyiv continues to have relatively strong air defence coverage, other major cities such as Kharkiv, Odesa, and Zaporizhzhia are far less protected and regularly experience deadly missile and drone attacks. A recent attack in Odesa was a mere 500 metres away from the visiting Greek Prime Minister and President Zelenskiy.

What Putin can no longer produce domestically due to sanctions he receives from his ‘friends’ in North Korea and Iran, including ballistic missiles. In his recent address to the nation, he confidently stated that Russia had seized the military initiative and is on the offensive, advancing in several operational theatres and liberating more territories. Predictably, he also reiterated his readiness to go nuclear if provoked.

Ukraine’s allies  underestimated Russia’s ability to sustain a long-term war and are now scrambling to catch-up. However, at least they now seem to have woken up to the new reality on the battlefield.

Time for the EU to do the heavy lifting

While the Biden administration recently announced another military aid package for Ukraine worth up to $300 million, the $60bn aid package still blocked in the House. Furthermore, with the results of the forthcoming US elections unclear, Ukraine faces the real possibility of losing what has been its most important lifeline. This increases the urgent need for the EU to fully wake up and step up.

Thankfully, there have been signs of this in recent weeks, along with several crucial developments. European allies are now working together to gather the necessary financing and industrial resources to supply Kyiv with the needed artillery ammunition.

Around the second anniversary of the invasion, the EU managed to pass its €50bn aid package. Several bilateral security assurance deals between Ukraine and individual countries, including the UK, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Denmark, have been signed, while Czech President Petr Pavel confirmed that a coalition of Ukraine's allies has provided the funds necessary to deliver 800,000 artillery shells to Ukraine in the coming weeks. This should allow Ukraine to hold the line. However, Ukraine will require at least artillery parity with Russia if it is to start to plan a new counter-offensive.

Still, Ukraine cannot liberate territory without more artillery and the kind of air power and long-range precision weapons that Kyiv’s international partners have so far failed to provide. This includes additional key air defence weapons such as laser-guided, and Hawk systems, along with the long-range missiles that Ukraine has repeatedly asked for including ATACMS and Taurus Missiles.  Strengthening Kyiv’s ability to produce its weapons is also crucial. Now that pilot training is nearly completed, getting F-16 fighter jets airborne by early summer must also be a priority.

More air defence systems are also vital. Not only would it help Ukraine shield more cities – including Odesa, a major target for Russia, but it would also help defend the skies above the battlefield, potentially enabling Ukrainian troops to break through Russian defence lines.

The EU getting its own house in order is also crucial to allow it not only to be more responsible for its security but also to support Ukraine better. The first-ever European Defence Industrial Strategy recently drafted by the European Commission is an important step. It sets a clear, long-term vision to achieve defence industrial readiness and includes an Office for Defence Innovation opening in Kyiv. 

At the forthcoming 21-22 March European Council EU leaders should quickly agree on more support for Ukraine, including further concrete commitments of weapons.  Only with such steps will Macron’s statement that “we have no red lines” tell the Kremlin that Europe is not afraid.

Long-term resolve

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the West has always chosen appeasement over effectively confronting Russia. This was a major error and largely responsible for this war.  Crucial months lie ahead.

Ukraine has already shown it can beat Russia on the battlefield and in the Black Sea where Kyiv has outplayed the Kremlin, pushing Russia back from large parts of the sea.  Ukraine also continues to strike key targets in Russia.  It will continue to leverage innovative and novel uses of technologies, including drones, maritime autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence.  However, Ukraine needs Europe to believe in Ukraine’s ability to win as much as Ukrainians do. They need bold decisions, and quick and decisive actions that show the Europeans have fully understood that this war is not only Ukraine’s war, but also a European war.   

What Europeans do next will have one of two outcomes. Either Ukraine will receive the necessary tools to build up and reinforce its troops to restore and ramp up its offensive operations, allowing them to rapidly degrade Russian forces to a level that allows Kyiv can start future negotiations from a position of strength, or it will fail to do what is necessary with dire consequences for Ukraine’s and European security.

The EU has sufficient economic, industrial, and military resources to outdo Russia. EU leaders must demonstrate real resolve, political will and stamina to win, and show as much courage as Ukrainians. This is a now or never moment for Europe, and it should not be scuppered.

Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

This commentary is part of the Ukraine's European Future project.

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