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Russia’s defeat in Ukraine must be the top transatlantic priority

Amanda Paul , Svitlana Taran

Date: 21/02/2023
With the Kremlin counting on Western unity fragmenting, Ukraine’s allies must hold their nerve, remain united and double down on assisting Ukraine in defeating Russia.

Russia’s ruthless war in Ukraine is entering its second year. What Moscow expected to be a quick ‘special military operation’ to depose Ukraine’s leadership and destroy the country’s independence did not happen. Russia underestimated Ukraine’s resilience, ability to adapt, and ingenuity, along with transatlantic unity and weapons. This allowed Ukraine to put up a strong defence and achieve crucial battlefield victories. Still, with a new Russian offensive already underway, the Kremlin is far from finished.

Continued Western unity and support for Ukraine are vital. While Kyiv has received over $50 billion in economic, military, and humanitarian assistance from its allies since the start of the war, much more is needed. This must include both a long-term plan to arm Ukraine for a prolonged war of attrition and long-term financial assistance. 

Grinding trench warfare

Despite a year of failure, a depleted army, and reports that Russia is losing hundreds of men daily, President Putin remains resolute. With his legacy on the line, he is counting on a new spring offensive to regain the initiative. The strategy is a long, grinding war (primarily in Eastern Ukraine), which the Kremlin believes will erode Kyiv’s resources quicker than Russia’s own.  

Russia has mobilised up to 500,000 conscripts, with many already deployed to shore up Russian positions and make new advances. Unlike Ukraine’s forces, they are not highly skilled or particularly motivated, but their sheer number is a challenge. They are reinforced by paramilitary groups, particularly the Wagner Group, which are increasingly engaged in key battles.

As of now, Ukraine is successfully holding its lines, denying Russia access to crucial logistics hubs, such as Vuhledar. Still, Russia may also use fighter jets to support a land offensive and roll out a new mobilisation campaign. Despite the international sanctions, Russia’s defence industry continues to function. While sanctions prevent Russia from producing advanced weapons systems, the country can still produce lower-quality, conventional ones. Additionally, given the perpetual shelling of Ukraine, the Kremlin seems to have a good supply of ammunition in addition to its never-ending supply of Iranian Shahid drones, as part of its expanding alliance with Tehran.

Large-scale attacks on civilians and critical and residential infrastructure also continue across the country. With reduced access to electricity, heating, and other essential services in freezing temperatures, life has become extremely difficult in many parts of Ukraine. Yet, morale remains high. Despite Russia’s brutal war crimes and crimes of aggression, it has failed to bring Ukrainians to their knees. If anything, the Ukrainian people are more determined than ever. Ukraine’s Western partners need to display the same backbone in their support for Ukraine.

End the ‘boiling frog strategy’

The Western military assistance that Ukraine has so far received has made a tangible difference on the battlefield. Yet, while it has helped Ukraine defend itself, liberate some territories, and fight with increasingly sophisticated weapons, it remains insufficient for a decisive victory.

Ukraine urgently needs more military aid. While new weapons have been pledged and the taboo of delivering heavy ground combat capabilities has been overcome - thanks to significant cajoling from the Baltic states and Poland – military aid still comes too late and in too few numbers. Delivery times to Ukraine continue to be weeks (in some cases months). The Kremlin has taken advantage of these delays on the battlefield by pummelling Ukrainian positions with artillery barrages. Thus, Ukraine may only be able to focus on defensive actions this spring. New Ukrainian counter-offensives will probably kick off only in early summer once new heavy weapons have arrived and Ukrainian troops have been trained. 

Meanwhile, developments on the ground continue to drive Western decision-making. Concerns about the US and its partners being dragged into a direct conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia linger and continue to impact decision-making. There are fears that, if Putin feels the full force of Western capabilities at once, he may react unpredictably. If the heat is turned up slowly - commonly known as the ‘boiling frog strategy’ - by staggering key weapon deliveries and limiting their use, Putin will accept each additional increase. The lengthy discussion over Leopard II tanks is an example of this strategy. This approach only prolongs the war, costing Ukrainian lives, signalling to Moscow that nuclear blackmail could bring concessions from the West. This risks an escalation of the war, further threatening Ukrainian sovereignty and European security.

The most effective way to end this war is to provide Ukraine with fighter jets, long-range systems like the ATMS, which can threaten Russian supply chains, and different kinds of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).  

To keep up with Ukraine’s needs, the European and US defence industries must speed up production, including in ammunition, as Ukraine is burning through it faster than the US and NATO can produce. Ideally, this should be coordinated in line with Ukraine’s needs, as the current policy of supplying Ukraine with whatever allies have available is not effective.

Keeping the country afloat

In addition to military support, long-term economic assistance is vital. Ukraine’s economy will remain highly dependent on international assistance to finance its growing budget deficit, maintain macroeconomic stability, and pay pensions and salaries. In 2022, Ukraine received over $32 billion in international assistance (of which about 45% was in the form of grants), enabling it to finance more than half of its budget deficit and increase international reserves. In 2023, Kyiv expects international partners to secure predictable and systematic external financing of the projected $38-billion budget deficit. The EU has already pledged an €18 billion macro-financial assistance package as a concessional loan, and Washington has pledged $13 billion in direct budget support as a grant while negotiations with the IMF and other donors continue.

Further escalation and prolongation of the war will further impair the economy, requiring more international financial assistance. The priority should be non-repayable financial support to avoid a significant increase in Ukraine’s sovereign debt burden and ensure Ukraine’s long-term financial sustainability. In addition, international partners may start putting more conditions on financial and recovery assistance (e.g. enhanced transparency and accountability and the implementation of structural reforms).

International partners should also further support Ukraine by restoring its export capacity and mobilising export revenues to help Ukraine sustain its wartime economy. Further trade liberalisation and trade facilitation with key trading partners are also essential, firstly with the EU, which accounted for 63% of Ukraine’s exports of goods in 2022. The EU is expected to approve the further suspension of all tariffs, tariff quotas, and trade defence measures on imports from Ukraine and the further liberalisation of road transportation with Ukraine until at least the end of the war. Increasing the capacity of the EU-Ukraine solidarity lanes and modernising Ukraine’s transport and border infrastructure should be prioritised as well as investing in its post-war recovery and furthering integration with the EU internal market.

Ensuring the proper implementation and extension of the Türkiye -UN- negotiated Black Sea Grain Initiative, which ends in mid-March, are also priorities. While the Initiative has allowed Ukraine to resume its exports of grain and foodstuffs, Russia has sabotaged it since October 2022 by carrying out excessively long ships’ inspections in the Bosporus Strait, slowing down grain deliveries and leading to a reduction in exports. 

Maintaining unity 

Maintaining transatlantic unity throughout 2023 and beyond is vital. For the EU, this has not always been easy, but it has been achieved, something that many believed impossible 12-months ago, including Putin. Confronted with a new geopolitical reality and recognising that Europe’s future will be decided in Ukraine, the EU has begun and must continue to learn the language of power. Efforts by Russia to erode this have had little success so far. US President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv on 20 February and the convening of the EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv on 3 February is evidence of this. Furthermore, despite the skyrocketing living and energy costs and other global challenges caused by the war, public support for Ukraine remains very high.

However, this should not be taken for granted. Disinformation is a cornerstone of Russian efforts to wield influence worldwide, undermine Western support for Ukraine, and shore up support back home. It must continue to be robustly and innovatively countered.

The Kremlin will double its efforts ahead of key elections in Europe (national and European Parliament) and in the run up to the US Presidential elections, as well as in places where Moscow already has support. Russian narratives dominate the information space in Africa, South America, and other parts of the world. Foreign Minister Lavrov’s recent tour of Africa demonstrated how Moscow has captured the continent, and this support is effectively used in the UN General Assemblies and elsewhere.

If you’re going through hell, keep going” – Winston Churchill

The courage and tenacity that Ukrainians have shown are humbling. While living through hell, they understand that the only way to save themselves and their nation is to keep going. As the Kremlin continues to use all weapons available – conventional and hybrid alike – to pursue its broad revisionist agenda, Ukraine’s partners must not hesitate in their support for Ukraine. Liberty should not be taken for granted. Europe will never be safe unless Russia is decisively defeated. As Ukrainians now view military victory over Russia as an entirely realistic outcome, its Western allies must start to believe the same.

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

Svitlana Taran is a Ukrainian Research Fellow 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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