2024: The West must decide if it wants Ukraine to win

(To Renato Caputo)

Where is the Russian invasion of Ukraine headed in 2024? Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny's recent assessment of his army's stalled counteroffensive has generated widespread attention and some disillusionment. Experts from across the political and security spectrum are searching for answers, but the reasons for such disappointing results are not difficult to discern. Ukraine cannot win the war without the kind of air power and long-range fires that the country's international partners have so far failed to provide.

Before evaluating what went wrong in 2023, it is important to note that Ukrainian forces have achieved significant results. By all accounts, Russian losses are in the order of over 300 thousand units. Large-scale Russian attacks in eastern Ukraine have been consistently repelled. Russia's Black Sea Fleet was nearly driven out of Sevastopol despite Ukraine's lack of airpower and a surface navy, while painful drone attacks deep inside Russia brought the war home to Russian citizens. Ukrainian air defenses, against all odds, suffocated the Russian air force. Overall, Ukraine has achieved much more than most observers expected when the conflict broke out.

Western aid has played an important role in keeping Ukraine in the fight, but context matters when evaluating this impact. The United States has allocated over $100 billion to Ukraine since the war began. Importantly, however, conscious political decisions have denied Ukraine some key capabilities essential for success on the battlefield. Despite urgent calls, Ukraine has been forced to counter air dominance with drones and older air defense systems, denying its ground forces air interdiction and close air support vital in high-intensity conflicts. Outnumbered ten to one in fighter aircraft, the Ukrainian Air Force can contribute little on the battlefield, although a limited transfer of older Polish and Slovak fighter planes has helped offset combat losses.

Long-range systems such as the Tracked Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and Wheeled High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) were provided, along with long-range and extremely precise, but in relatively long times and small quantities. Despite an inventory of hundreds of M1-series main battle tanks held in storage, the United States delivered only 31 tanks to Ukraine, almost two years after the start of the conflict.

The European Union for its part contributed around $80 billion in overall aid, but most of this came in the form of financial assistance rather than military supplies. A closer look shows that the burden has not been shared equally across Europe. As a percentage of GDP, contributions from Poland, Finland, the Baltic States and Norway, which all share a border with the Russian Federation, far exceed those from other wealthier states.

In addition to the MiG-29s, Poland transferred more than 320 modernized main battle tanks to Ukraine in 2022 and early 2023, replacing most of Ukraine's battlefield losses. Estonia has transferred all its 155 mm howitzers and more than a third of its annual defense budget to Ukraine. Latvia contributed all its Stinger missiles. Tiny Lithuania contributed nearly $1 billion in aid of all types, second only to Norway as a percentage of GDP. Great Britain also played a leading role, supplying NLAW anti-tank systems, cruise missiles Storm Shadow and tanks Challenger to Ukraine.

Clearly, the states most threatened by Russian aggression have shown a much greater commitment to supporting Ukraine. For the most part, others have followed the US lead in helping Ukraine resist further Russian territorial gains, but they denied Ukraine the means to achieve decisive success in reconquering the occupied territory. Most importantly, this means no or very few tanks, fighter planes or long-range missile artillery.

What explains the West's cautious approach to supporting Ukraine? It appears to be driven by three main concerns. First, some Western politicians fear that providing Ukraine with the weapons and capabilities to win will cross the “red line” and push Putin to risk nuclear war. Second, there is the fear that a decisive Russian defeat in Ukraine would lead to the overthrow of Putin, with the likely chaos that would follow. The third factor is the belief that Russia must be preserved as an important player and crucial element in the international system, which the defeat in Ukraine could call into question.

The possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons has been rejected by many experts, including the director of the Central Intelligence of the United States. The use of nuclear weapons could lead to uncontrolled escalation and the end of Putin's regime or even Russia itself. Putin's famous “escalation to deescalation” doctrine, essentially a nuclear threat to prevent Western intervention, proved successful thanks to timidity on the part of US and European leaders, but this does not constitute real intent. For eighty years nuclear deterrence has proven stable and long-lasting. The United States has invested trillions of dollars in its nuclear systems and should have confidence in its ability to deter Putin.

Equally unconvincing are concerns about the potential instability of post-Putin Russia. If Putin were toppled due to failure in Ukraine, would his successors really adopt the same course and attempt to renew Russian aggression? Any successor would face a destroyed army, a damaged economy and a disillusioned and disheartened population. Russian elites, many of whom have a taste for Western luxuries, are more likely to seek escape from Western sanctions and reintegration into the international community. And even in an autocratic society, the Russian people will have a say in the new Russia. After suffering terrible losses and economic deprivation, they too will want a change.

The argument for maintaining Russia as a key element of the international system is perhaps the most difficult of all to defend. Putin does not want a stable international system and is unlikely to ever operate as a responsible actor within it. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy was on the march and autocracy seemed to be in full retreat. Today, China, Russia, Iran and North Korea combine to present a formidable challenge to traditional Western liberalism and democracy, with the Putin regime serving as a destabilizing factor in international affairs.

Defeat in Ukraine and regime change in Moscow would undoubtedly lead to a decrease in Russian power in the short to medium term. Some parts of the Russian Federation with a non-Russian majority, such as Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan, North Ossetia and others, could break away. However, the core Russian state with its nuclear weapons and vast energy, agricultural and mineral resources would remain viable and intact and would have clear incentives to act in accordance with international norms and rules.

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