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Backing Kyiv to the Hilt?

The Changeable Politics of Aid to Ukraine

14 March 2024

Apex of Optimism 

The course of the war has confounded most experts. Before February 2022, it was widely predicted that if Russia were to launch a major attack on Ukraine, the Ukrainian military would quickly succumb. It was believed that a rapid defeat would lead to the political collapse of Zelensky's government in Kyiv. However, Ukrainian resistance proved to be much stronger than even the most optimistic supporters had anticipated. After failing to capture the capital, Russia shifted its military efforts to the south and east of the country, relentlessly pounding Ukrainian forces. However, the arrival of new, longer-range weapons from the United States and Europe helped stall Moscow's advances. 

The heavy losses suffered by Russian forces in the early months of the conflict emboldened Ukraine's Western backers. They began to believe that providing military support to Kyiv could not only help the country stay in the fight, but also potentially lead to a major Russian military defeat. This defeat, it was thought, could disrupt the balance of power for a decade or more. A cynical logic emerged, suggesting that investing in Ukraine was a cost-effective way to weaken Russia's military capabilities. Furthermore, a weakened and chastened Russia might prompt NATO countries to reduce their defense postures. The enthusiasm for these ideas peaked during Ukraine's major counteroffensive in September 2022.

After launching diversionary attacks in the southeast, Ukrainian forces swiftly pushed forward in the east, specifically targeting the regional city of Kharkiv. This offensive proved to be highly successful, as it resulted in the routing of Russian forces. The Kharkiv offensive demonstrated the effectiveness of Ukrainian tactics in reclaiming territory from undermanned and under-equipped Russian positions. Moreover, it served to reassure Ukraine's supporters that their investments in weapons and economic aid were not in vain.[1]

Russia’s ‘Good Enough’ Resurgence 

In the aftermath of the Kharkiv offensive, Putin mandated the conscription of hundreds of thousands of men. At the start of 2023, the Russian military had an unorganized force of around 360,000 troops in Ukraine. By June 2023, when Ukraine launched its long-awaited but ultimately disappointing offensive, the number of troops had increased to 410,000. Additionally, the Russian forces in Ukraine were becoming more organized.[2]

Moreover, Moscow has increasingly put its economy on a war footing. It has ramped up defense industrial output and imported arms and ammunition from allies. As a result, Russia has been able to outgun Ukraine's army in frontline artillery duels. Additionally, it has been flying a steady barrage of one-way-attack drones and missiles into Ukrainian industry and civilian areas. Furthermore, Russia has carried out colossal engineering works to harden the territory under its control.

Russia's response to its early setbacks in the war with Ukraine has been to rely on a crude, but tried and tested approach: attrition. The strategy involves losing and replacing more men and materials than Ukraine, which poses a dilemma for Kyiv's backers, given that it requires Western nations to not only maintain their assistance efforts over the long-term but also to ramp them up. Some of Ukraine's backers are losing faith in Kyiv's prospects for the war and are showing fatigue towards the seemingly unending commitment of aid and weapons. For other key backers, most notably the United States, the policy towards supporting Ukraine has become a contentious and polarizing domestic issue. A critical question that needs to be asked is what NATO's likely response will be to a revitalized Russian military machine that appears increasingly difficult to evict from Ukraine.

New Weapons, New Approach?

Since the onset of the war, both Europeans and Americans have rallied behind Ukraine by depleting their warehouses of outdated equipment and munitions.[3] European and North American policymakers, as well as defense experts, have consistently advocated for not just increased supplies, but also for more advanced and powerful weaponry. The trajectory of this support has undergone several phases. Initially, the emphasis was on the provision of modern battle tanks, which saw the introduction of hundreds of units. Subsequently, the narrative shifted towards the necessity of dispatching Western fighter jets, particularly highlighting the significance of platforms like the F16. More recently, the push from Ukraine’s backers has been for governments to equip Kyiv with long-range missiles, exemplified by the German-Swedish Taurus air-launched cruise missile.[4]

The main operational challenge for Ukraine lies not in the quantity and quality of weapons it receives, but rather in its logistics. Specifically, Ukraine must focus on maintaining a steady flow of fuel, ammunition, and spare parts. This task is not limited to maintaining its old Soviet-era arsenal; it also involves managing an increasingly complex inventory of Western-supplied weapons.

Regardless of any changes in the motives or constraints of its backers, Ukraine is unlikely to possess the necessary means to achieve a decisive breakthrough in the near future. There is no single "silver bullet" weapon that Kyiv could hypothetically be supplied with that would change this fact. However, the options for providing Ukraine with additional support from NATO arsenals are now limited. Most of the old equipment has already been divested.[5] This creates a tension between rebuilding NATO militaries and supporting Ukraine, resulting in a lag in European and American military support for Kyiv.

NATO’s Reaction to Russia’s Recovery 

This article discusses the initial optimism of the West regarding the Russian military's involvement in Ukraine. While Russia has indeed suffered significant losses in terms of both lives and equipment, it has demonstrated an ability to replace these losses. The impact of the war, particularly Russia's recovery from early setbacks, has had a profound effect on the NATO alliance. One of the most significant outcomes has been the expansion of the alliance, with Sweden joining in March 2024. This development would have been unimaginable just over two years ago, considering Sweden's historical neutrality in both World Wars. Additionally, Finland, which shares a 1,300 kilometer (830 mile) border with Russia, officially became a NATO member in April 2023, effectively more than doubling NATO's border with Russia.

Members of NATO previously agreed to a 2 percent increase in defense spending due to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. However, it is important to note that big spending does not always equate to wise spending. Merely meeting the correct spending levels on paper does not guarantee the availability of well-equipped forces that can be quickly deployed to the battlefield and sustained by efficient supply lines. Germany, which has historically fallen short of meeting the NATO target, plans to reach the goal of spending a certain percentage of its gross domestic product on defense next year. To achieve this, Germany will utilize a special 100 billion-euro fund that has been established to modernize its military following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Berlin also aims to meet the target through its regular budget in the coming years. It is worth noting that the increases in NATO spending have been inconsistent, to say the least.

According to Polish President Andrzej Duda, NATO allies in Europe must increase their defense spending in response to Russia's "war mode" economy. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Duda stated, "A return to the status quo ante is not possible. Russia's imperialistic ambitions and aggressive revisionism are pushing Moscow towards a direct confrontation with NATO, the West, and ultimately, the entire free world." It now appears that Western powers are prioritizing the buildup of their own weapon stockpiles and rearming for a long-term confrontation with Moscow, rather than providing more aid to Ukraine.

Future Support?

NATO's upcoming annual summit, scheduled for July in Washington, D.C., will commemorate the alliance's 75th anniversary. With the U.S. presidential election on the horizon, it is expected to be a topic at the forefront of everyone's thoughts. Former President Donald Trump, in his campaign, stated that if elected, he would encourage Russia to have free rein over any NATO member country that fails to meet defense spending guidelines. While this is likely electioneering hyperbole, a change in administration could result in reduced U.S. support for Ukraine and an increased expectation for Europe to assume greater responsibility for the security of the continent.

Future Western support for Ukraine is undoubtedly linked to how U.S. domestic politics translate into American foreign policy. The United States remains the most important member of the alliance and continues to support Europe's security. Calls for wealthier European nations to contribute more are not only coming from across the Atlantic; frontline Eastern European states like Poland and Lithuania are increasingly vocal about the need for Europe to take greater action.

The European Union (EU) recently released its Defense Industrial Strategy (EDIS), which outlines a clear, long-term vision for achieving defense industrial readiness within the EU. In response to the EDIS, the EU's High Representative/Vice-President, Josep Borrell, emphasizes the need for increased defense investment, stating, "After years of inadequate spending, we must invest more in defense, but we must also improve and collaborate. A strong, resilient, and competitive European defense industry is crucial for enhancing our defense readiness." This raises the important question: if the U.S. withdraws, will Europe step up?

[1] Isabelle Kurshudyan, Paul Sonne, Serhiy Morgunov and Kamila Hrabchuk, “Inside the Ukrainian Counteroffensive that Shocked Putin and Reshaped the War,” Washington Post, 29 December 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/12/29/ukraine-offensive-kharkiv-kherson-donetsk/

[2] Jack Waitling and Nick Reynolds, “Russian Military Objectives and Capacity in Ukraine Through 2024,” RUSI Commentary, 13 February 2024, https://www.rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/russian-military-objectives-and-capacity-ukraine-through-2024

[3] Max Bergmann, “Europe Needs a Paradigm Shift in How It Supports Ukraine,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 17 January 2024, https://www.csis.org/analysis/europe-needs-paradigm-shift-how-it-supports-ukraine.

[4] Dan Sabbagh and Kate Connolly, “UK Urges Germany to Give Long-range Missiles to Kyiv Despite Luftwaffe Leak,” Guardian, 4 March 2024, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/mar/04/uk-urges-germany-to-give-long-range-missiles-to-kyiv-despite-luftwaffe-leak.

[5] Max Bergmann, “Europe Needs a Paradigm Shift in How It Supports Ukraine,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 17 January 2024, https://www.csis.org/analysis/europe-needs-paradigm-shift-how-it-supports-ukraine.