The Speaker
Friday, 14 June 2024 – 07:55

Ukraine’s Uphill Battle Amidst Global Gridlock

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

We are now approaching the two-year mark of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After summer’s failed counteroffensive, the first weeks of January have been defined by intensive Russian bombing of Kyiv and several other cities many miles from the eastern front. Armed with a three-to-one artillery advantage, Putin’s army has ramped up its onslaught and winter will feel especially long this year. Despite successes in the Black Sea and on the Dnipro River in the past months, the conflict has progressed into a gruelling statement, with Ukraine now firmly maintaining a defensive posture.

However, the future of the conflict is set to lie in events outside of Eastern Europe. When Putin invaded, the West impressively rallied to Zelensky’s side, a rejuvenated NATO working in tandem with an inflamed European Union that said no to states altering their borders by force. Such coherence, cooperation, and unity are few and far between in 2024. The United States, which has provided over half of all aid, is plagued by domestic gridlock, with Republicans refusing to approve further funding bills if domestic border policies are not tightened. In early December, the Biden administration tried to pass a $61.4 billion aid package for Ukraine but was blocked by the House’s hard-right ‘Freedom Caucus’ which is similarly halting progress in the Senate.

Within the European Union, a similar tale is unfolding – Viktor Orbán has been blocking the institution’s attempt to pass its own €50 billion contribution. In response, the European Commission is poised to offer Hungary’s Prime Minster a commitment to regular funding reviews, in exchange for him dropping his veto. Election victories for Robert Fico in Slovakia, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, could also harm prospects for establishing a unifying consensus.

With capital held up in myriad ways and lacklustre support from key parts of the international community, a stalemate will likely continue throughout the year.

For Ukraine, retaining the Black Sea and maintaining access to the ports must be the main priorities, holding the fort as it attempts to drum up support abroad. Maintaining control over these two strategic objectives is also paramount to revitalising the economic growth of a country that desperately needs it. Ukraine was firing 7,000 artillery rounds per day over the summer. By the end of the year, however, that number fell to 2,000.

Some analysts point to the stalemate as a political choice, rather than an indisputable fact, that, with ample support from the West, Ukraine can renew its offensive operations and enter negotiations from a position of leverage. The alternative, the current state of play, is that an under-resourced and poorly trained military contingent unrelentingly ploughing on will only dampen spirits. The war dragging out suits the Kremlin too. Russia has doubled its defence budget to support the war and is now producing over 100 long-range missiles a month.

This weariness from the international community is also seeping into Ukraine. A Gallup poll revealed that the number of citizens who believe that war should continue until Ukraine has regained all of its lost territories, including Crimea, is going down. Moreover, 31 per cent of all respondents thought that peace talks with Russia should begin ‘as soon as possible,’ up from 26 per cent last year. As discussed, an extended war only benefits the invaders, and as public support falls, Kyiv’s leverage decreases.

With 2024’s fate seemingly sealed, it is worth looking ahead to 2025 and beyond. Is peace possible without Russian defeat? Most signs point towards no. The Kremlin is emboldened by the West’s fragmented coalition, confident that its war of attrition will triumph. The West has done little to prove otherwise. In 2022, Kyiv’s allies spent too long resting on their laurels and lingering in complacency, confident that they could avoid a protracted conflict. With Russia experiencing early setbacks and the invasion firmly at the top of the international agenda, the scales should have been decisively tipped and the killer blow delivered.

That did not happen, however, and now the West has to prove it can handle this global crisis. Some suggest that American support for Ukraine will come at the expense of the superpower’s ability to contain China. In my view, this is false. If Washington cannot muster the appropriate military and strategic response, China will be encouraged, not deterred. Trump is not wrong. In the future, Europe must take more responsibility for its security and reduce its reliance upon the US as the Indo-Pacific increases in importance. However, redressing the balance between Europe and the United States must not happen overnight and too abrupt a transition may lead to Ukrainian defeat. Should this happen, the US will be left attempting to balance China whilst supporting allies in Europe that cannot ward off attacks. Moreover, with Russia expanding its cooperation with China, Iran, and North Korea, the West must demonstrate that it can decisively handle challenges to what is left of the liberal international order.

Perhaps there is no greater challenge to this order than that of the forthcoming US presidential election. Trump has refused to commit to supporting Ukraine, if elected. And, as the primaries ramp up, there are early indicators that Republicans are eager to mirror the likely nominee’s stance on the issue, further stalling progress in Congress. Russia is acutely aware of this, and a Trump victory would certainly be ceding advantage to Putin. Should the White House change hands, the result would also raise broader questions and repercussions of NATO, an organisation the Republican has repeatedly discredited and threatened to withdraw from.

NATO’s future is nearly as uncertain as Ukraine’s. Whilst the renewed focus on deterring Russia has revived the alliance’s sense of purpose, it ultimately counters one of its core assumptions: that Russia would, one day, be more friend than foe. This belief, amongst other factors, has fuelled the normative and dogmatic enlargement policy which played a significant role in shaping the dynamics leading to the events of 2014. Failed invasions of Afghanistan and Libya have further contributed to NATO’s identity crisis. With the US threatening to leave, and its scope for positive interventionism undermined, the alliance must now seek to shape the European security architecture proactively, rather than serving as purely a Putin containment tool.

With imminent NATO and EU accession unlikely, the future of Ukraine relies on the ability of the West to cooperate sufficiently to tip the balance. Fragmented support will, at best, leave Zelensky treading water for the rest of the year and, at worst, fundamentally cede the advantage to Russia. With the international gaze fixed firmly on Gaza, the risk of a stalemate lingering in the shadows grows. Only time will tell if Brussels and Washington can get their respective houses in order.

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