February 19, 2024

Europe Must Not Waste the Extra Time Ukraine Has Given Us

Ukraine is in dire need of new fighters to the front in order to ensure a reasonable rotation.
Ukraine is in dire need of new fighters to the front in order to ensure a reasonable rotation.

Ukraine has granted Europe a grace period to carry out its military preparations. This time must be utilised to its fullest so that Russia does not feel emboldened to test the credibility of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Instead of collectively shooting ourselves in the foot by our own indecision, the West should focus on ensuring Ukraine wins this war.

The most critical moment, so far, in Russia’s war against Ukraine probably occurred in late February 2022 when it seemed that the assessment, shared by most Western intelligence agencies, would prove to be correct. We must remember that Ukraine was predicted to lose its sovereignty in a matter of weeks — and Kyiv only in a matter of days — to the Russian occupiers.

Russian units penetrated deep into Ukrainian territory and appeared to be getting their way, but the Ukrainian people and Armed Forces decided otherwise. The Russians were met with proper resistance and, a month into the invasion, had to withdraw their troops from Kyiv. Estonia made its contribution to Ukraine’s defence: its Javelins arrived in the country on 22 February 2022. The United Kingdom was among the first to send anti-tank weapons, and Poland helped with anti-aircraft weapons. Already at that time, it was clear that Ukraine could not defend itself against such an adversary exclusively with its own forces, so support from its partners was essential.

Later, however, it turned out that the enemy surpassed only in size, whereas technologically, the Western military equipment greatly outperformed the Russian analogues. By 2024, the flows of military aid have dried up so much, due to indecision on the part of Western politicians, that Russian forces — no matter how stupid or obsolete they may be — can begin to significantly change the course of the war. Ukraine — which has shown that it can defeat Russia on the battlefield — is no longer receiving enough supplies from the West, and Russia now has the upper hand in both manpower and ammunition.

The Pressure of 2024

2024 is supposed to be a gap year when Ukraine operates in strategic defence and prepares to launch a new liberating offensive in 2025. Unfortunately, the lack of ammunition has allowed the Russian units to gain more and more territory from the Ukrainian side. Although some territory changing hands in the course of a war is natural and not yet critical in itself, the current situation is different from what it has been for the last two years. Here are some factors that will make 2024 even more different.

Ukraine will have to carry out additional mobilisation to compensate for its losses and to properly man the units. To this end, Verkhovna Rada is to pass a bill that would lower the draft age from 27 to 25. So far, this age bracket has been spared, partially due to Ukraine’s demographics: the 25–29-year-olds are one of the smallest generations, and further loss in this group will also significantly affect the nation’s future.

Ukraine desperately needs new fighters to allow for rotation. It would be reasonable to conclude that Ukraine ended last year with the front at a standstill and with heavy casualties. With that in mind, even the staunches believers begin to develop some pessimism. The reports of serious ammunition shortages on the front and Russia still advancing (fortunately, with significant losses) also make the draftees feel that they are just cannon fodder. The troop morale on the battlefield directly depends on the success of the mobilisation. Those troops have already been kept in the trenches much longer than would be considered reasonable because there is simply no one to replace them with.

If Ukraine fails to carry out additional mobilisation in 2024, preparations for 2025 will also be hampered and the conditions of war will become increasingly worse for Ukraine. The arrival of Western military aid to the front and the replenishment of ammunition reserves would allow Ukrainian units to successfully hold back Russian pressure. This, in turn, is directly related to the broader picture in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and would thus facilitate mobilisation.

Victory Must Not Be Served to Russia

The lack of ammunition, especially anti-aircraft ammunition, inevitably results in higher civilian casualties. It also leads to the destruction of civil infrastructure, which increases human suffering and places an additional burden on the state sector. Exhausting the population and creating a sense of hopelessness are among Russia’s goals and are meant to gradually erode the Ukrainians’ support for the war effort.

Air defence is critical to keep Russian aircraft away from Ukrainian territory and units. When it fails, the combat losses multiply. To reiterate, the higher the losses, the lower the motivation in both the military and the society.

The appointment of the new Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is a high-impact event. Regardless of the career backgrounds or skills of the two generals, one must understand that a change of such a scale has a resonance even in peacetime — let alone in the conditions of war and amidst the enemy’s information operations to amplify it. If casualties remain at the same level in 2024, even if the reason for this is the insufficient military aid from the West, a connection between the losses and General Oleksandr Syrskyi’s leadership will be drawn.in public mind.

The wave of losses will likely bring out voices in favour of a peace deal with Russia. The worse Ukraine’s positions on the battlefield are, the worse it is positioned at the negotiating table. Russia has not changed its goals in this war, and thus it has no plans to negotiate peace. Instead, Russia would reintroduce its original absurd conditions on both Ukraine and the West if offered a seat at the negotiating table. Hence, it is of utmost importance that Ukraine is victorious against Russia on the battlefield, which can only happen with Western military assistance.

Europe has a critical choice to make

The absence of military aid can, in a cascading effect, make the situation much more difficult for Ukraine and West like wise. Unfortunately, a significant increase in ammunition production in Europe had been delayed until the middle of the second year of the full-scale war, with the results expected to materialise only by the end of 2024. We are now facing two risky choices. The first option is to continue production at current pace and deliver aid when we are ready. Yet, we must be aware that by that time, the situation on the ground in Ukraine may have already changed drastically in Russia’s favour. The second option is to take a risk and give Ukraine the supplies that it needs to contain Russia as fast as we can.

Defence Minister Rustem Umerov said that Ukraine’s “absolute critical daily minimum requirement” was 6 000 artillery shells, but it was currently operating with 2 000 shells per day. It is also possible to compensate the quantities of artillery ammunition with other means. Researchers Franz-Stefan Gady and Michael Kofman have proposed solutions to supply those that Europe has enough of in stock. This would be a recognised risk, based on the fact that over 90% of the Russian ground forces are currently tied up in Ukraine and that the opening of new fronts (i.e., attacking NATO in any way) is beyond Russia’s abilities in the near future.

For Ukraine’s mid-term help, ‘A Military Strategy for Ukraine’s Victory and Russia’s Defeat’ by the Estonian Defence Ministry has sufficient guidelines. If all Ramstein coalition countries were to commit a mere 0.25% of GDP annually, it would generate enough funds for Ukraine to win on the battlefield.

Fear Not

When assessing the Russian threat to NATO, most analysts agree that Russia can test NATO’s Article 5, or collective defence, in 3 to 10 years after the end of the war in Ukraine. The Baltic region is generally considered to be the most obvious target to test it. However, in her analysis, FIIA researcher Minna Ålander points out the Nordic-Baltic preparations to repel the Russian aggression and concludes that the region may no longer be the Alliance’s weakest link. At the same time, it must be taken into account that this conversation in itself benefits Russia, whose goal is to instil fear in the Western coalition in order to paralyse it and prevent action. We shall not let the fear get the better of us and collectively shoot ourselves in the foot. Instead, we shall now focus on securing Ukraine’s military victory. This is what we shall do.

These years, given to Europe to conduct military preparation, must be used to the maximum. Europe must realise that it has to manage its own affairs. Above all, a mental change is essential — each nation must realise that it is responsible for its own military defence. How could these changes manifest in practice? First and foremost, defence budgets must be raised to a minimum of 3% of GDP — the amount that the Western European countries used to spend during the Cold War. Massive investments and industry orders must take place immediately. However, the percentage of national GDP allocated to defence is relative Europe has been so many years underspending for defence. Countries must make sure that important capabilities are achieved, and should there be a need, the percentage must also go up. Europe has entered the new Cold War and must now start acting accordingly — words are no longer enough. We must be ready in ten years, and then — maybe — we can avoid triggering Article 5.

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept described Russia as the most immediate threat to the Alliance. But have the European countries done enough? Or do we still have the resources to push forward? Now is the time to go farther than words.

This article was first published in Diplomaatia, minor additions have been made.

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