April 17, 2024

This Time, We Absolutely Must Deliver 

ZUMA Press/Scanpix
ZUMA Press/Scanpix

Mark Voyger, a professor at the American University of Kyiv, emphasized the importance of American support to Ukraine, Europe and NATO in his interview with Tetiana Fedosiuk for Diplomaatia.

TF: The full-scale invasion has just entered its third year. This year, however, optimism is a scarce resource. Today, Ukraine is on the ‘back foot’ and has been forced to withdraw from several locations, while Russia has been advancing despite heavy losses. On the other hand, Ukraine has been able to down over a dozen Russian aircraft since February and has sunk several warships. Yet, still, the best-case scenario for Ukraine now is to hold the line for as long as possible in 2024 in order to prepare for the next push in 2025. What’s your general assessment of the recent developments on the front? 

MV: At the beginning of every year since the war started, there seems to be this spike of optimism. I was extremely optimistic when discussing the Ukrainian chances of success, especially as related to the counter-offensive. Yet, it was based on the assumption that Ukraine would receive — in due time — if not everything, then at least 75-80% of what had been promised, including heavy tanks, Abrams main battle tanks, ATACMS, HIMARS, Taurus missiles, strike drones, artillery shells by the millions, and F-16s. The sad reality is that most of this has not materialised. There are serious problems with manufacturing the artillery shells; not enough tanks have been sent to Ukraine; and the F-16s won’t arrive before maybe mid-summer, and even when they do, it’s not just a question of flying them around, like some kind of showcase western technology — they have to be integrated to be useful.  

Unfortunately, given the Russian advances on land, Ukraine’s best strategy would be to create its own version of the ‘Surovikin line,’ so to speak, and fortify as many positions as possible: dig trenches and fortify the areas where it can hold any Russian advances along the vectors that the Russians might decide to use. First, Zaporozhzhia is critically important for Russians. They may try to take some areas around Kherson again. Then, Kharkiv is in the eastern part of the country where it always remains a potential target. And, of course, Kyiv. So far, to the north, we have not been seeing a massive preparation for another invasion, but Russians can try some small-unit tactics across those forested areas. Geography dictates that Ukraine needs to be ready for defence along a huge perimeter, so it seems to be the right approach at this point. Hopefully, Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, the new commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, will be working in that direction.  

At the same time, the West must deliver. This time, we absolutely must deliver. I would not leave it until the end of the year. If I were a decision maker, I would set a course or a deadline for mid- or late summer — six months from now. I would rather see a counter-offensive in late August or September — during the dry season.  

Because if not, if we are to leave it until next year, guess what? First of all, the Russians will have another year to fortify everything even more and bring in even more troops, which means that the Ukrainians will have to recruit more troops. A year from now, we may also have Donald Trump in the White House again, which is exactly the kind of strategic objective for Putin. This war effort is not a separate event — it is part of this overall Russian hybrid warfare whereby the central effort is actually political warfare. If Putin can sustain this effort for another year or so, until Trump comes to power, his thinking is, this time, Trump would reduce the aid to Ukraine and maybe mess up with America’s commitment to Europe and NATO. I don’t know whether this will happen, but if you try to get into Putin’s head, it seems reasonable that that is his expectation. Thus, I would rather supply as much as possible to Ukraine so that it can attack within the next six months as opposed to waiting for another year or more, when Trump may be the new old president. 


Mark Voyger is a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Analysis, Director of the Master’s Program in Global Management at the American University Kyiv (AUK) and Associate Professor in Global Security. Before this, he held the role of Senior Lecturer in Russian and Eastern European Studies at the Baltic Defense College. Previously, he served as Special Advisor for Russian and Eurasian Affairs to the Commanding General of US Army Europe in Wiesbaden, Germany and as the Cultural Advisor and Senior Russia Expert at NATO’s Allied Land Command in Izmir, Türkiye. 



Is it possible, though, to unblock the aid in the US Congress to be able to do so?  

MV: There are more and more voices, more and more pressure. I don’t think this minority can hold the aid indefinitely. The American system is sometimes chaotic and sometimes unpredictable — quite often unpredictable — but it’s also very flexible. You can reroute aid through different paths — there isn’t one centralised path like in many other centralised countries. You can find creative ways. I think the Biden Administration still has about $4 billion at its disposal and can send incrementally $200 million — there is some money left. Obviously, everyone wants to have these $60 billion so that they can rearm and resupply Ukraine.  

I am hopeful that the political efforts — including by Republicans — will yield results. It’s not the Republican Party that is against Ukraine but a very small vociferous minority who supports Trump, the MAGA Trumpists. There has to be a stronger information effort in the US, especially by the Administration but also by reasonable Republicans. Why? Because they must show to those detractors, to those who object: look, those $60 billion are not going to Ukraine’s coffers or Zelensky’s pockets. That money is going back to the US and staying in America. US defence companies, factories, and plants that are based in the states where those Republican congressional districts are will get the lion’s share of that money. So, it’s actually good for their voters. It’s a multi-pronged, multi-level, and multi-dimensional effort. I just don’t see how they can hold this forever. Even though Trump has been putting pressure on Speaker Johnson to block all the efforts, I think that ultimately, there will be a creative solution. 

Is Europe able to plug in the gap until then? 

MV: It must. As I said, I’m hopeful but hope is not a plan. And so, Europe must pull its act together and increase the defence spending. First, obviously, it must meet the NATO commitments of 2% or more. It must also be able to manufacture more weapons because, after all, this war is on the European continent, not on the American continent.  

The US may have the best intention to help. Yet if, suddenly, China decided to attack Taiwan, or North Korea decided to attack South Korea, or a war erupted between Israel and Iran, or Houthis cut the undersea cables again, there would be an international global coalition to fight in the Middle East. And, once you get stuck in the Middle East, that’s not a year or two — that’s 20 years. So, let’s say that America has the best intention to help but is suddenly faced with 3 or 4 more major crises all over the world, then Europe has to step in. 

In this broader context, other actors are now intensifying their geopolitical efforts. For example, there are now two parallel “peace” tracks by China and Türkiye. China says that no settlement in Ukraine can be achieved without taking Russian interests into account, while Türkiye says that both sides have reached their limits on the battlefield. Then, the Wall Street Journal revealed the concessions being forced onto Kyiv in 2022 and prevented only by Ukraine’s successes, which were enabled by western military aid. With where things stand today, can Ukraine be again pressured to concede? 

MV: That’s a great question. I don’t see a role for diplomacy at this point. I don’t think Putin wants to negotiate. Yes, he wants to freeze the conflict, but I don’t think he wants to give up and not be able to expand more or put additional pressure on Ukraine. Even if we were to assume that tomorrow the active campaign on land would be frozen somehow — and we’ve had this experience for eight years when the conflict in Donbas was frozen, but constant shelling was still happening — there would be some kind of a demarcation line. And yet, there would constantly be drones, missiles, rockets, etc. flying into Ukraine. That peace will not last.  

The Chinese effort is obviously a thinly veiled attempt to push the Russian narrative and the Russian interests. The Turks have their own agenda, of course: they want to see the war stop as soon as possible. They’re helping Ukraine as much as they can with drones and defence manufacturing, as well as by not letting Russian ships into the Black Sea. However, Türkiye is also working with Russia on the economic front and in nuclear energy, as well as by buying Russian gas and grain. Turks are playing with both sides, effectively.  

I think we have this one year before Trump comes back to the White House — or does not. Unfortunately, unless Ukraine has received enough aid and thus been able to push through by the end of the year — or able to hold its positions — and Trump comes back, I am speculating here, but Ukraine may be forced to negotiate. I don’t want to see this happen, and I think it’s still too early to tell. First of all, the West should not put any pressure on Ukraine to negotiate. It’s not our business. It’s their business, their country, and their nation.  

The western audiences must understand that a Russian occupation is not a ‘normal’ occupation (not as if there is a normal occupation), not just some benign presence on the ground. Russian occupation means constant human rights violations. We have seen the Butcha massacre. We’ve seen raping women, taking children, kidnapping, killing civilians, stealing property. It will essentially be a genocidal bomb whenever the Russian army comes and stays for extended periods of time. Even if those territories are liberated, there may not be many Ukrainians left to liberate there. Of course, the land and the resources are important, but for Ukraine, people are what really matters. So, we’ve got to help them reclaim those territories and liberate their people as fast as possible. 

In those scenarios of a frozen conflict or a settlement, Russia will see itself as victorious. And if it does, it will not stop and try again in 5 or 10 years — the time Ukraine is buying for us now. Is Europe spending this time wisely to prepare?  

MV: I am not sure if Europe or the western decision-makers are able to look beyond the horizon of 2025. Hopefully, the intelligence community is giving them those reports, about the future, but I also think that 2024-25 is kind of the event horizon for all of them. Past that line, yes, there is an understanding that Europe needs to increase defence spending and improve defence production. Yet, I’m not sure that they’re thinking that the war will be frozen next year, but then — 5 to 10 years from now —there will be another war, which most likely will be the case if the war is to be frozen now.  

Unfortunately, as you know, democracies are sometimes short-sighted, and politicians don’t think about anything beyond 4 or 5 years into the future — they can’t really. This is usually the totalitarian regimes — like Russia, China, or Iran — that do so. But this is the nature of the western politics. At this point, let’s try to help Ukraine win the war within the next year and then worry about the next 5 to 10 years. 

There is at least some good news that gives grounds for optimism — Sweden’s accession to NATO has just been finalised. In light of this development and increased defence spending and production, is Europe safer now than it was two years ago? 

MV: Absolutely. Now, at the strategic level, we have the Baltic Sea fully and completely turned into a NATO lake, which makes it the most secure area in the world. The way I see it, we have Sweden, the largest country in Scandinavia, that is well-prepared with its huge defence, industrial, and economic potential, now in NATO. Sweden has been improving its civil defence and cooperating with NATO for many years, so it is quite knowledgeable about NATO itself and its practices. It’s one of the examples where you accept the country today, and tomorrow, it is ready to roll, at a tactical and operational level. Now, we — NATO — have an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Baltic Sea called the Island of Gotland, which has been one of the main reasons for concern for Sweden and Europe: that the Russians might try to land some kind of a naval assault there and try to block the access to the Baltic Sea. For NATO, this is a great victory. We should give Vladimir Putin a medal for helping to expand NATO and to end Sweden’s neutrality which lasted for two centuries. Sweden has been known for not joining any alliances, but Putin has been able to reverse the historical trend. 

This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). 

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