February 8, 2024

Why the War in Ukraine Will Not End This Year

Ukrainian servicemen in Zhytomyr. 30 January 2024.
Ukrainian servicemen in Zhytomyr. 30 January 2024.

The West must make serious efforts to change the course of the war in Ukraine. Government orders for the defence industry should be long-term, and in addition to military aid, there must be a renewed push for sanctions to strangle Russia’s war machine in Ukraine. Unconventional methods, such as using intelligence information in court, should also be considered for use in freezing or confiscating Russian assets abroad.

By now, it is quite likely that neither Ukraine nor Russia will be able to achieve significant changes on the frontlines this year. Both sides need time to replenish their resources, which have been depleted by the two years of war. Russia has redirected its already battered economy towards the defence industry and is steadily rebuilding its stockpiles, though not to the extent and capability suggested by the official channels. Nevertheless, in 2024, Russia holds the advantage over Ukraine in terms of military capability.

In the west, we must work to create the necessary conditions to ensure that Kyiv can prevail on the battlefield at least in 2025. The Estonian Ministry of Defence has proposed a suitable long-term strategy that would, for instance, require each Ramstein coalition country to contribute 0.25% of GDP to military assistance to Ukraine. If countries follow this plan in a synchronised manner rather than sporadically, a military victory for Ukraine on its own territory becomes achievable.

Beyond the Battlefield

However, ending the war is not solely a matter of what happens on the battlefield. The decision to end the war must be made by either the attacking party by stating that its objectives have been achieved or the losing party by surrendering. Ukraine cannot surrender because this is an existential war for it. I shudder to think of the consequences for Ukraine if the occupiers were to seize power. The aggressor has already provided some glimpses into its plans in places like Bucha, Izyum, and Kherson.

At the same time, Putin has repeatedly stated that neither have Russia’s objectives in Ukraine changed nor been accomplished. One of those objectives was to topple the legitimate government in Kyiv. We should not assume that merely capturing or losing territory would change the aggressor’s intentions. But Ukraine’s victory on the battlefield is certainly a prerequisite for the Kremlin to even consider other options.

Any expectation of a spontaneous purging of the Putin regime and declaration of an end to the war overnight is unrealistic. Similarly, the regime voluntarily handing itself over to a tribunal is improbable. A voluntary regime change is possible but highly unlikely. Even if it were to happen, the old regime would negotiate immunity for its crimes. This was evident in the last real change of power in Russia when Putin secured his predecessor’s immunity through a decree, as Yeltsin’s main concern at that time was domestic corruption investigations.

Another option is that the old regime is deposed, and its members face trial. Currently, this scenario is also improbable. When considering the two scenarios together, history indicates that the latter is more likely to occur yet would still require significant societal dissatisfaction. The latest examples include Slobodan Milošević’s departure from power in 2000 and the removal of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. It must be noted, however, that the level of suppression in Russian society today is much greater than what Serbia or Ukraine were experiencing at the time.

Harnessing Intelligence Data

Sanctions are essential to influence Russia’s leadership and strangle its war machine. Existing sanctions must be rigorously enforced to prevent any loopholes. The Russian elite with close ties to the current regime must be completely deprived of the ability to live a comfortable and affluent life in the west. Assets held by shell companies and nominees must be frozen or confiscated.

How can this be achieved? It is crucial to bear in mind that any reputable western intelligence agency probably should know about any individuals who reside within their jurisdiction and are linked to the current Russian leadership under surveillance, and especially about their interactions with their home country.

It is reasonable to discuss whether and how the assets of the aggressor’s elite could be confiscated in a simplified manner. Typically, intelligence is not gathered with the intention of using it in court. Its purpose is to create situational awareness and complement informed decision-making in national defence. However, the current circumstances provide an opportune moment to consider whether information collected by the various intelligence disciplines could be justifiably used as grounds for freezing or confiscating Russian assets.

We live in an era where it is possible to eliminate terrorists in almost any corner of the world based on intelligence information. Therefore, we should at least be open to discussing how intelligence data could be employed in mapping Russian assets and temporarily freezing them pending a court investigation. As of now, European countries have varying approaches to the extent and impact of using intelligence information in legal proceedings.

The Importance of the Defence Industry

Ukraine’s domestic drone and missile industry needs additional support because it represents the only means through which Ukraine can exert influence on Russian territory, which brings awareness of the war to Russian society. If these attacks can only be carried out with Ukrainian-made weapons, countries that fear escalation when a NATO member’s weapons are used to attack Russian territory can maintain their stance.

The Russian leadership, no matter how autocratic, still depends on the opinions and attitudes of its people. Living under constant fear of missile attacks and experiencing even a fraction of the horrors endured by Ukrainian people may eventually change public opinion and support for the war in Russian society where support for the war is still prevalent. Even the organisations representing the mothers and wives of Russian soldiers are not campaigning against the war; instead, they are advocating for the swift return of their loved ones from the front lines.

However, relying solely on the Ukrainian domestic industry will not suffice for a military triumph. Western support must be sustained at a level that enables Ukraine to defeat Russia on the battlefield. There is a significant shortage of air defence systems and ammunition. Moreover, air defence is primarily a defensive capability and, as such, is critical to protect the civilian population from the aggressor’s crimes. To launch a new offensive, however, it is essential to achieve superiority in indirect fire capabilities. Thus, a substantial influx of artillery ammunition and systems is required.

Additionally, Kyiv needs more long-range impact weapon systems to influence Russian assembly areas and disrupt the enemy’s logistics and the work of command posts. And, of course, the Ukrainian troops constantly rely on more equipment, supplies, and trained personnel to sustain their effort. There is no single weapon system or type of ammunition that can magically solve Ukraine’s problems. Ukraine is engaged in full-scale conventional warfare, where cooperation between all branches of the military and various weapon systems is necessary for success. The axiom holds true: quantity has a quality all its own.

The reality is grim – Western reserves are running low, and the new production capacities are not yet sufficient. Many promises made in 2022 and 2023 to multiply ammunition production will only materialise by the end of this or next year. Public calls by politicians to boost industrial production are encouraging but often remain empty slogans because companies are awaiting orders, not just motivational speeches. Estonian proposal for the procurement of up to a million artillery shells in the EU collectively was relevant one year ago. But after failing to deliver it on (the promised) schedule, Europe should strive to be more ambitious. In Ukraine’s Defence Minister Rustem Umarov’s estimates, Moscow’s artillery usage is up to 6 000 shells daily, whereas Kyiv is able to respond with only around a third of that amount. The demand will skyrocket if an offensive — by either side — starts. Meanwhile, Ukraine effectively needs close to 3 million artillery shells per year.

The defence industry requires assurance that if a company invests in new facilities and personnel, it will recoup its investment. The reluctance of Western governments to commit to long-term agreements with the defence industry is perplexing. In the meantime, national stockpiles are already depleting, many countries are increasing their defence budgets (and thus procurement spending), and supporting Ukraine will undoubtedly remain on the agenda for at least the next three to four years.

The Russian Threat Persists

Paradoxically, the Russian threat will not dissipate regardless of whether it suffers defeat or triumphs in Ukraine.

Under the first scenario, there might be substantial pressure on the Kremlin to embark on a victorious venture elsewhere. In the second case, the regime might perceive itself as invincible and be tempted to repeat its victory in another campaign “against NATO.” Hence, if we aim for Ukraine’s success on the battlefield and wish to foster internal changes in Russia, western nations must sustain their long-term preparedness. Ultimately, we are defending ourselves.

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

Filed under: Commentary