As the world pauses to reflect on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week, there are many lessons to learn. One year on, Ukraine has regained control of 50 per cent of the territory Russia has captured since the start of the war at the cost of nearly 140,000 casualties and close to $100 billion of direct damage. The hope of tipping the conflict in Ukraine’s favour and away from the status quo of a frozen and intractable conflict are pinned on a spring offensive, and with it a new wave of weaponry.
Altering the calculus in Ukraine will rest on decisions made at the desks of Western policymakers as much as on gains made on the battlefield. To fundamentally change the nature of the conflict, new and upgraded support is needed from Ukraine’s international allies. Now is the time for allies to build on these reflections and move beyond the existing approach of responding to Ukraine’s requests to building a rock solid, united, long-term strategy that delivers victory for Ukraine now and secures its defence in the future.
US President Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv and Poland and meetings with the Bucharest Nine this week reaffirmed the mantra of Western countries: that they will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes”. Biden’s promise was backed by a further military-aid package from the United States worth $500 million, to build on the new streams of equipment and aid from across Europe. Such support is vital but uncertainty about the endgame of the war remains.
While Western leaders are reaffirming their “ironclad” support and cementing the coalition now, the risk nonetheless remains that the longer the war persists, the greater the possibility of fatigue setting in. If the conflict becomes a war of attrition between Ukraine and a country with “a historical willingness to throw as many bodies at a problem as possible”, democratic governments may find it harder politically to sustain this level of enthusiastic engagement without a renewed strategy.
On the practical side, Ukraine is using somewhere in the realm of 5,000 to 10,000 rounds of ammunition daily, more than the annual procurement of some small European states. Military experts across governments are beginning to question the impact on stockpiles and each country’s individual security. Reaching further into these dwindling stockpiles, which have long procurement cycles, may in time become difficult without a new approach that brings allies together in a unified dialogue with Ukraine and coherently sets out a policy that is clear, effectively communicated, coordinated and demonstrably sustainable in terms of the level of commitment required from partner countries.
Emergency measures that depend on President Volodymyr Zelensky urgently requesting support from governments across the globe as need arises must be replaced with a strategy that moves beyond just pushing back Russia and focuses on long-term defence and deterrence. This strategy relies on four Cs: clarity, coordination, communication and commitment.
The Need for Clarity and Defence at Home
There remains a mismatch between what the international community is saying it wants the outcome of the war in Ukraine to be and the support it is currently providing. Last week at the Munich Security Conference allies spoke of the need to ensure Russia is defeated in Ukraine, but they are not yet giving the equipment that can make this happen. This must change. Improved supply will require two things. One is to ensure allies are sufficiently well equipped and robust in their own defence and energy supply to minimise their vulnerability to Russian threats. The second is to increase the speed and quality of the supply of equipment to Ukraine.
Coordination and Interoperability of Supply
The current fragmentation of supply means Ukraine is often getting the right equipment but not always at the right time. Agreement has now been reached, led by the United States and Germany, to deliver tanks, but they aren’t due to arrive until Russia’s spring offensive is likely to be well under way. A similar trend appears likely to play out regarding jets (if they are to be supplied). Fresh thought should be given to how the flow of equipment – and training in use of that equipment – can be centralised, synchronised and systematised. A non-aligned body similar to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) model that coordinates cyber defence could act as a model for how to provide a central mechanism to match supply with battlefield strategy.
A Unified Vision
For too long the international community has not reached agreement, even behind closed doors, on a realistic endgame vision for the long-term security and defence of Ukraine. Principles of sovereignty dictate that those fighting for peace determine the appropriate time to move towards a ceasefire. The vision needs to be led by Ukraine, but the implementation needs a united stance, politically and practically, on the part of its allies.
A communicated common vision of the realistic long-term trajectory, agreed carefully and in concert with Ukraine, can better enable a consistent supply strategy that could turn the tide of the conflict once and for all. Continuing to try to implement a fragmented, short-term delivery programme could hamper the likelihood of an end to the conflict.
Commitment to Our Common Vision
One year on, the emergency-response policy of Ukraine and its allies has stretched Russia further than anticipated. President Vladimir Putin’s gamble has regalvanised the NATO alliance and renewed its sense of mutual responsibility and clarity of purpose and spirit. Allies promise to stand by Ukraine as it fights “to end this barbarous war”, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated in his surprise visit to Kyiv. A strategy of “as long as it takes”, as signalled by President Biden, is still driven by an innate optimism and belief that, after the second world war, countries would never send 100,000 soldiers into another. Emergency response and supply measures reflect that optimism – a strategic calculation that having given Ukraine enough supplies to defend itself but not to existentially threaten Russia, Putin will see eventually see that the war is unwinnable.
Now, a year on, perhaps it is time to alter the calculus and take back the timeframe in Ukraine. This depends on the Western allies clarifying their position for this new phase of the war and for the long term, as well as coordinating supply to match a new optimistic endgame vision that not only deals with the current threat but builds towards Ukraine’s security, defence and resilience.