Ukraine - what to expect in 2024

December 29, 2023

As the year comes to an end, a number of articles have been published offering views on how the Russian war against Ukraine and the West will go in the upcoming year.

This morning, the BBC published a piece with contributions from several analysts, including General Ben Hodges, USA (Ret) former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe and a member of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friend of Ukraine Network.  That article is set out below.

In addition, following the BBC article is an excellent piece by Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.

I recommend both and end this email with my own comment.


Ukraine war: Three ways the conflict could go in 2024

28th December 2023, 07:15 EST

The conflict in Ukraine is about to enter its third calendar year. The front lines have hardly moved in the last few months, but could the course of the war change in 2024?

President Volodymyr Zelensky has admitted his country's spring offensive has not been the success he hoped. Russia still controls about 18% of Ukraine.

We asked three military analysts how they think events may unfold in the coming 12 months.

War will drag on but not indefinitely

Barbara Zanchetta, Department of War Studies, King's College London

The prospects for an end of the war in Ukraine remain bleak. Compared with this time last year, Vladimir Putin is stronger, politically more than militarily.

The situation on the battleground remains uncertain. Recently, Ukraine's winter offensive seems to have come to a halt. But there is no Russian breakthrough, either. More than ever, the outcome depends on political decisions made miles away from the center of the conflict - in Washington and in Brussels.

The West's impressive show of unity displayed in 2022, and that endured throughout 2023 is starting to vacillate.

The US defense aid package is held hostage by what President Biden rightly labeled "petty politics" in Washington. And the future of the EU's economic aid seemingly depends on Hungary's incongruous stance.

Hesitation in the West's capitals has emboldened Putin. His recent public appearances and defiant statements demonstrate that, as far as he is concerned, Russia is in this for the long haul.

So, will the West have the strength and stamina to continue to oppose him and all that he represents?

The EU's decision to open membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova is more than just symbolic. It implicitly means continued backing for Kyiv, as a future in the EU for Ukraine would be impossible with a full-blown victory for Russia.

In Washington, a complete reversal of policy is unlikely.

While it is tempting to depict doomsday scenarios for US assistance as Trump's ratings rise in the polls, the former president, amid all the theatrics, did not walk out from NATO in 2016. And he would not singlehandedly be able to revolutionize America's 75-year-long transatlantic partnership.

This is not to say that the recent cracks in the Western camp are meaningless. For the West, and therefore for Ukraine, 2024 will be more difficult.

For democracies, long-term consensus in support for war has always been more complicated than for autocrats with no accountability.

While it is likely that the war will drag on throughout 2024, it cannot drag on indefinitely.

With Western hesitancy bolstering Russia, and in the absence of either a coup or a health-related issue leading to Putin's demise, the only foreseeable outcome will be a negotiated settlement that, for now, both sides continue to refuse.

A year of consolidation ahead
Michael Clarke, former director general of the Royal United Services Institute

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 saw the return of major war to the European continent. The course of the conflict in 2023 marked the fact that industrial-age warfare had returned, too.

Industrial-age warfare bends significant parts or in some cases whole economies, towards the production of war materials as a matter of priority. Russia's defense budget has tripled since 2021 and will consume 30% of government spending next year.

This will make the war in Ukraine a longer and more traumatic enterprise than anything Europe has known since the middle of the last century. The coming year will demonstrate whether Russia - and its suppliers in North Korea and Iran - or Ukraine - and its Western backers - are able and prepared to meet the voracious demands of industrial-age warfare.

It would be wrong to say that the front lines in Ukraine are stalemated, but both sides are capable of fighting each other to a standstill as they each try to take strategic initiatives.

Russian forces may try to push again along the entire front, at least to secure all of the Donbas region. Ukraine will probably try to exploit the success it has had in re-establishing its control over the western Black Sea and its vital trade corridor to the Bosphorus.

And Kyiv will likely also try to spring more military surprises on the Russian invaders to knock them off balance in some areas.

But in essence, 2024 looks like being a year of consolidation for both Kyiv and Moscow.

Russia lacks the equipment and trained manpower to launch a strategic offensive until spring 2025 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, Ukraine needs Western finance and military support to keep it in the war during the next year while it, too, builds up its intrinsic strengths to create the conditions for a series of liberating offensives in the future.

Industrial-age warfare is a struggle between societies. What happens on the battlefield becomes ultimately only the symptom of that struggle.

The military course of this war in 2024 will be determined in Moscow, Kyiv, Washington, Brussels, Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang more than in Avdiivka, Tokmak, Kramatorsk, or any of the devastated battlefields along the frontlines.

Ukraine will press Russia around Crimea
Ben Hodges, former commanding general, United States Army Europe

Russia lacks a decisive, breakthrough capability to overrun Ukraine and will do what it can to hold on to what it currently occupies, using the time to strengthen its defenses while it hopes for the West to lose the will to continue supporting Ukraine.

But Ukraine will not stop. It is in a fight for its survival and understands what Russia will do if it stops. More European nations are now talking about the need to step up aid in light of concerns that the US is weakening in its resolve.

I do, however, anticipate that early in the new year the US will rediscover its strategic backbone and pass the aid package that was delayed in Congress in December.

Therefore, I anticipate Ukraine will do the following in the coming months as it prepares to regain the initiative:

  • reconstitute units that have been worn down from months of fighting, which will be necessary for a renewed offensive
  • improve the recruiting system within Ukraine to maximize available manpower
  • increase production of ammunition and weapons
  • improve its ability to operate against strong Russian electronic warfare capabilities - jamming, intercepting, locating.

By early summer, Ukraine will be able to use US-made F16 fighter jets for the first time, which it hopes will improve its ability to counter Russian aircraft and strengthen its own air defenses.

The most strategically important part of Ukraine that remains occupied by Russia is Crimea, which is what we call the "decisive terrain".

[Here, the published article had maps showing the “decisive terrain,” but I could not copy them – at the end of the article is a link if you would like to see the accompanying pictures and maps.  RAM]

Ukraine will do all it can to keep pressure on the Russians there to make it untenable for the Russian navy in Sevastopol, the handful of air force bases there, and their logistics base at Dzankoy.

They have already proven the concept. With just three UK-provided Storm Shadow cruise missiles, they have forced the commander of the Black Sea Fleet to withdraw a third of his fleet from Sevastopol.

The Ukrainians do not have unlimited resources, of course, especially artillery ammunition and long-range precision weapons.

But the Russian soldiers are in worse shape. War is a test of will and a test of logistics. The Russian logistics system is fragile and under continuous pressure from Ukraine.

Link to the BBC article:

The Independent (UK)
What we can expect from the war in Ukraine in 2024

Kyiv’s forces are likely to remain on the defensive for much of next year, writes Keir Giles. That is unless the West finally gets fully behind the idea that Putin’s war aims will only change if his hand is forced

December 26, 2023

The year draws to a close with yet another bitter reminder of how the international community could have done more to assist Ukraine against Russia but chose not to. Threats to shipping in the Red Sea have triggered a strong and immediate international military response to protect commerce there – a galling sight for supporters of Ukraine after the international community’s refusal to do the same in the Black Sea to relieve Russia’s stranglehold on Ukrainian grain exports.

International resolve is what has set the conditions for Ukraine’s continued struggle for survival in 2024. There won’t be the same hopes for a major Ukrainian breakthrough as there were in early 2023. Reporting in the US describes recriminations between Kyiv and Washington over the plan for Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive. But there is no disagreement that Ukraine was called upon to conduct a campaign without air superiority in a way no Western military would have contemplated. And now, not only aircraft but supplies of other essential war materials are under threat because of domestic politics in the US and Hungary.

The announcement by the Netherlands that it will provide 18 F-16 fighters is welcome, but the timeframe is still to be laid out completely. But Kyiv will be concerned that it is heading into the New Year without the confirmation of tens of billions of pounds of fresh financial support from both the US and EU.

The White House had already concluded that confronting Russia was not in the US national interest, but now Washington’s ongoing political nervous breakdowns raise the prospect of support ceasing altogether. A possible second Donald Trump presidency was the expected point of crisis for aid to Ukraine – and for the future of NATO this coming year. But a combination of hesitancy and self-deterrence by Joe Biden’s administration and Republican opposition to ongoing funding means the crisis for Europe is already here.

Europe itself may begin at long last to face up to the prospect of holding back Russia without the US support it has historically relied on.

Nevertheless the fact the EU will have to wait until January to confirm its own £43bn in funding thanks to the stalling of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, an ally of Vladimir Putin, means that Kyiv is having to plan for the worst.

Military operations have already been adapted to being even more starved of munitions. But this situation was entirely predictable. The mathematics of the war dictated that there was a limited opportunity to bring it to a swift conclusion, and Kyiv’s Western backers chose not to take it.

That means that Ukraine is likely to remain on the defensive for much of 2024, and indeed construction of fortifications along Russia’s main potential lines of advance has already begun. Russia, meanwhile, can either wait for a Trump presidency to tilt the balance of power further in the Kremlin’s favour along with a new conscript army, or go all-in with a new offensive to push for new territorial gains ahead of Vladimir Putin’s own re-election in March 2024.

Not all the news for Kyiv is bad. It’s true that a long war favours Russia, with its deeper reserves of manpower, political patience, and tolerance for self-inflicted misery. But that doesn’t mean Russia’s forces in Ukraine are invincible. The staggering rate of Russian losses there will force harder and harder choices as Moscow looks to dredge the country for new manpower to send into the meat grinder. And rushing substandard North Korean artillery shells directly to the front suggests that Russia isn’t yet capable of meeting its ammunition needs from domestic stocks or production.

Meanwhile, a focus on the immobile front line obscures major Ukrainian successes in the war. One of these is regaining freedom of movement in the Black Sea independently after overt Western support was not forthcoming. Home-built defence technologies including maritime attack drones, part of Kyiv’s ambition to gain advantage through innovation, have been an important enabler. The UK aims to build on that success by helping Ukraine toward sustainable maritime defence in the long term.

It has always been the case that more support for Ukraine earlier will be the cheaper option for the West in the long run than allowing the war to drag on and the Russian threat to remain unchecked. And a plan put forward by Estonia – one of Ukraine’s most committed backers – shows how, given sufficient political will, the tide of the war could be turned. The plan lays out the maths and calculates the cost of denying Russia success at approximately €120bn – just a fraction of the amounts spent by Europe on other strategic challenges, such as recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Others are already stepping up. Japan recognizes the implications for global security of defeat for Ukraine and has now augmented its existing financial and humanitarian support with a plan to increase stocks of Patriot missiles in order to release supplies for Kyiv. But none of these solutions will fully compensate for the potential loss of US support, with or without a possible re-election of Trump.

A focus on campaigning for single high-profile weapons systems for Ukraine, such as main battle tanks or fighter aircraft, has obscured the continuing flows of less glamorous ammunition and equipment. The paradox is that the US has been by far the greatest provider of military support to Ukraine, but also the target of the greatest criticism for its reluctance to offer critical capabilities, and for the limitations Washington places on their use.

Support for Kyiv from the EU will remain hostage to members like Hungary. For all the symbolic value of an EU promise of future accession, it’s of much less immediate help than the aid that Hungary under Orban has so far successfully blocked. There is little point in the EU holding out the prospect of membership for Ukraine if Ukraine does not survive to achieve it.

Nevertheless, it’s more widely recognized than ever that if Russia remains undeterred, the implications for European and global security are desperate. More Western capitals must come to realize that they are in a war that must be won, not a crisis that can be managed. But a failure to seize the opportunity to rearm across the continent has left many European land forces still poorly prepared to face the Russian threat. In addition to the direct Russian threat to NATO, the world would also have to reckon with the cascade effects of Russian success encouraging other aggressors globally.

But supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes” is a public declaration that there is no initiative, no plan, and no strategy. The US fear of the consequences of confronting Russia hands Vladimir Putin a “get out of jail free” card, and Russia can continue to wage its war without fear of suffering the direct consequences that would befall any country behaving similarly without the security blanket of nuclear weapons.

As ever, the resilience and fortitude of the Ukrainian people is the essential component for continued resistance. But for all that Ukrainians recognize that their struggle is for nothing less than their continued existence, the final outcome of the war is unlikely to be decided in Ukraine.

Ukraine is highly unlikely to capitulate, even if international support slips still further. Ukrainians know the dire consequences of surrendering to Russian domination, and they know that the chances of Russia honoring any ceasefire agreement are negligible, so fighting on is the only rational choice. But decisions made earlier by Kyiv’s Western backers – and the interminable delays in making them – ruled out success for Ukraine in 2023 and have almost certainly done so for 2024 as well.

And, crucially, Putin’s war aims will not change – unless they are changed for him. The fighting in Ukraine may one day come to an end. But that won’t end Russia’s broader war against the West. Now, as ever, it is only the defeat of Russia’s ambitions that will bring peace to Europe. But Europe needs to make the decision to defend itself. The coming year will show whether it is willing and able to do so.

Ukraine and its supporters face significant challenges as the new year begins.

In Washington, we must encourage Congress and the Biden Administration to resolve differences on the supplemental, and Congress must pass it as soon as possible.  Then, we must urge the Administration to provide Ukraine with the critical weapons it needs to defeat Russia, weapons that have been refused up until now.

In this context – what Ukraine needs to defend itself and defeat Russia – I note what FOUN member General Phil Breedlove, USAF (Ret.), former Supreme Allied Commander Europe pointed out at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Summit in the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.

General Breedlove reminded that his predecessor as SACEUR Admiral James G. Stavridis had ordered a study of what Ukraine would need if the Russian Federation invaded and attempted to take Ukraine.  The study was completed and identified exactly what Ukraine would need.

So, when Russia invaded, we already knew what Ukraine would need, but through three Administrations, we have not provided Ukraine with what we knew was required for Ukraine to win.

Yes, we have provided a lot, and Ukraine has used what we provided extremely well, but almost ten years in, we still have not given Ukraine everything we knew it would need to win.

As Giles points out in the article above, “It has always been the case that more support for Ukraine, earlier, will be the cheaper option for the West ….”  And of course, fewer lives would have been lost, fewer would have suffered Russian torture, fewer Ukrainian women would have been raped, and few Ukrainian children would have been kidnapped.

Breedlove ended his remarks at our Summit with, “How will history judge us?”

That judgment will be better if we act now to make certain Ukraine gets what it needs to defeat Russia as soon as possible.