The limits of “as long as it takes”: Why Ukraine’s allies need to update their strategy

The politicisation of aid for Ukraine in the US and Europe, combined with the increasing war of attrition, is calling into question the West’s strategy for Ukraine. Kyiv’s allies need to update their strategy to enable Ukraine to push back against Russia’s aggression

Ukrainian and German soldiers gather around a defused mine during mine sweeping training of the EU’s Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine (EUMAM Ukraine) at the multinational special training area of Germany’s army Bundeswehr in Altengrabow near Magdeburg, Germany, December 12, 2023. REUTERS/Liesa Johannssen
Ukrainian and German soldiers gather around a defused mine during mine sweeping training of the EU’s Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | LIESA JOHANNSSEN

In the last weeks, US lawmakers and the European Union have both failed to adopt their most recent packages of military and economic support for Ukraine. Both will reconvene to try again in the new year, but this leaves the reliability of Western support for Ukraine on shaky ground through the winter break. While Ukraine can cope with a short gap in funding, a longer break or a total cut in support would shift the balance on the battlefield in Moscow’s favour, force Ukraine to stay on the defensive, and could allow Russia to make new territorial gains which may ultimately affect any prospect for peace short of Ukraine’s capitulation.

Ukraine has been relying on the United States, the EU, and the G7 for military and economic aid since the beginning of the war. For the last 18 months, US officials, European leaders, and NATO allies have repeated the maxim that they will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes”. Now though, the political crises in Brussels and Washington call this strategy into question. Despite its promise of longevity, the Western strategy of “as long as it takes” is already reaching its limits. After his most recent meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, even President Joe Biden employed a slightly different formula, saying that the US would back Ukraine for “as long as we can”.  

In addition to the growing opposition to long-term support for Ukraine, it has become increasingly clear that the current approach cannot enable Ukraine to regain control over the occupied territories. A year ago, Western leaders firmly declared that Russia had already lost the war in Ukraine, but today this statement is far less certain. Russia’s ability to learn from past mistakes, reshuffle its economy to serve its military agenda, and divide the West through masterful disinformation campaigns is bearing results and has made it a formidable enemy. Meanwhile, the modest results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive combined with decreasing support for Kyiv and missed deadlines in weapons production are also turning the tide in the Kremlin’s favour. The war has entered a phase of attrition, which Russia could stand to gain from given its reserves of resources. Russia indeed seems to have settled in for a long war with high intensity fighting: almost a third of its 2024 budget is earmarked for defence. In the current circumstances, this will make it difficult for Ukraine to defend its territory, not to speak of regaining the occupied territories. In November, the head of the Ukrainian army, General Valery Zaluzhny warned that the war had reached a stalemate.

Analysts have criticised the current US administration for its incrementalism in providing support, accusing it of “self-deterrence”. Former US general Ben Hodges explained that US assistance so far has only been sufficient to keep Ukraine in the fight but not to make Russian forces in Ukraine vulnerable. This policy could eventually leave Ukraine with little choice except negotiating a settlement, in which Russia may retain control over the occupied territories. A growing number of US lawmakers are already calling for a negotiated settlement.

Some experts have argued that a negotiated settlement would not constitute a Russian victory as the Kremlin would not achieve its stated war objectives of eliminating Ukraine’s national and political independence. However, a negotiated settlement would be a disaster for Ukraine and only mark a pause until a future war once Russia is recovered and is ready. A negotiated settlement would also be a bad solution for the US and Europe, which would face the prospect of spending more over the long term to deter and defend against future aggressions from an emboldened Russia.

Moreover, the idea of negotiations disregard one important element: Russia is not ready to negotiate, despite the Kremlin randomly floating the idea on multiple occasions. Russian officials still insist on their maximalist war goals: in one of his most recent public appearances, President Vladimir Putin insisted that Russia’s maximalist goals in Ukraine have not changed and include “denazification”, “demilitarisation”, and imposing a “neutral status” on Ukraine. US officials predict that Putin will not consider ending the war until he knows the US election results, which could create a different context for his aims if Donald Trump is re-elected as president.

The support for Ukraine is therefore a time-sensitive problem. Diplomatic circles remain optimistic that Congress will adopt the supplemental for Ukraine in the coming two months.[1] Lawmakers are likely to endorse the military support, especially if the US administration can better articulate its strategy in Ukraine and find a compromise on the domestic disagreements. European leaders are also confident that the EU will endorse an aid package for Ukraine in January 2024. But there is uncertainty about the amount of economic support that US lawmakers will earmark. And even if Congress does pass the bill on funding for Ukraine, the common sense in the US is that regardless of who wins the presidential election in 2024, the US will reduce its assistance to Ukraine as of 2025.[2] This gives Kyiv and its allies one year to prepare for a new international context, in which Europe will need to take the lead on a support strategy for Ukraine. This is a bold task for Europe but the EU’s contributions so far show that it is a doable one, provided the US maintains part of its military support for Ukraine.

However, Europe needs to update this strategy to ensure increased, and longer-term, support for Ukraine to enable it to fight a war of attrition. This should focus on sustainable support that is mutually beneficial for Ukraine and Europe. There are at least three instruments that can feed into this approach. Above all, European allies and Ukraine should increase the co-production of weapons, which will enable Ukraine to arm itself even if Western support ebbs and flows. Artillery shells and air-defence systems will be instrumental for a long war and should be the focus of this effort. Ukraine has already organised the first international defence industry forum in September and signed tens of contracts for joint production.

Kyiv and its allies have one year to prepare for a new international context, in which Europe will need to take the lead on a support strategy for Ukraine

The confiscation of frozen Russian assets in the EU worth more than $300 billion can also help Ukraine to sustain a long war. Initial hesitancy in the US and EU about confiscating Russian assets has given way to discussions about how to do it. The EU is preparing to begin the process by transferring the profits generated from Russia’s frozen assets to Ukraine, but the debate continues on what to do with the main bulk of Russian funds. Most of the money is in EU countries and it will require meticulous work to build the case for confiscation, however a joint decision by the G7 and the EU to confiscate assets would minimise the potential financial risks.

Finally, NATO remains key in deterring Russia from a future war. The Vilnius summit left a bitter taste in the mouths of Ukrainians and certain NATO members as it failed to provide a clear timetable for Ukraine’s membership. But it is increasingly difficult to envisage Ukraine as part of the EU but not of NATO. The next NATO summit in Washington in July 2024 comes in a difficult political context in the US, but if it does not result in a clear timetable for Ukraine’s NATO accession, it will negatively alter the war outlook. Ukraine can either become part of the West or be colonised by Russia. To avoid the second scenario, Ukraine’s supporters need to adapt their strategy to the current context to increase support and convince Russia that it cannot win a war of attrition.

[1] Author’s meetings in the US with representatives of both parties, current US officials, and think-tank experts, November 13-17 2023.

[2] Author’s meetings in the US with representatives of both parties, current US officials, and think-tank experts, November 13-17 2023.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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