Ukraine: torn between grit and bitterness

Steven Everts / Apr 2024

Image: Shutterstock


The situation in Ukraine is precarious, if not worse. I was glad to have joined a study visit to Kyiv, organised by the ECFR, with a simple mission: to assess the situation on the ground and above all see how those who stand with Ukraine can do more to ensure its victory. We saw ministers and key decision-makers and held a roundtable with other think tankers and civil society leaders. It is clear that Ukraine urgently needs more military support, above all air defence, fighter jets and help with increased domestic production. Doing so is in our own interest: Ukraine is not the ‘good other’, Ukraine is ‘us’.  

There is no point denying the scale of the challenge that Ukraine faces right now: the news from the front is one of steady Russian advances, feeding the notion that in this war of attrition, time is on Moscow’s side. Regular missile and drone attacks on cities and energy facilities are even worse, terrorising the civilian population. And there are big question marks over the degree and duration of Western support. Understandably, Ukrainian leaders are on edge, demanding insistently why Europe and the United States are not following through on the promises they made. What about all the talk of ‘supporting Ukraine as long as it takes?’ In Kyiv there is a sense of abandonment - and in life there is no worse betrayal than being abandoned by ‘your own’.    

Every conversation begins and ends with missile defence. The shortage of missile defence systems means that Russia is increasingly able to hit large cities like Kharkiv and major energy power plants, essentially with the purpose of making life impossible. By some estimates, Ukraine has lost 7 GW of electricity production capacity, out of a pre-war capacity of 10 GW. Ukraine now calls itself the greenest economy in Europe, as all coal power stations have been bombed.

The figures we heard regarding the country’s population were still more alarming: out of a pre-war population of around 34 million, 20-22 million live in government-controlled Ukraine, around 5-6 million reside in the EU, and 8-9 million in Russian-occupied Ukraine. The rest are in non-EU countries, wounded or dead. Ukraine is running out of people, hence the difficult debate on modalities for a further, partial mobilisation.

For months, Ukrainian leaders have been asking us for two items as a top priority: ammunition and air defence. The grim reality is that on both fronts, supplies are falling short. Neither the EU, nor the Czech initiatives on artillery shells and missiles, have delivered sufficient volumes – nor will they in the coming weeks. Ukrainians regret this of course but also do understand the constraints (stocks are empty, production times are long and global supplies are hard to come by).

What leaves a real sense of bitterness is the lack of air defence: the US and European countries do have various types of air defence systems (Patriots, SAMP/T etc) but the supply so far has been a trickle. To make matters worse, Ukraine has seen last weekend how Israel was defended against a single night of incoming Iranian missiles and drones, including by direct actions from the US, UK, France and others. Ukraine was not, even though it has faced months of such attacks in a row. As they rightly point out, neither Israel, nor Ukraine is a member of NATO, so why the different treatment?

Ukraine has seen last weekend how Israel was defended against a single night of incoming Iranian missiles and drones.

The outlook on other, diplomatic fronts is not so positive either.  Work is underway on some form of ‘peace summit’ in Switzerland, perhaps in June. But due to a lack of support from countries of the ‘Global South’, it is beginning to look less like the planned rally of the ‘global majority’ behind the 10-point Ukrainian Peace Plan. Right now, the focus is on shoring up numbers who would attend, principally by shifting the agenda to four less contentious issues like food security, nuclear security, the return of kidnapped children and environmental security. All these aspects are relevant, but they are not core to the path for a ‘just peace’ that Ukraine longs for and deserves.

On NATO, things look tricky too. In July NATO will mark its 75th anniversary in Washington. At that time, Ukraine would like to get a formal invitation to join, knowing that entry itself would take years and can only follow after an end to the war. But important allies, including Germany and the US, are unwilling to give the green light. Hence, work is underway to ‘build a bridge’, i.e. to add to what was agreed last year in Vilnius, for instance by a multi-year, $100 billion fund and by making NATO the platform for coordinating military assistance, replacing the Ramstein group.

The rub here is the poisonous politics in the US. For months, a minority of pro-Trump Republicans has held up funding for crucial military supplies to Ukraine, including air defence, for party political calculations. To deny a ‘win’ to Joe Biden or, worse, because they genuinely want to end support to Ukraine. It is imperative that Congress approves the next batch of aid for Ukraine as soon as possible – hopefully this weekend.  

There is no way that a new NATO $100 billion fund would somehow shield Ukraine from these shenanigans. And Ukrainians themselves say that it is not clear in what way coordination through NATO would deliver more and faster military supplies than Ramstein does. In short, it is unlikely that the NATO summit in July will lead to the kind of positive boost that Ukraine is looking for.

Amidst all of this, it is impressive to see the level of grit and resilience that Ukrainians display. They keep fighting a ruthless enemy, no matter the odds. They keep innovating their battlefield tactics (but so does Russia...). And they keep expressing their gratitude for the Western assistance they have received – knowing that without it they would be lost but also aware that neither the volumes nor the speed of delivery have been enough.

It is impressive to see the level of grit and resilience that Ukrainians display.

One personal comment stuck with me. After lengthy exchanges at a dinner on Ukraine, the war, the EU, NATO and what not, we were told: ‘My husband has been at the frontline for two years. I have only seen him once. We discussed whether we wanted to start a family in the middle of a war. In the end we decided: yes we should and I got pregnant. Because Ukraine cannot disappear. We will fight to the end now, so our children won’t have to fight.’

What should Europeans do now?

First, the most urgent task now is to find the 7 air defence batteries (Patriot or similar) that Ukraine needs. And to deploy these quickly so that the major cities and remaining infrastructure in Ukraine are afforded a minimum of protection. HR/VP Borrell has rightly said that we need concrete commitments from Member States at the next Foreign Affairs Council.

This is not charity, nor ‘just’ a matter of keeping our word: doing so is in our own interest. Ukrainians are fighting for our security, as Russia is a threat as much to them as to the wider EU.

Second, the F-16 coalition needs to be enlarged. Other countries have to follow the leadership displayed by Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. We need more training of pilots and to expand the types of fighter jets being provided to Gripen and Rafale.

Third, Europe urgently needs to support the development of greater weapons production capacity inside Ukraine. The needs are enormous but doing this will help ‘insulate’ Ukraine from the vicissitudes of intra-European or US politics. The EU-Ukraine Defence Industry Forum on 6 May is the moment to advance this agenda including by matchmaking and offering more clarity on finance options. Clearly, also this work strand depends, again, on air defence provision – investors will need this to allocate capital and ramp up production.

Fourth, the EU needs to agree to launch the formal start of EU accession negotiations in June.  The prospect of eventual EU entry is what keeps Ukraine going. It is doing miraculous reforms while waging the war: it deserves and needs to take the next step on the path to the EU.

It is banal but true that narratives matter. And the narrative for Ukraine right now must be that victory is possible if we recommit to doing big things again.

Just as 2022 was the story of Ukraine resisting the invasion and 2023 was about opening the Black Sea route, 2024 should be about establishing air defence and security. So that Ukraine gets through the summer and beyond.

It may well be that in the final analysis, ‘victory’ will be defined less in territorial terms and more by what kind of country Ukraine becomes: a successful democracy inside the EU and NATO. Getting Ukraine to that victory is the right thing to do; it is in our own interest. And above all, it is within our capacities and reach. Geopolitical Europe anyone?


For more by the author, visit the EUISS website.

Steven  Everts

Steven Everts

April 2024

About this author ︎►

Related content


Nul points

See the bigger picture ►


Better Late...

See the bigger picture ►



See the bigger picture ►


US Gladiators

See the bigger picture ►


Scholz hacker

See the bigger picture ►



See the bigger picture ►


Orbán Valentine

See the bigger picture ►


Trump - Be Afraid

See the bigger picture ►

soundcloud-link-mpu1 rss-link-mpu soundcloud-link-mpu itunes-link-mpu