Sven Biscop / Feb 2023
Photo: European Union 2023
The absolute first priority today is to provide Ukraine with the military support necessary to hold the line in the weeks and months to come, and prevent further significant loss of territory. This is not only important, but urgent: it requires heavy weapons now, which Ukraine can operate immediately, in numbers sufficient to fight the expected Russian spring offensive to a standstill.
The second priority is to ensure that Ukraine can sustain its military operations over time – months and years. That means offensive operations to liberate Ukraine’s territory if militarily possible. But as a minimum it means sustaining Ukraine’s defensive operations until such time as Russia concludes that further offensives are hopeless and goes on to the defensive.
It is regrettable, but understandable, that military support has so far been accorded piecemeal. Initial reluctance to provide heavy weapons was caused by fear of Russian escalation and underestimation of Ukraine’s military prowess. The sheer fact that Ukraine did not allow itself to be defeated strongly motivated the EU and the US to increase support, along with the systematic Russian atrocities. Indeed, Russia has escalated its war against Ukraine to such a violent extent that there is little reason to hold back, short of the EU and the US entering the war themselves.
Given the intensity of combat, attrition will be high. With a hundred or so tanks, for example (which is what Europeans and Americans have promised in the first instance), one does not win a war against Russia. It may well be that after a few major actions, most or all are destroyed. Is the West planning to replace those? Does it have the capacity even if it wanted to? We really are long past the time for piecemeal decisions.
The EU must urgently produce an overall plan to direct the provision of military materiel to Ukraine over the coming weeks, months, and years. That requires combined defence planning with Ukraine, so that Ukrainian capability objectives and European defence industrial capacity can be tailored to each other. At the same time, of course, EU Member States must replenish their own stocks. Meanwhile, they should give more thought to transferring materiel from their own operational units to Ukraine, given the urgency and the absolute need to enable Kyiv to hold the line now, in the very short term. Given that Russia’s deployable conventional capabilities will be absorbed by its war against Ukraine, EU and NATO members incur little additional risk in doing so.
This is a European more than an American responsibility. Ukraine is a neighbour of the EU, so if it falls, it will be EU Member States that face a longer border with a self-confident Russia, not the US. It is not acceptable, therefore, that today the Ukrainian war effort stands or falls with US military support, whereas if the Europeans would stop their provisions tomorrow, the impact would be limited. But over time, US support may waver, depending on domestic politics. That is why the EU must gradually take over the main military effort from the US. It is well equipped to do so, moreover: in the European Defence Fund and the European Peace Facility it has the instruments (which NATO has not) to design and implement a large-scale defence industrial effort. A long-term plan means hundreds rather than dozens of tanks, to use the same example.
The US contribution will remain indispensable, of course, notably in the field of intelligence. The American nuclear umbrella is vital in deterring escalation and maintaining non-belligerence. But the core conventional effort is a job for Europe.
Long-term military support will be necessary no matter how the war ends. Complete victory for Ukraine is, alas, improbable. If Ukraine can force Russia onto the defensive, hopefully pushing the front back further eastwards, and both parties fight each other to at least a temporary standstill, that might create a window of opportunity for negotiations. This could result in a ceasefire or perhaps even a peace agreement. Everything will depend on the parties’ perception of the military balance of power and the possibility for further gains on the battlefield, and on their willingness to compromise over territory. A peace agreement implies mutual concessions, and thus some loss of territory for Ukraine: an injustice, definitely, but possibly the price of peace and stability. The war could also very well become a frozen conflict, however, with an ever-present risk of renewed escalation.
In all of the above scenarios, Ukraine will have to maintain strong conventional armed forces, to deter a third Russian invasion. Even a formal peace agreement may be very fragile.
An actual peace agreement would open the door to EU membership, pending reconstruction (which the EU ought also to take the lead of) and, of course, far-reaching internal reforms. The Western powers need not wait for effective membership to guarantee a peace agreement, however. Indeed, if peace were signed, European and American troops could enter Ukraine itself, and provide the strongest possible deterrent against Russia violating it: non-belligerence would no longer be an option. But in the frozen conflict scenario, the future may look awfully like the present.