IN the spring of 2023 it was widely predicted that the Ukrainian armed forces, equipped with advanced Western technology, would push back the Russians, and that this would initiate a coup in Moscow to unseat Vladimir Putin. The bizarre episode involving the Wagner Group fuelled this belief. But where are we now? Putin is secure in his office and has put the Russian economy on a permanent war footing. Defence spending has risen to 6 per cent of GDP and is likely to rise to 29 per cent of total Russian government expenditure in 2024. The Russians are deeply entrenched in Ukraine and see no reason to extend their hold much further, since Putin is essentially sitting on what he wants, and wanted all along. Limited advances continue, true: on Christmas Day, the Russians appear to have captured Marinka in the eastern Donbas. Ukrainian assaults, by contrast, have all foundered with massive casualties.
Various estimates to date put Russian dead at between 80,000, the Russian official figure; 110,000, a leaked Kremlin number; and 120,000, Prigozhin’s figure, with which US sources generally concur. Russian sources claim 383,000 Ukrainians killed and wounded, which if one assumes a ratio of 3:1 would give just short of 100,000 killed. US estimates give at least 70,000 killed, while Ukrainian sources give only 35,000, a number that no one believes. On the defensive, Russian casualties will reduce while Ukraine’s will rise if further offensives are mounted. Tensions between President Zelensky and his Commander-in-Chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, make predictions on this difficult, but it must be clear that Ukraine cannot sustain losses of this magnitude for much longer – even without taking civilian dead into account.
Vaunted Western weapons have not made the difference that was heralded, proving the adage that technology never delivers what it promises. In particular, Russian electronic warfare has developed methods of jamming Ukraine’s JDAM precision missiles, Excalibur guided 155 mm artillery shells and HIMARs missiles. These capabilities also largely negate the Ukrainians’ reliance on drones to identify and engage targets. This should be no surprise. As long ago as 1973, Admiral Sergey Gorshkov was on record as saying that ‘the next war will be won by the side that best exploits the electromagnetic spectrum’.The successful Storm Shadow missile attack on the Novocherkassk landing ship in Feodosia was as lucky as it was skilful, but it will not change the direction of travel in the war. Only small numbers of western tanks have been delivered – 21 Leopards, of which 11 are already casualties; 14 Challenger 2 and 21 US Abrams are also in the inventory – but these are tiny numbers and the burdens of sustainment and crew training are high. No wonder that Ukrainian attention has turned back to the older Russian T72 which, with explosive-reactive armour and other modifications, is available in large numbers and is a familiar fit for Ukrainian conscripts.
Supplies of all kinds, and money, must keep coming from Nato if Ukraine is to continue the war, and this looks increasingly difficult. Nationalist parties in EU nations are focusing on their own countries and people and the EU Commission – which for years has thirsted for a war with Russia – can spend only the money that its member states give it. In Britain, continued materiel support crosses the political divide, with new air defence equipment the latest bequest. But Britain’s shot locker is empty and the government shows no signs of refilling it. In the US, the Democrats’ budget is blocked by Congress and without it, the biggest part of Ukraine’s support disappears. US support has now topped $100billion and many in Congress are saying ‘enough’.
As Putin must have foreseen from the start, the West has only limited strategic patience. As well as fatigue, there is the distraction of the war against Hamas. Israel has no strategic depth in its territory, its people or its economy: only the US provides this. With US support, the war in Gaza will continue for many months and for many in America, support to their Middle Eastern ally is more important than Ukraine. Underscoring this is the parallel threat from Iranian-backed Hezbollah and the actions by the Houthis against maritime oil transportation. These threats call for resources, which can be found only by changing US priorities.
The cohesion of Nato, one of the US Chiefs of Staffs’ four enduring principles, must also be shored up. The accession of Sweden and Finland is a welcome boost to the Alliance, but the Baltic States must be supported. Turkey, which is playing off Nato against the Russians, is an increasingly unreliable partner. The Poles remain a wild card – capable of leading a coalition of the willing founded on Nato, but outside its authority, which might intervene directly in Ukraine. The consequences of that can only be guessed at.
Predictions are notoriously dangerous, and I have stuck my neck out many times in this journal, saying that in my opinion Putin will eventually win. 2024 will be the year in which the war is brought to a close through negotiations: the levers to put these negotiations in train will bear on Zelensky, not Putin, and will be principally those of resources, or lack thereof. A negotiated settlement also probably means the end of Zelensky. Putin, it seems, is in no hurry.
In any negotiation, the Crimea and the four eastern oblasts occupied by Russia will not be on the table – and no one should be in any doubt about that. German proposals predicated on a Russian withdrawal to the pre-war border are fantasy. Let us be quite clear about this. Putin went through the legalistic process of formally annexing these territories to Russia. They are now part of Russia and are not negotiable. So, what is negotiable? Odessa – Ukraine’s vital port on the Black Sea which so far, the Russians have deliberately and studiously avoided. The message from Putin is: ‘We could take this down any time, but we are leaving you a bargaining chip.’ Russian agreement to Ukrainian membership of the EU is also possible, since Ukraine would be a burden on an already bankrupt organisation, further weakening Putin’s enemies. Membership of Nato? Less likely, but also possible for the same reason since Nato has exhausted its stocks of conventional weapons in bolstering Ukraine and new territory means more extension, especially of the nuclear umbrella provided chiefly by the US but to a lesser extent by Britain and France.
The value of this deterrent rests on its credibility and its capability. For the former, Ukraine and the West must rely on the will of the US President to use it. For diverging reasons, both Biden and Trump – if he wins in November – might well hesitate. For the latter, the West must address the development programmes going on in Russia, China and Iran if it is to stay anywhere close to equality in terms of nuclear delivery. Beyond any settlement in Ukraine, which will be on Russia’s terms, there lurk more troubles for the West: the Russians’ appetite for annexation in Moldova or even for moves against the Baltic States; Iranian warmongering in the Middle East; the security of Israel; and – of course – Chinese ambitions in Taiwan. To deal with all of these, the West must rearm, replenish its weapon stocks, expand its armed forces and modernise its deterrent. So far it shows little or no sign of doing any of these things. The consequences of inaction will be more dangerous than even the 1930s or the depths of the Cold War.