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24 February 2024

Where does Ukraine go from here?

On the two-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion, writers and historians reflect on the war.

At half past five in the morning on 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin appeared in a televised broadcast to announce “a special military operation” in Ukraine. Minutes later, the first missile explosions could be heard in cities across the country. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine had begun; war had returned to Europe.

Many expected Kyiv to fall quickly. But as Ukrainian forces proved remarkably resilient in the face of Russia’s initial assault, a surge of US-led military and economic aid followed. Western sanctions were imposed on Russia, in the hope of crushing Putin’s prospect of victory. But as the war dragged on, hope dimmed. Ukrainian counteroffensives yielded few battlefield gains in the east. Russia’s economy weathered the initial turmoil of sanctions and quickly found stability, largely thanks to soaring trade with China and other nations acting as middlemen in order to help Moscow circumvent sanctions. Just as it did in 2023, Russia’s GDP is poised to grow this year.

The future is uncertain. Attention has shifted to Gaza. The Global South never rallied behind Kyiv and Western support has wavered. Volodymyr Zelensky has struggled to stem political attacks and a corruption scandal at home. Donald Trump could soon return to the White House. As the war enters its third year, New Statesman writers and contributors grapple with the question of what Ukraine can do next.

Katie Stallard
Two years ago, Vladimir Putin made a bet: Ukraine would capitulate, Volodymyr Zelensky would flee, and the West’s response would be manageable. He had reason to believe this. Russia had seized Crimea without a fight. Zelensky was a former comedian who had shown little sign of the wartime leader he was about to become. The self-inflicted calamity of Brexit and the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump testified to the dysfunction of Western democracies, while the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan the previous year provided the clearest possible illustration of an America in retreat, even with a Democrat in charge. Putin’s previous acts of aggression had been greeted with little more than diplomatic hand-wringing, let alone a diminution in Europe’s insatiable appetite for Russian gas. Little wonder he gambled on a short, victorious war that would secure his place in Russian history.

He has been proved wrong on all but one crucial point. The West’s unexpectedly unified response is faltering, exacerbated by the cowardice of US House Republicans in thrall to Trump. Nato ammunition stocks are dwindling, while Putin has shifted the Russian economy on to a war footing and secured steady supplies of weaponry from an emerging axis of autocracies including Iran and North Korea. He has appeared triumphant in recent outings, increasingly confident that the trajectory of this war is shifting in his favour. Yet Putin is not as invulnerable as his recent swagger suggests. Russian casualties are mounting, Russian wives and mothers are demanding the return of their men, and the Kremlin is wary of declaring a new mobilisation ahead of the sham presidential election to be held 15-17 March.

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In the coming months we will undoubtedly hear more from Putin about his desire for negotiations to end the fighting. Don’t be fooled. The Russian leader has already declared a broader war with the West. He will use any ceasefire to rearm. If he succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, he will view it as another victory in his wider, ongoing conflict. He will be emboldened, and his fellow autocrats – in Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang – will be encouraged.

Andrey Kurkov
It’s been two years since I heard the first missile explosions in Kyiv. What am I thinking about? Boris Nadezhdin – the only Russian presidential candidate who has spoken about the need to end the war – has been barred from running in the March presidential election even though he had no chance of winning. This speaks of Vladimir Putin’s weakness. Alexei Navalny’s death also speaks to this.

Since Russian troops have only managed to capture the ruins of the city of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine in time for the Russian elections, Putin cannot boast to his obedient voters of a turning point in the war. He expected his re-election as president of Russia to be accompanied by a victory march.

This does not mean that the situation is developing in Ukraine’s favour. The lack of ammunition and weapons has not only caused the stagnation of the front line and the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Avdiivka, but has also shaken Ukrainians’ faith in their partners from Europe and the United States. The situation on the Polish border is a separate cause for pessimism among Ukrainians, with Polish farmers blocking all crossings, preventing the passage of, among other things, military aid from the EU to Ukraine. We are entering the third year of this full-scale war with anxiety – but even more determination.

Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer and the author of several novels, including the bestselling “Death and the Penguin”.

Margaret MacMillan
Where are we now? It depends, doesn’t it, on who the “we” is. The old man in the Kremlin dreams of victory but whatever comes his Russia will be weaker, with its armed forces depleted and humiliated, and far more dependent on its powerful neighbour China. Ukrainians are far from ready to give up but can we say the same of its supporters? The democracies are still sending aid but often grudgingly, and on the political extremes useful idiots such as Tucker Carlson and George Galloway have, in effect, called for an end to the war on Putin’s terms. Much of the Global South has made it clear that the conflict is not theirs. The rest of us hover somewhere between pessimism and optimism. We want Ukraine to win, and Putin and his regime to go into the dustbin of history, but increasingly we fear we are being unrealistic. We are in a muddle, unsure of how to read the signs and wary of predicting the future. Yes, good that there is a new democratic government in Poland but what will happen if Donald Trump gets back in the White House? In 1941, things looked very dark for Britain yet with the entry into the war of the United States and the dogged resistance of Russia, the tide turned. Dare we hope today?

Margaret MacMillan is a professor of history at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

Wolfgang Streeck
The war is lost but our governments refuse to admit it. Instead they pretend it can still be won – indeed must be won lest “Putin” march into Finland, Sweden, the Baltic states, ultimately Berlin. Two years ago, we were promised that by now at the latest, Russia would be thoroughly defeated, economically, militarily and politically. But our sanctions backfired, there were not enough Leopard II tanks, and Elon Musk’s satellites lost sight of the world on the ground. Russia may no longer have any reason to return to peace negotiations started in Minsk or Istanbul. Instead it can look on as the Americans go home, as they always do when things go wrong, and watch how Ukraine disintegrates. Time to ask who got the Ukrainians into this mess – who told the Ukrainian extreme right that Crimea would be theirs again? To avoid such questions the European political class is willing to let the slaughter continue at the frozen Ukrainian front line – five years, ten years – no problem, it’s only Ukrainians who will do the fighting. But what if they refuse to play along and die for “our values”?

Wolfgang Streeck is director emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne.

Ivan Krastev
When Russian troops started their attack on Kyiv two years ago, Europeans were forced to wake up to the new reality in global politics. Their firm belief that no major war was possible on the old continent turned out to be wrong. The major assumptions on which Europeans have based their security were shattered. Economic interdependence was transformed overnight from a source of security into a source of insecurity. Europeans were forced to realise that their long-standing unwillingness to invest in their military capabilities has imperilled them, and that Europe has become totally dependent on the US for its security at the moment when the American security umbrella can no longer be taken for granted. What’s more, the heroic resistance of Ukraine has forced Europeans to question their romance with the ideal of post-heroic societies. The postwar world has been suddenly transformed into a pre-war world.

What makes the current moment critically different from the beginning of the war or even from the situation a year ago is that, now, European governments and a growing number of European citizens have started to perceive the war not in terms of solidarity with Ukraine but in terms of defending the core security interests of Russia’s European neighbours. In the wake of Poland and Lithuania’s first partition in 1772 between Russia, Prussia and Austria, the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke asked rhetorically, “Poland was but a breakfast, where will they dine?” More Europeans are now asking where Putin will dine if Ukraine is defeated.

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Christopher Caldwell
We appear to be headed towards a partition of Ukraine, with the occupied east and south (including Crimea) rejoining Russia, and the north-west linking back up to Poland, the old Habsburg lands and central Europe more broadly. That still leaves a lot of middle ground to fight over. Whether the frontier will follow the Dnieper river or the Oskil river is being settled on the battlefield. Western Ukraine’s longer-term institutional arrangements (EU? Nato?) are, of course, unclear. Both semi-states will surrender their sovereignty, although the western one will be permitted, like its EU neighbours, to pretend otherwise.

Other scenarios are possible. But they would require, first, a military peripeteia and, second, an American willingness to risk nuclear apocalypse. At the dawn of the post-Cold War era, as Ukraine slunk off from the Soviet Union with several pieces of historic Russia concealed in its luggage, most Western policymakers exulted, confident that, should Russia ever wake up, it would be too debilitated to complain. A few warned otherwise. They are on the verge of a vindication.

Christopher Caldwell is a contributing editor at the “Claremont Review of Books”.

Lawrence Freedman
This is obviously a difficult time for Ukraine. It is coming to terms with the prospect of a long war, having been unable to liberate much territory last year, and is now defending on many fronts to stop Russian forces from occupying more. This was not the best time to shake up the command structure, as President Volodymyr Zelensky did when he replaced his commander of the ground forces General Valery Zaluzhny with Oleksandr Syrsky on 8 February. Meanwhile, plans to mobilise desperately needed manpower have yet to be agreed. 

While Ukrainians are relieved that Europe is coming through with its promised support, they are still waiting for the Americans. This has led to a serious shortage of ammunition. If the next aid package fails to get through Congress, Kyiv will have to rethink its strategy in even more defensive terms (there is no way it is going to accept Putin’s terms for peace, which would require Ukraine to agree to Russia holding all occupied territory, and accepting a neutral status). If American aid does come through there may be an opportunity to recast their strategy in more ambitious terms. Many of Ukraine’s recent successes have involved attacking targets to the rear, including naval assets, and even in Russia itself. It will want the Biden administration to be bolder than it has been up to now in supporting this approach.

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London.

Illia Ponomarenko
We used to read history books about the drama of 1938 in Europe that precipitated the horrific catastrophe of 1939, and think to ourselves: “How could all those seasoned men of high cabinets be so short-sighted as to please a power-hungry maniac at any price? Why didn’t they see the abyss that they were rushing headlong into?” Well, this is how. We see it in the news today: Ukraine defence aid blocked by Congress in the US; the Ukrainian military running critically short of munitions and losing ground almost every day; Russia becoming increasingly emboldened, encouraged in its war of conquest. In the West, the temptation of a seemingly easy deal with the devil seems strong: let Ukraine bleed out and get back to business as usual, the Kremlin says. It’s not all lost yet – but I’m afraid that future history books will not portray today’s free world, undetermined and fractured, in a good light.

Illia Ponomarenko is a journalist based in Bucha, Ukraine, and the co-founder of the “Kyiv Independent”, a Ukrainian English-language media outlet.

Bruno Maçães
I wrote one month after the war started that it was difficult to see how it could ever end. And so it remains. Russia does not have the capacity to subdue Ukraine. Its only chance was lost in the few days after the 24 February 2022 invasion, when the element of surprise disappeared. But Ukraine too will find it difficult to win, and for a very simple reason: its Western partners are much more afraid of the prospect of Russian defeat than of the war as it stands, or even of an expansion or escalation. It became clear to me about a year ago that the Biden administration is genuinely afraid of what Vladimir Putin could do in the case of a rout in Ukraine. Putin’s nuclear blackmail has worked to a significant extent.

Deliveries of advanced weapons to Kyiv have been delayed or minimised. When long-range missiles were finally handed over in October 2023, their impact was reduced because so few units were made available. Ukraine, unfortunately, has struggled to convince Washington and Berlin that a Russian defeat is both possible and the best scenario.

I fear the war will drag on, its costs will grow, and its political impact in Ukraine or Russia will also increase. By 2025, possibly with Donald Trump in the White House, there will be a question of which belligerent is better able to manage the impact at home (keep the economy going, preserve political unity, manage mobilisation requirements and avoid a collapse of morale in the army) and abroad (coalitions for military aid and sanctions enforcement). This year is unlikely to bring anything besides more war and more destruction.

Bruno Maçães is a New Statesman foreign correspondent and was Portugal’s Europe minister from 2013-15. 

Olesya Khromeychuk 
We’re at a moment that will define our place in history. Watching Russia’s assault on Ukraine as if it was a TV series is no longer an option. The apocalyptic images we see aren’t conjured up in Hollywood: they’re of real cities like Bakhmut and Avdiivka. The Russian troops are not fictional villains: they’re citizens of a dictatorship, following orders to rape, loot and murder. Ukrainians have no choice but to fight for survival. The choices we make in the West have life-and-death consequences; if our political representatives fail to send Ukraine weapons, ammunition and financial aid, many more Ukrainians will die.

This year, we mark a decade since Russia’s aggression began with the illegal occupation of Crimea, and two years since it escalated into a genocidal war. To deter Russia from expanding its war by bringing it further into Europe, we must do everything to help Ukrainians win. We have to remain informed: even if Ukraine is no longer in the headlines, the war is far from over. We must actively exercise our agency and urge our political leaders not only to maintain support for Ukraine’s survival, but also to provide the resources necessary for its victory. Ukrainians are not only defending their freedom but ours as well.

Olesya Khromeychuk is a historian and writer, and the author of “The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister” (2022). She is currently the director of the Ukrainian Institute London.

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

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