Ukraine no closer to victory two years after Russia invasion

On 24 February 2022, Moscow invaded Ukraine. For much of Europe, Ukraine is quite literally a call to arms to fight Russian expansionism

A Ukrainian soldier walks inside a destroyed barn by Russian shelling near the frontline of the Zaporizhzhia province, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian soldier walks inside a destroyed barn by Russian shelling near the frontline of the Zaporizhzhia province, Ukraine.

Ukraine no closer to victory two years after Russia invasion

Two years after the outbreak of war, the non-occupied part of Ukraine feels closer to Europe but no closer to victory.

With neither side keen to talk peace and both sides firing whatever ammunition comes their way, diplomats are not hopeful of a quick end.

Although war offers only a dull thud and crude brutality, there is undoubtedly a complex interplay of political and economic factors in the background.

The world’s mightiest militaries are involved.

Washington is bankrolling Ukraine’s defence, with help from the bigger European nations, like the UK, as well as Japan and Australia. Russia, meanwhile, wants to extend its threat to NATO’s borders.

Given that Ukraine lies in Europe’s eastern borderlands, the war’s impact on continental dynamics is crucial, particularly after Moscow’s latest victory in the Donbas this month.

Read more: Will the Baltic Sea become a new arena for confrontation between Russia and the West?

Under Trump, the US may not help NATO allies who have not paid 2% of GDP on defence. Putin will be licking his lips.

Brussels gets twitchy

Europe knows that, even after Ukraine, the Russian bear will not sleep for long. EU leaders have quietly set about preparing for a possible future Russian offensive.

Their concerns were recently turbocharged by former US President Donald Trump, who looks determined to win his second term in the White House in November.

Trump, the likely Republican candidate, suggested that Washington might not defend NATO allies who did not pay 2% of GDP on defence. Putin will be licking his lips.

Europe is also in election mode. In June, a plethora of far-right nationalist parties are hoping to capture the public mood and win influence. They are against transforming the EU into a geopolitical and defence entity.

Some analysts say Russia's assault marks the start of a new cycle of conflicts. It has already spurred European military mobilisation, notably in Germany, which announced a $100bn fighting fund to modernise and restock its armoury.

NATO's expansion to include Sweden and Finland (the latter shares a 1,340km border with Russia) reinforces American leadership. Some in Paris and elsewhere fear this would come at the cost of European autonomy.

America's dithering

NATO defence ministers met in Brussels on 15 February. Many then travelled 750km east to the 61st Munich Security Conference immediately after. The Russian threat tops most agendas these days.

Many worry that American financial and military aid to Ukraine will dwindle as the US election approaches.

Ukrainian soldiers in a dug-out near the frontline village of Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia on February 21, 2024.

From February 2022 to December 2023, Washington gave Kyiv $42bn. Europe gave $35bn and promised another $15bn. Yet a further US package is stalled.

It appears highly unlikely that Europe could compensate for US disengagement. For some, this would essentially hand Putin victory. The Russians already out-gun the Ukrainians, and Ukrainian stocks are getting low.

Europe's focus now will be on averting a Ukrainian collapse if, as many expect, Biden gives way to Trump, who could point to Ukraine's inability to retake occupied land during the summer of 2023 during a much-heralded counter-offensive.

In recent days, the Ukrainian military has retreated from Avdiivka, just north of Donetsk, in Kyiv's biggest battlefield setback since the fall of Bakhmut last year. Both Avdiivka and Bakhmut, though important, had been reduced to rubble.

As Ukrainian soldiers seek safer ground, having become encircled around Avdiivka, Republicans in Washington seek to encircle Joe Biden's administration, nine months from the election.

As Ukrainian soldiers seek safer ground, having become encircled around Avdiivka, Republicans in Washington seek to encircle Joe Biden.

Told to prepare

Given the question marks over US backing, Europe has intensified its efforts by forging security pacts, providing substantial financial assistance, and delivering arms to support Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky.

His recent trips to Berlin and Paris were aimed at bolstering European backing. He followed this up with further military aid from the UK.

In recent weeks, European officials have voiced concerns over Russia's threat. Danish Defence Minister Troels Lund Poulsen said "new intelligence" indicated that Russia might plan an attack on a NATO member in the next three to five years.

Chief of the German Army Gen. Carsten Breuer stressed the importance of getting his troops "combat-ready" in five years.

On the same note, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called for Europe to boost its arms production capabilities to support Ukraine and prevent "potential decades of confrontation" with Moscow.

He called for the continent to move "from a slow peace-time production to a rapid conflict-time production".

All for one, one for all?

Those closest to Russia have more reasons to be alert. Tensions have escalated between Russia and Finland, for instance. Helsinki accused Moscow of sending migrants across the border and reacted by closing the gates.

Last month, Swedish political and military leaders were the latest to stress the need for readiness — a call heard loud and clear in the Baltic states, Moldova, and Poland.

The first major military exercise between the US and Swedish militaries following the NATO Summit in Vilnius took place on Mallsten island in the Stockholm Archipelago on September 13, 2023.

Read more: Are fears of a Russian attack on Sweden warranted?

British ministers have described 2024 as being a "pre-war" geopolitical landscape.

To some, the threats Europe faces from an aggressive Russia filling the gap left by a disappearing America are some of the biggest since World War II ended in 1945.

Yet this is indeed a changed world. Few would have predicted a major land war in Europe before Russia invaded two years ago.

Now, the possibility of others seems far less remote. A changed world, one that is undoubtedly more dangerous.

Testing the boundaries

NATO's famous Article 5 stipulates that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. Putin wonders whether that would hold true if tested.

When Sweden joins, there will be 32 members. Will the US defend the other 31 as it would defend itself? Would Trump?

Moscow vehemently denies that it intends to attack any NATO member and dismiss Western notions to the contrary, just as Putin dismissed any notion that Russia had designs on Ukraine just days before launching a full-scale invasion of it.

Russia, in response, portrays NATO as the provocateur, expanding its membership to Russia's borders "without justification".

Moscow vehemently denies that it intends to attack any NATO member and dismiss Western notions to the contrary.

Joe Biden has said that the US will "defend every inch of NATO territory" against Russian hostility, but he may not be the president this time next year.

Perhaps in anticipation, Stoltenberg has Europe to increase its arms production to support Ukraine, to "speed up the expansion of the industrial base to better supply Ukraine and replenish dwindling stocks".

His comments might suggest a push for more European autonomy in defence and less reliance on American resources. After all, if the world is quickly rearming, the US may want to do the same.

In 2022, European Union military spending reached an unprecedented 240bn euros ($260bn), as reported by the European Defence Agency in November. This was up 6% from 2021. Every one of the EU's 27 members boosted spending.

Ten years ago, then-US President Barack Obama urged NATO members to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. Few did. Now, the vast majority do.

Forced to change

For all Putin's assurances, the Russian threat cannot be dismissed, especially when so many Russian troops are now based in Belarus.

People leaving a train carriage after they were evacuated from frontline Novoselivka village in Donetsk region amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which is cut off from Russia by land, may yet be a future pretext for war.

For over 200 years, since Napoleon's war in Russia, the Suwałki Gap, a 65km corridor between Kaliningrad and Belarus, has been a conflict hotspot. It may yet be again.

Still, war with Russia is not inevitable. If Europe bolsters its defences and shows a steely unity, Putin may think twice.

But the old continent needs to change. For years, Europeans relied on soft power. Now, they need a good dose of hard power, too. And they need it fast.

It can take years to rebuild the capabilities of a nation's armed forces. They may not have that long.

One thing most agree on is that Europe finds itself at a crossroads. Which way it goes could determine its fate.

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