In Other News – The West and Ukraine Relationship

September 29, 2023

The West is more than a fair-weather friend to Ukraine, and the larger battle is about more than territorial gains. While Ukraine’s battlefield progress is understandably going to be limited by some of Russia’s tougher defensive lines, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg remarked a few weeks ago, “The reality is that Ukrainians are actually exceeding expectation again and again.” Contrary to media takes that try to paint Ukraine’s counteroffensive as disappointing, Stoltenberg recognizes what Ukraine has been up against and puts its progress into perspective. He also highlights that Ukraine isn’t the only one who’s exceeded expectations in this fight- so have the EU and NATO. The United States also recognizes the grave geopolitical risk that a Putin victory would entail, and there’s enough bipartisan support for Ukraine within the US political establishment to keep this support going for a long time.

Taking stock of the present status, however, it’s notable that Russia has gained no strategic ground in six months and, for every day that the counteroffensive continues, Moscow faces greater threat to its strategic land bridge linking Russia and Crimea. There’s also been an increasing barrage of missile attacks on Russia’s Black Sea positions, compounded by drone attacks in disputed Ukrainian territories and Russia proper. The coming mud season is likely going to further slow the pace of the counteroffensive, but enduring warm weather and agile Ukrainian tactics could allow for small ground troops to continue their push longer than expected.

The small but incremental gains weaken the Russian argument that the stalemated current positions should be the new settled borders. What’s more, there are compelling reports that Russia has no coherent policy for governance and a ragtag cast of officials in temporary leadership structures in the Ukrainian territories it has usurped. There’s also the real issue of Russia’s weapons supply over the long-term, which will heavily depend on the status of Russia’s economy, and how Moscow manages to present its battlefield strategy as the upcoming Russian Presidential elections approach in March.

Indeed, the physical battle is critical but it’s interdependent on economics and politics. While Russia’s been looking to other rogue states like North Korea for artillery munitions, most military analysts agree that this is unlikely to make a big difference. Russia will likely continue to look to states like North Korea and Iran for equipment but is also expected to increase spending on its own military industries. And a large rise in Russia’s spending is likely to increase inflation and compel the central bank to raise interest rates further. As the war goes on, in addition to the economic pressures, Moscow must deal with the question of more mobilization and how to maintain enough internal support- particularly after the Prigozhin fiasco- for the ongoing battle that’s been anything but a clearcut victory.

Further, what’s also evolving is the broader discussion of when and how the conflict might end and what ways to best ensure European security with EU candidate status and growing support for fast-tracked NATO membership for Ukraine. Putin might claim to have gone to war to prevent NATO from encroaching, but he got the complete opposite: more NATO presence to protect members in the east, and a shift in the security equation that has compelled Sweden and Finland to join the alliance. Indeed, supporting Ukraine matters to many EU states both to deter a physical threat and to reinforce the basic tenets of the established world order- namely, territorial sovereignty.

In this broader fight, holding Russia at bay is essential, and so is preventing escalation- both physically within Ukraine and Europe, but also on the global level. And as the battle goes on, Ukraine’s allies will also continue to fight- understanding that as long as Kyiv wants to continue, the short-term investment in supporting Ukraine will yield a much longer-term security for the region and world.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.