Authors: Robert Vass and Pavlo Sheremeta

Russia’s callous, unprovoked and premeditated war against Ukraine has entered its fourth month. The Kremlin’s malicious aggression poses a particularly severe challenge to the rules-based global order – Moscow is seeking to weaken democracy and undermine fundamental freedoms held dear by the Western world. Russia instead aspires to see Europe revert to a murky past where ruthless military force alone was justification enough to annex territory. In that supposedly bygone era, entire countries could become victim to the mere whims of chauvinist and delirious tyrants.

The fervent resistance of Ukrainians and the sheer incompetence of the Russian military, however, have witnessed Putin face repeated setbacks during the war. The Kremlin, notably, has been delivered major defeats in their campaigns to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv. Western unity, moreover, has proven durable despite Moscow’s best efforts to fracture societies. Putin’s actions rather have spurred Western countries to impose unprecedented sanctions aimed at cutting Russia off from global markets.

Yet fierce battles continue unabated in eastern and southern Ukraine. And other parts of Ukraine are targeted by a nearly daily barrage of airstrikes. Against this backdrop, fears of a protracted conflict are mounting. As the war bills begin to stack up, there are some signs of tension beginning to surface among democracies. Some governments have indeed even seen it fit to lend Ukraine unwelcomed advice to cede territory and break off its resistance.

But there can be no doubt – now is not the time for appeasement. The present moment rather calls for governments to step up their humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and impose more stringent sanctions against Russia. The West should also enhance its defence cooperation, and the EU should prioritize accession. Tools should further be developed to respond to hybrid threats.

  1. Humanitarian assistance

The scale of Ukraine’s humanitarian catastrophe is vast, underscored by shocking images that have brought the world’s attention to gross Russian atrocities committed in territories it has (previously) occupied including Kyiv’s suburbs. There are additional fears that there were many thousands civilian casualties in Mariupol.

Humanitarian conditions have worsened in both eastern and southern Ukraine amid ongoing, wide-scale disruptions in electricity, water and gas supplies. The use of cluster bombs to shell cities across the country is particularly alarming. Railway infrastructure has been left decimated and multi-apartment buildings and private homes badly damaged. Some 15,000 people are currently sheltering in Sievierodonetsk even as the city endures weeks without water and electricity.

A city hospital has reportedly suffered repeated attacks that have rendered it in limited capacity mode despite immense demand for medical treatment. Altogether 643 medical facilities, including 289 hospitals and 221 outpatient clinics, have been destroyed or damaged during the conflict. Direct damage to healthcare facilities amounts to more than $1.8 billion according to the President’s Office and the Kyiv School of Economics.[1] Ukraine urgently needs additional mobile medical vehicles – or mobile hospitals that can reach towns where hospitals and clinics have been destroyed even as these locales remain close to the frontlines/continue to be the target of attacks.

Since the start of the war, the Ukrainian Red Cross has delivered over 5,418 tonnes of humanitarian cargo throughout the country – volunteers and staff based at logistics centers receive, sort, assemble and distribute hundreds of tonnes of cargo containing food, hygienic products, medicine, water, bed linen and other essential items. The need is pressing – hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have lost their homes (total damage of residential buildings has been estimated at nearly $30 billion). Ukrainian universities and secondary schools, furthermore, have sustained $1.2 billion in damage, kindergartens another $420 million and cultural facilities a further $240 million. Efforts to provide humanitarian aid and assistance to Ukrainians fleeing the country and those internally displaced must be extended and even boosted.

The global impact of the conflict is extraordinary too. Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports has restricted Ukraine from exporting its vital agricultural commodities to global markets, leaving already vulnerable communities on the brink of hunger. The World Food Programme has renewed its call for Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea to be immediately opened – the export of food must be permitted if the world is to avert a global food crisis.

  1. Sanctions on Russia

As incontrovertible evidence continues to mount about atrocities committed by the Russian military against Ukrainian civilians, the world must accelerate and expand the sanctions regime.

The West, firstly, must target Russia’s primary revenue sources that enable the country to finance the war. A full embargo on Russian oil and gas should be placed centre stage. Any such ban should also include EU trade of petroleum products with Russia and Belarus. Only a complete energy embargo can impose the necessary economic and social impact on Kremlin decisionmakers. Transport firms – especially maritime operators – and insurance companies that support Russian energy exports must be sanctioned too.

The democratic world must also strengthen existing financial sanctions and introduce additional measures. The sanctions must fully apply to all Russian banks, including Gazprombank, and their subsidiaries and shell companies in and outside Russia. Secondary sanctions, meanwhile, must be imposed on entities that circumvent the sanctions regime or otherwise enable Russia’s war. The West must further expand export controls on strategically important high-tech products – these should foremost include those related to the military and oil and gas production.

New financial and energy sanctions will severely diminish Russia’s revenue pipelines. But the West should also target Russian state organizations and networks that enable the Kremlin’s malign activities and individuals complicit in the war. The list of those sanctioned needs to be expanded to include immediate family members who hold the assets of culpable elite figures. The sanctions list should also include all senior government officials and leaders and board members of state-owned companies (both Russian and foreign). The owners, managers and employees of Russian propaganda sources who continue to glorify the war must be held accountable for their actions. And so too should prominent Western individuals assisting the Russian government and/or state-owned companies.

The West, furthermore, must begin seeking out legal ways to use frozen Russian assets to finance the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine. Seized Russian central bank reserve holdings, valued at hundreds of billions of dollars, will be crucial to this end.

Finally, an action plan presented by the Yermak-McFaul International Expert Group recommends designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and the Russian Armed Forces as a terrorist organization.

  1. Defence cooperation

President Zelensky said that Russia boasts 20 times more military equipment in Donbas than Ukraine. He stressed that Ukraine needs more long-range equipment if thousands of deaths are to be averted.

“We have the right to count on full and urgent assistance, especially with weapons. Every international negotiation, every address to parliaments or other foreign audiences is necessarily related to this topic. And I am grateful to all those partners who help and provide us with the necessary weapons and ammunition to overcome this advantage, especially in the amount of equipment and weapons that the Russian army has.” – President Zelensky

While Ukrainian forces possess Soviet-designed long-range multiple-launch systems, they are running critically low on ammunition. Ukraine has, moreover, already deployed more than one hundred 155mm howitzers supplied by the U.S. and allies. However, these guns are insufficient for offsetting the enormous firepower that Russia has concentrated in Donbas.

The situation looks set to change this week though: the Biden administration is expected to announce that it will send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine. Washington is likely, for one, to deliver Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) that boast a firing range dozens of miles farther than any current system operated by Ukraine. Kyiv has also requested High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (or Himars) – these light multiple rocket launchers feature a comparable range to the MLRS. Yet while MLRS move on tracks, the Himars use a wheeled chassis system.

  1. EU Accession

Ukraine’s limited economic progress and struggle with enacting reforms over the past 30 years has not been aided by the absence of a clear EU accession commitment. The EU’s accession and reform guidance and criteria, by contrast, spurred rapid reform in numerous CEE countries (such as Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and the Baltic countries). If Ukraine were to be provided EU candidate status, it could engage with the required blueprint for reform and accelerate policy changes in this direction. A starting point, for now, could revolve around twinning reconstruction programmes with intensive reforms and monitoring – this could break ground for Ukraine’s potential EU candidate status in the future. Immediate financial assistance, including EU funds, is intended to cover Ukraine’s current government budget deficit that presently stands at more than $5 billion a month. This aid is integral for Kyiv to survive the war and maintain its relative macroeconomic stability.

The promise of eventual EU membership would also attract domestic and foreign investors and keep the Ukrainian public engaged in the painstaking process of reform, thereby enhancing the probability that the country can successfully rebuild itself. Given the EU’s ability to serve as an anchor and a model for the country, Ukraine’s interest in eventual candidacy and membership put it in stronger footing than most postwar societies.

One of the central planks of reform will require Kyiv to address endemic corruption — it is paramount that donors and lenders sense that their cash is being prudently used to set a more stable foundation for the country over the long term and certainly not being squandered or pilfered. President Zelensky has emphasized that reconstruction should go hand in hand with a fast track to EU membership: “Candidate status granted right now — in conditions of war. As part of a special abridged procedure for EU membership.”[2]

But this moment demands extraordinary measures on both sides including, first of all, on the part of Ukraine. Kyiv must also guarantee true economic freedom, implement judicial reforms and fully adopt EU competition and anti-corruption legislation, institutions and procedures. These steps will enable the country to deliver the ultimate body blow to Ukraine’s oligarchs.

  1. Hybrid Threats

Russia’s use of hybrid tactics, such as misinformation, propaganda and cyber threats, is often directly paired with deployment of conventional military operations. These strategies are geared towards targeting services and institutions crucial for civilian populations. As Russian forces besieged the city of Mariupol, for example, Ukrainians began receiving emails from a Russian individual masquerading as a Mariupol resident that falsely accused Ukraine’s government of “abandoning” its citizens. During the third week of the invasion, meanwhile, a Russian malign actor stole data from a nuclear safety organization only weeks after Russian military units began occupying nuclear power plants in Ukraine. These activities sparked concerns about radiation exposure and the potential for catastrophic accidents.

Destructive cyberattacks – numbering close to 40 – have targeted hundreds of systems across numerous organizations (more than 40% of destructive attacks have been directed at organizations in critical infrastructure sectors that could spark negative second-order effects on the Ukrainian government, military, economy and civilians). And 32% of destructive attacks have directly targeted Ukrainian government organizations at the national, regional and municipality levels. The First Deputy Mayor of Lviv noted that a May 13th cyber-attack on the Lviv City Council website resulted in data theft, with the information later published on Telegram channels linked to Russia. Belligerent actors engaging in these attacks have deployed a variety of techniques to gain initial access to their targets including phishing, the use of unpatched vulnerabilities and the compromising of upstream IT service providers. These malicious actors often modify their malware following each deployment to evade detection.[3]

A free and independent media must be placed front and centre in responding to these varied threats. The press especially needs support and assistance in Ukraine as journalists seek to shed a light on Russian aggression and bring this knowledge to the world.

Ukraine urgently needs additional international support across a range of priority areas including humanitarian assistance, Russian sanctions, defence cooperation, EU accession prospects and tools to respond to hybrid threats. Unless Putin is substantially defeated, he will continue to seek to both mutilate Ukraine and undermine the Western alliance. He and his cronies see a Western-oriented, open democracy in their neighbourhood as a challenge to the inward-looking dictatorship they have imposed on the Russian people. They will not let either Ukrainians or Eastern Europeans live in peace. Ukrainians, therefore, have no choice but to stand up to Moscow. And the Western world must continue supporting Ukraine until the light prevails over darkness and life prevails over death.

[1] Russia will pay / damaged.in.ua. https://kse.ua/russia-will-pay/

[2] Who willpay to put Ukraine back together again? https://www.ft.com/content/179501fa-2bae-481b-bff4-54933eb74459

[3] The hybrid war in Ukraine https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2022/04/27/hybrid-war-ukraine-russia-cyberattacks/