Ukraine 2024 – Can Freedom Still Win?

on 31.01.2024

Report on the 5th debate within the Project ‘Transatlantic Security Cooperation in Eastern Europe’ held on 29 January 2024, 4-5 pm (CET)/10-11 am (EST) 

Will Ukraine be able to hold the line – or will Russia be able to pull off military breakthroughs this year which might turn the tide of the war – with all fatal consequences this would have for the future of Ukraine, security in Europe, the fate of the West - and therefore for the cause of freedom on a global scale.  

Sub-debates to this major question range from the current military situation, to the EU’s ability to assist Ukraine and deliver more weapons and ammunition, possibly even to make up for what is beginning to sorely lack from the US side – which will bring us to the US domestic political scene and its impact on Ukraine in the next 2 years.  

We also should not forget about the effectiveness of the Russia sanctions, which is closely tied to the debate about the Global South – which in turn brings up the correlation between Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the Hamas terror attack of October 7 and the war in the Middle East. As takeaways from the 29 January online debate, we offer 9 points: 

The military situation 

There is practically a consensus among all experts, including in Ukraine itself, that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in summer and fall 2023 has not led to the desired results in terms of large reconquest of occupied territory, let alone a breakthrough to the Sea of Azov. But there have been several remarkable Ukrainian successes nevertheless in recent months: deep strikes into Crimea and Russia itself, often targeting crucial military infrastructure, as well as liberating sea lanes in the Black Sea previously blocked by Russia. They can now be used to export agricultural and other goods by ship again.  

At the same time, there is now an alarming lack of ammunition on the Ukrainian side, especially 155 mm artillery rounds. This is largely due to a dwindling of deliveries from the West: While decisions on direct military and financial assistance are blocked in Congress in Washington, the EU has remained far below its declared aim of delivering 1 million artillery rounds by the end of 2023. At the same time, Russia has managed to tap into enormous reserves of ammunition and also drones and ballistic missiles from North Korea and Iran.  

As a result of this situation, Ukraine has incurred some territorial losses along the entire frontline, not just in the East (Avdiivka etc.) but also in some of Ukraine’s limited reconquests made at high cost in the 2023 counteroffensive in the South (Robotyne). Moreover, Russia’s air war of attrition of civilian infrastructure and residential areas has intensified, and Ukrainian air defences seem less capable today of intercepting drones and ballistic missiles than earlier in 2023.  

Finally, the human resources factor is seen by many to work against Ukraine at the moment: while after 2 years of fighting, many frontline soldiers are seriously exhausted, existing reserves are insufficient to relieve them. And a new recruitment law, tapping into so far unrecruited men, has run into tough resistance in public opinion as well as in the Verkhovna Rada. Russia seems to have fewer manpower problems at the moment, despite its losses rising again as it regains the initiative.  

On the other hand, altogether, and despite the setbacks of the last 6 months, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians know that they have to keep on fighting. They would very much wish for better supplies from the West – artillery ammunition, air defence systems, spare parts, longer range cruise missiles and many other items. But even in their absence, Ukrainians will keep on fighting, maybe more asymmetrically than up to now. The recruitment law will be passed eventually, and many Ukrainians are still ready to be drafted. It boils down to a simple truth: If Russia stops fighting, it will be the end of the war. If Ukrainians stop fighting, it will be the end of Ukraine. That will mark a difference in motivation for soldiers of both sides which should not be underestimated. 

The question of negotiations 

The new pessimism in the West about the military situation and about its own ability and political will to deliver, as well as Russian successes in improving supplies, have led to renewed calls for ‘negotiations’ about a ceasefire and subsequent ‘compromise’ on territories, such as Crimea and Donbas etc. This has been intensifying over recent weeks.  

But there is no sign of Russia wanting to negotiate any such deal. Russia, in all statements since February 2022, insists on the ‘de-nazification’ and demilitarization of Ukraine and a ‘Russia-friendly’ government, on top of ‘recognising the new territorial realities’, i.e. recognition of Russia’s annexation of 4 oblasts. This means nothing less than the end of Ukraine as a free and sovereign country.  

Moreover, even assuming that a deal could be struck with Putin, he has proven repeatedly that Russia violates commitments made – be it the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity, or the Minsk II agreement with its obligation for Russia to respect the border, withdraw weapons and troops and cede border control to Ukraine. These are just 2 examples of Putin’s ability and willingness to violate commitments. The calls for negotiations should be replaced my more active help for Ukraine. If Europeans invested just 0,25 % of their wealth, they could decisively turn the situation around. 

A new concept of weapons delivery 

Instead of talking senselessly about negotiations and compromise and thereby encouraging Putin to extend his aggression, Ukraine’s Western partners should envisage delivering weapons currently employed by their standing forces while quickly ramping up production to replace the gaps as soon as possible. At the moment, when Russian troops are to such a great extent deployed in and around Ukraine, the likelihood of a Russian direct attack on NATO is low: state-of-the-art weapons systems are much more direly needed right now in Ukraine than within NATO member states. In several years, after a theoretically possible defeat of Ukraine, Russia would be more than capable of attacking NATO directly. But right now, NATO member states’ tanks are more helpful to the security of the world if they are used to push back Russia’s aggression, rather than being used in exercises or parked in depots in the West. 

Escalation fears 

The unwillingness of many Western governments to provide Ukraine with what is needed, is often based on fears of escalation. This seems to pertain especially to leaders in Berlin and in Washington. It concerns not the quantity of weapons (Germany and the US are on top of the list in that regard) but the quality: The Taurus cruise missile debate in Germany is symptomatic for ultimately irrational fears of escalation if certain wepaons are given to Ukraine. There have been many such debates: first about any lethal wepaons for Ukraine (in February 2022), then about air defence systems, then about medium range artillery, armored personnel carriers, main battle tanks, fighter planes etc. At every step, the skeptics claimed that Russia would militarily lash out, even against the West. But nothing ever happened because NATO deterrence still works and Putin is not suicidal. 

But because of these lengthy processes of decision making, the speed of arming Ukraine was so low that valuable time was wasted. When Ukrainians had Russia on the run in September-November 2022, they were not armed well enough to keep the momentum. Then came the winter and Russia’s successful construction of elaborate defences and massive mining of the occupied territories. For Ukraine to regain the momentum, more time, better preparation, fresh recruitments and above all more and better weapons are needed. This is highly unlikely to lead up to World War III. A slow but steady Russian advance westward, however, will inevitably lead to a direct confrontation with NATO, and then the risk of escalation will be much higher. 

The costs of inaction 

As opposed to the exaggerated fear of escalation (QED), the fears of the other side in this debate should be outlined more drastically: If Russia wins, not only Ukraine will be occupied or severely destabilized. There will be new waves of refugees, and after some recuperation, renewed aggression from Russia – this time closer to home for Western Europe. The chances of a direct military confrontation between the West and Russia will actually increase. Insecurity about the future will have fatal consequences for European economies. Authoritarianism around the globe will receive a huge boost. 

This is also outlined in detail in one of GLOBSEC’s resent studies, ‘The Costs of Inaction and the Benefits of Action’, focusing on national-populist arguments about Russia and Ukraine made in several Central European countries.  

Ukrainian corruption 

One of the most frequently made arguments against increasing assistance to Ukraine, and also against moving forward the project of integrating Ukraine into the EU and NATO, is the accusation that Ukraine is a ‘deeply corrupt country’. That is often exaggerated, and coming from countries and governments in the EU (f.e. Hungary) which have a corruption problem themselves. 

But Western governments and institutions, and most of all the EU which has excellent instruments to encourage Ukraine getting tougher on corruption, must keep on pressing. Ukraine’s civil society will actually be happy about such pressure because fighting corruption is one of Ukrainians’ long-standing goals for their country. 

The ‘Global South’ and the interconnected security crises of the world 

The new war in the Middle East which began on 7 October, 2023, with Hamas’ unprecedented terror attack against Israel, is risking to lead to a broader regional conflagration. It may also sideline Ukraine in the eyes of many in the West. It consumes military resources and political energy which are direly needed in countering Russia’s aggression in Europe. The same is true for the US’ great power competition with China.  

But having said all that, one needs to recognise that China’s threats against Taiwan, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the war of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ (Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah etc.) against Israel are closely interconnected attempts to revise the global order and corner the West. Lowering our guard in any of them would mean encouraging further authoritarian advance. That is why the West should define itself as a system of concentric circles: In the centre, the Transatlantic alliance, then a group of like-minded democracies around the world, including Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and finally autocracies such as Saudi Arabia or Vietnam which do not undermine the West and can be mobilized against Russia and China.  

Defined like this, and building ad hoc alliances with countries of the ‘Global South’, a resilient West could survive the coming decade and even improve the sanctions regime against Russia in the immediate future. 

The developments in the US 

One major fear among Ukraine’s supporters in the West is that a victory by Donald Trump in the November election would lead to a complete stop in US military support to Ukraine and a deal between Washington and Moscow without any regard for Ukrainians. A growing part of the Republican party seems to move in this direction. What is even worse, House Republicans are now possibly blocking any further Ukraine aid, even if the Biden administration gives in on border protection.  

But, first of all, there are numerous ways to circumvent Republican blockades in Congress. The US government still has formidable resources at its direct disposal which can be used to deliver arms and financial support to Ukraine. Frozen Russian assets in the West could also be used to finance arms purchases for or by Ukraine.  

Secondly, nothing is set in stone in case Trump wins the election. It will certainly be possible for America’s allies to show through their own efforts that they can be assets for US security, not a burden to US taxpayers. That includes a more constructive approach of Europeans to seek common ground with the US in confronting China. Europeans may not be able to influence the US election, but they will be able to influence US foreign policy to some extent, even after the election.  

Europe’s investment in its own security 

The most important fact is: No matter what exactly happens in the US in November, and also no matter what Congress manages to put on track for Ukraine in the meantime – Europeans will have to make a massive push for more investment into their security. That begins with finally taking the goal of spending 2 % of GDP seriously. While Eastern flank countries have largely achieved this, West and South Europeans, including Germany, Italy and Spain, are still far behind.  

The next step would be seriously increasing industrial capacities for arms production. Private business will only build new production facilities if governments make clear and substantial financial commitments for a decade and more. This has to happen now, even at the risk of increasing the joint debt that EU countries have incurred during the pandemic.  

Finally, two schools seem to be emerging as to which organization should form the basis of Europe’s security in the mid-term future: NATO (even without the US) or an EU with its own multinational forces, possibly even including nuclear weapons? Rather than building a new defence wing of the EU, NATO is clearly the better option: Even if the US become ‘dormant’ in NATO, the alliance will still include Britain and Canada. And it has established structures and procedures for military emergencies and war. The EU has a role to play in research, industry, transport and other fields. But to give up on NATO after a Trump victory in November would be a grave mistake.  


Can Freedom still win? – definitely yes, if the West now starts getting serious about helping Ukraine – not just as long as it takes, but with whatever it takes. That means: 

  • More persistently and in more detail pointing out the costs of Ukraine losing, for Ukraine, Europe, the West and the entire world. This is a task for political leaders, but even more for think tanks and civil society in the West. 

  • Being more creative in delivering modern weapons and much greater amounts of supplies to Ukraine. 

  • Strengthening Europe’s investments into its own defence, especially in defence production, regardless of what happens in the US in the runup to the November elections and beyond.  


Senior Associate Fellow



Senior Associate Fellow