Ukraine 2024: Locked in Limbo

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen as the Winston Churchill of our times – like Churchill, he will have to endure the end of the War with Russia.

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‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’ Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a handout photograph released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service on December 6, 2023

As the War in Ukraine enters its third year in February, there is much speculation about the trajectory that Europe’s most prolonged and intense conflict post the Second World War will assume in 2024.

Conventional wisdom denotes that in a long war the side with the more extensive resources, manpower and material has the advantage. 

In the Ukraine-Russia military equation as well, this is evident.

With a more extensive base of manpower to draw soldiers for front-line fighting and a vast indigenous military-industrial complex which can produce thousands of artillery rounds and missiles, Russia has a decided advantage in 2024. Moreover, Moscow has tapped some unusual sources including North Korea and Iran – for artillery and missiles, paying a heavy price by providing technologies for advancing satellites and missile capabilities. Russia hopes the fallout will be on its adversaries – the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea.

Russia has also mobilised and trained forces for a decisive battle in 2024, having checked the Ukraine counter-offensive, and is thus likely to go for a decisive offensive in the spring.

Ukraine will have to muster resources and innovate strategy and tactics exploiting intrinsic advantages to overcome Russian strength in numbers.

Ukraine is dependent as it was for the past two years on support by the West – mainly the United States and Europe, who have poured in billions of dollars of military aid to Kyiv. This includes some of the most modern equipment, be it guns or missiles, particularly air defence assets.

Ukraine, however, used these weapons with Soviet-era tactics to assault through Russian layered defences in the 2023 counter-offensive with limited scope of success.

The resource pool from the US is expected to be reduced due to internal debates in Washington over proper utilisation of the money spent and allocations for US border protection assets.

Moreover, with the presidential elections in the United States, there is always a concern over the return of Mr. Donald Trump and his aversion to supporting European allies.

NATO has allocated substantial sums for the procurement of artillery ammunition for Ukraine, totalling $ 1.2 billion, yet this takes some time to reach the troops on the ground.

NATO members, however, see Ukraine as the front-line state in the contestation against Russia. A fall of Ukraine will only encourage Russia to target the former Soviet Republics, which are presently members of NATO.

The alliance will also hold Exercise Steadfast Defender 2024 from February to May 2024, the largest exercise since the Cold War, involving over 90,000 troops and more than 50 ships.

Preliminary movements for the Exercise have already commenced.

In 2024, Ukraine is likely to be mainly on the defensive, which in a way provides an advantage in terms of reduction in requirement of resources – troops and tanks as well as casualties – innovative tactics will remain the answer.

Ukraine is also challenged with manpower as the mobilisation in the first year had been presumed a short war; with the extension of fighting, the perceived requirement is said to be a mobilisation of 500,000 soldiers as per estimates by the Ukraine Ministry of Defence.

There is disgruntlement in Ukraine on mobilisation of manpower with a lack of transparency regarding numbers and duration for which soldiers will be called up. 

With heavy casualties, there is also a drop in the volunteers, but there are options wherein increasing the band of youth from the younger age bracket can increase mobilisation numbers.

Moreover, compared to Russian mobilisation, which is mainly from the outlying republics in Asia with lower income and thus education and awareness brackets, Ukraine has the advantage as the youth have a higher education and are more digitally savvy. 

In 2023, Ukraine had some success in the Black Sea, making it unusable for the Russian Navy, and it also successfully resumed grain exports with assistance from Bulgaria and Romania – two other coastal states.

Working Towards a Stalemate

By working around the strengths, Ukraine can employ an asymmetric strategy to checkmate the Russian offensive.

The shield will have to be layered defences, which need to be employed for large-scale attrition with Russian propensity for literally throwing in men and material for key objectives as Bakhmut  in the past.

Ukraine’s military is equipped with precision-guided lethal weapons systems that have to be employed economically, exploiting their characteristics, thus making most of the lower numbers. Past rates of artillery fire of 5000 rounds per day are not sustainable, so how to achieve a similar impact with lower numbers but higher precision and more effective target acquisition through the employment of drones remains the answer.

Ukraine has also demonstrated the capability to launch attacks on Moscow’s chain of supply of ammunition and petrol dumps on the borders and beyond effectively by drones, causing heavy losses.

This will have to be more effectively coordinated with the defensive battles to prevent supplies closer to the front line. 

The advantage of morale and motivation, the ultimate battle-winning factor, also lies with Ukraine- defence of the homeland is a powerful theme that can induce young men to sacrifice their lives, while on the Russian side, the same intensity has not been evident.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen as the Winston Churchill of our times – like Churchill, he will have to endure the end of the War with Russia.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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