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We Need to Move Beyond ‘As Long as it Takes’ in Ukraine’s War Against Putin

After two years of stoic resistance against Russian forces, Ukrainians feel they are being abandoned and false narratives of failure are damaging their campaign

A Ukrainian Tank crew commander looks up from a hatch of a T-64 main battle tank, in the Donetsk Region of Eastern Ukraine, December 2023. Photo: Justin Yau/ Sipa US/Alamy

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I’m not going to lie, the mood in Kyiv at the moment is pretty grim. It’s not that Ukraine’s capital has succumbed to a mood reflecting the realities of another cold winter season, we are used to those, we have stood through revolutions throughout winters past. The mood is bleak because many Ukrainians feel that they are being abandoned in their struggle to rid the country of the invading Russian army, after almost two years of stoic resistance in the face of all-out war, many Ukrainians are asking ‘what is wrong with our allies?’

US President Joe Biden has asked Congress to approve a budget supplemental of $61 billion to fund the fight against the Russian beast. Congress is holding this up while they bicker about what should be done on the southern border of the US, an issue that could not be less relevant to Ukraine’s defence.

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In the next week, the European Union is supposed to be debating a budget that includes €50 billion in military, humanitarian, and financial aid to Ukraine, Putin’s Trojan Horse in the EU, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, is threatening to veto anything relating to Ukraine. Mr Orbán has long been a vocal proponent of Ukraine’s capitulation to Putin’s forces.

On top of this, the early optimism for the counteroffensive that Ukraine launched in 2023 has met with the reality of the Russians having built stronger than expected fortifications in the land that they occupied along the Azov Sea Coast to create their “land bridge” to Crimea. While residents of the capital may shiver from the cold, their thoughts are always with those who are at the same time battling through the same weather to do what they can to continue to diminish Russia’s military capacities across the 1,500 km frontline.

The United States and the European Union are democracies, they are made up of different opinions and have competing interests internally, but assisting a victim of a brutal and unprovoked military invasion and land grab should be something that is outside of political gamesmanship, it is simply the right thing to do, morally as well as strategically.

However, the notion of doing the right thing has been undermined by a series of pseudo-scandals relating to Ukraine. Some folks have bought into the narrative that the counteroffensive has failed and as a result, Ukraine is now forced to pursue an unpalatable negotiated end to the fighting, leaving Russia in control of the territory that it currently has a hold over. There are rumours of infighting in Ukraine with the political and military leaderships at loggerheads.

In that environment, it may seem like common sense to change course over Ukraine, however, that is wrong, morally as well as strategically.

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Ukraine’s counteroffensive has not failed. While a cursory look at a map may show that not much land has changed hands in 2023, that is not the extent of the war that Ukraine is fighting, and in other areas, most notably the fight over control over the Black Sea, Ukraine has been remarkably successful. The land war is only one element of this war, but there too some successes have been noteworthy. While not as spectacular as the routing of the Russians in the Kharkiv region last year, or as large as the liberation of Kherson city also in 2022, the Ukrainian military has probed all along the frontline looking for weaknesses to take advantage of, and has found one by crossing the Dnipro River across from Kherson city and establishing a significant presence on the left bank of the river.

While we cannot turn back time and arm Ukraine sufficiently to have denied the occupation forces breathing space to create the “Surovikin Line” of defences (consisting of minefields that are kilometres deep, with several rows of trenches and anti-tank fortifications) in the south of Ukraine, we must look towards the future of this conflict and ensure that – this time – Ukraine does have the tools that it needs to defeat Russia. There is no disagreement significant enough between the Government and the military that would render such a thing impossible, whatever personal disputes there may be, they are not going to affect the national goal of the complete liberation of all Ukrainian land and the people who live there.

To solve the joint challenges of false narratives and blocks on aid from some parties inside the EU and in the US, we need to understand that the tentacles of the Putin regime are long and that they have been corrupting individuals and parties to create the necessary foundations for the facilitation of their imperialist plans for many years. Victor Orbán of Hungary being a prime example, the more extreme wing of the Republican Party in the US being another. And if there is one thing that the present Russian authorities can actually look to as an area in which they have some degree of success, it is in the dissemination of falsehoods.

The road ahead is long, and continuing the liberation of Ukrainian territories will necessarily involve the sacrifices of good people who will lay down their lives for their country, but this is Ukraine’s, and only Ukraine’s, choice to make. Ukraine has made clear what goals it is willing to fight for. As a nation, Ukraine is determined and willing to commit to the goal of the restoration of the 1991 borders.

What Ukraine needs is support.

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The cold hard reality is not just in the air and on the ground in Ukraine, the cold hard reality is that despite its well-recorded enormous losses in its foolish war, Russia still has a substantial war machine that needs to be crushed, and the resources to do so are available if the will to deploy them exists. In Ukraine, the will to fight on certainly exists.

What needs to happen next is that the messaging from Ukraine’s partners, and the logic that underpins this, must change from supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes” to supporting Ukraine towards the swiftest possible victory. The decisions of what military support allies need to supply Ukraine with flows from that. And from that will also flow the morale boost that Ukraine’s defenders deserve and need.

Conversations about providing Ukraine with missiles capable of putting the illegally built bridge across the Kerch Strait to occupied Crimea need to move on from “would Putin see that as an escalation?” to, “will that contribute to a swifter victory?” To which the answer, undoubtedly, is yes. Russia uses the Kerch Bridge as one of their main supply routes to enable their continued occupation of Ukraine’s southern regions of Zaporizhzhia (where a nuclear power plant is on occupied territory) and Kherson. With the Kerch Bridge disabled, Russia’s supply lines face catastrophic disruption.

In terms of air power, the provision of F-16 fighter jets was welcome news and pilot training is underway in several countries, but the number of aircraft that will be entering into Ukrainian service is still not sufficient. Will Ukraine’s victory come more swiftly if there are 120 such planes rather than if there are 60? Again, undoubtedly. It should also be noted that no NATO operation to remove an entrenched enemy would go ahead, as Ukraine was expected to do in 2023, without such air power having first prepared the battlefield and in support of such an operation.

A limited number of American ATACMS missiles have been supplied to Ukraine – 20,it is believed. The provision of those weapons did not prove to be the “red line” that the Kremlin had threatened, and they are one of the weapons systems that experts say would be ideal for an operation to disable the military supply route to occupied Crimea. Losing the bridge to Crimea will be a humiliation for Putin and his cronies, but so will Ukraine’s victory, and one is a significant precursor to the other.

This war must end, but it cannot with citizens of Ukraine being subject to the abject horrors of Russian occupation. The faster we move from the sustainable support model to the swifter victory support model, the fewer Ukrainian lives will be lost to either warfare or occupation.

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