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Tom Clonan A defeated Ukraine would be a military and political disaster for the EU and NATO

The security analyst says the West cannot afford to drop the ball when it comes to support for Ukraine, the stakes are too high.

THE WAR IN Ukraine is entering its second frozen winter. Snow is forecast for Kupyansk and Bakhmut next week as temperatures drop. At day 664 of Putin’s invasion, the conflict has settled into a prolonged phase of grinding attritional stalemate.

Zelenskyy’s much-vaunted counteroffensive which began in June has delivered only slight advances. A significant development in the Kherson Oblast has seen Ukrainian troops cross the Dnipro River, creating a small bridgehead eastward in the vicinity of Krynky.

The Kremlin have been anxious to dislodge Ukrainian forces here and in early December ordered the newly-formed elite airborne unit, 104th Guards Airborne Division to assault and repel Ukrainian forces – in an attempt to prevent any consolidation of their positions. This assault failed with Russian troops reportedly suffering exceptionally heavy losses.

volodymyr-zelensky-president-of-ukraine-talking-with-the-president-of-the-european-council-1-march-2022 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The Ukrainian military has also contained repeated Russian assaults in the Donetsk Oblast with fierce fighting continuing around Bakhmut, Klishchiivka and Avdiivka. Losses have been very heavy on both sides. Neither Kyiv nor the Kremlin publish or comment on casualty figures. Estimates vary, with Russia stating in July that they had suffered 6,000 combat fatalities in total during the ‘Special Military Operation’ (SMO) in Ukraine. Kyiv on the other hand claims that they have killed up to 70,000 Russian troops in combat. It is likely that both sides have suffered approximately 50,000 killed in action with as many as 150,000 seriously wounded on both sides.

russian-president-vladimir-putin-center-russian-chief-of-general-staff-gen-valery-gerasimov-left-and-russian-defense-minister-sergei-shoigu-right-visit-a-military-exhibition-after-a-meeting-wit Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, Russian Chief of General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Given that the Soviet Union suffered just 15,000 combat losses in Afghanistan during their 10-year occupation there from 1979-1989, Putin’s war has been extremely costly in terms of lives lost. There is growing concern in Russia also with regard to the medical evacuation and repatriation of seriously injured troops – with many wounded veterans complaining of poor treatment on the battlefield and limited or no rehabilitation at home.

The mounting toll

In Ukraine, there is also growing unease with mounting casualties in the war. Ukraine is literally fighting for its very survival, but Putin is increasingly relying on ‘Ukraine Fatigue’ as a longer term strategy to undermine support for Kyiv’s remarkable defence in the face of Russia’s aggression.

Despite heavy losses, the Russian military has continued to replace depleted units with contracted troops, and mobilised reservists and convicted criminals from Russia’s prison system. Russia has also ramped up its military production and supply to keep pace with the massive expenditure of artillery ammunition, missiles and drones.

Almost two years out from the invasion in February 2022, the conflict – for now – has become a static, ‘positional’ war, in some respects resembling the trench warfare of World War 1. However, this stalemate is not a stable, predictable or reliably enduring set of circumstances for either side.

Putin has thus far stopped short of a wider military mobilisation within Russia. Were he to do so and escalate his SMO to a formal declaration of war, Ukraine could be overwhelmed.

Perhaps as a nod to a move in this direction, the Kremlin has begun to re-organise Russia’s defence posture and has announced the reinstatement of the so-called ‘Leningrad Military District’ along the border with Finland and Sweden. In a lengthy interview on the Russian state television channel Rossiya 1 recently, Putin cited Finland’s recent membership of NATO as problematic for Moscow.

Perhaps partially informed by the leader of the Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Proghozin’s extraordinary challenge to Putin’s power – during his advance on Moscow in June – the Kremlin has also reorganised the Moscow Military District. Based on these developments and the recent and proposed changes to the organisation of Russia’s Western Military District – Putin appears to be pre-planning a concentration of Russian forces along NATO’s borders from the Black Sea to the Arctic Circle.

Putin’s worrying opportunities

As winter sets in, the coming months will pose serious challenges for Zelenskyy’s defence of Ukraine. The conflict in Gaza and US and UK support for Israel has led to a dilution of the strategic stockpile of artillery rounds, missiles and other military supplies essential for Ukraine’s defence. Objections to continued financial and military support for Kyiv in Washington and Brussels have delayed vital US and EU support for Ukraine. The EU has announced a summit in February to discuss the recently stalled 50 billion Euro aid package for Kyiv.

lysa-gora-ukraine-19th-dec-2023-ukrainian-girls-and-boys-from-an-orphanage-are-delighted-with-christmas-presents-brought-by-the-private-organization-ohz-hilft-from-osterholz-scharmbeck-credit 19th Dec, 2023. Ukrainian girls and boys from an orphanage are delighted with Christmas presents brought by an NGO. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

As 2023 draws to a close, the EU, US and NATO remain committed in their support of the defence of Ukraine. If the Gaza conflict escalates into a wider regional conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon and a proxy war with Iran, NATO’s resolve to support Zelenskyy will be sorely tested. Such a scenario would play to Putin’s advantage on his imperial designs for Ukraine and Moldova.

If the West does not continue and indeed ramp up its support for Ukraine – including providing Zelenskyy’s forces with state of the art combat aircraft – the conflict will likely remain ‘frozen’ and locked in stalemate.

In that scenario, Putin could seize the initiative and with a wider military mobilisation overwhelm Zelenskyy’s forces and occupy all of Ukraine – bringing Russian troops up to NATO’s borders from Romania through Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and north to Lithuania, Latvia, Finland and Sweden.

If support for Ukraine wanes in 2024, even in the absence of an escalation in hostilities by Putin – a ‘frozen’ conflict would suit Moscow. Putin would simply continue to re-organise his military, re-grouping and preparing for a fresh offensive at a time of his choosing.

Much at stake

An outright defeat for Ukraine would be a military and political disaster for the EU and NATO. It would force Europe to arm itself to meet the newly emerging threat posed by Russia. The US would have to deploy hundreds of thousands of troops, aircraft and armour to Europe, in a re-boot of Cold War era deterrence and strategic defence.

This would divert US support for Taiwan and its current Asia pivot towards the continued emergence of China, not just as an economic superpower – but an emerging military and naval player in the Asia Pacific region.

Ultimately, the EU and Europe could meet the threat posed by any setback or defeat in Ukraine. It would be unbelievably costly and would force Europe to effectively re-arm itself and reset itself along NATO lines as a coherent military collective. However, this coherence would be seriously undermined by a second Trump presidency, which might herald a period of renewed US isolationism and the unravelling of the NATO alliance.

2024 will be a pivotal year in the war in Ukraine. Putin’s criminal invasion has been a catastrophe for Europe and will continue to inform the political, economic and strategic direction of the European Union for the foreseeable future. President Zelenskyy will hope for continued support and perhaps a miracle – some sort of military breakthrough in the coming months. If he suffers a major military or political setback – this will pose a profound existential threat to the survival of Ukraine.

When Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it signalled not just a war on Kyiv – but a war on the rules-based values of the EU and the transatlantic alliance. Political and military developments in 2024 will shape the next chapter for the EU.

Ireland will not be immune from the seismic changes and challenges to the prevailing world order. At this point, there is a requirement for unity, solidarity and resilience in the face of rampant aggression and toxic leadership in a highly contested global order. We need to prepare for the worst-case scenarios that such a polity presents – and hope for the best in 2024.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Éireann.