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Ukraine needs to be, and be seen, to be successful with its current strategy on the battlefield

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the Department of Political Science and International Studies, Birmingham University. He specialises in the management of contemporary security challenges, especially in the prevention and settlement of ethnic conflicts and civil wars and in post-conflict state-building in deeply divided and war-torn societies.

He is also the co-founder of Navigating the Vortex, a podcast and newsletter on contemporary geopolitics and geoeconomics.

What is your view on the Ukrainian response to Russian aggression since February 2022? How can Ukraine improve its response?

Ukraine did very well in the early days of the Russian aggression by not simply submitting to the invader but instead organising an overall effective defence and mobilising widespread popular support against the invasion. While Ukraine lost significant areas of territory in the south and east, which are now illegally occupied by Russia, it managed to stabilise the more than 1000km-long frontline, force the Russian withdrawal from around Kyiv, and then mount a successful counter-offensive in late summer and autumn of 2022. Ukrainians also survived a very difficult winter and managed to rebuild and repair a lot of the critical national infrastructure destroyed by Russia's assault. This year's counter-offensive has been less successful regarding territory regained than last year's and more costly to Ukraine in casualties and materiel. While Ukrainian forces have carried out some spectacular, morale-boosting strikes, there has been relatively little movement along the frontline since spring, and it is unlikely that there will be anything like the breakthrough last year when Russia was forced to withdraw from Kherson. For the next several months, the main effort needs to be on protecting critical infrastructure and holding the frontline where it is against constant Russian attacks. And, as we have seen from recent media coverage, it is also essential that political and military elites in Kyiv sing from the same hymn sheet. Any apparent rift in unity there will be exploited by Russia, and it will potentially give more credence to arguments in the West that the current levels of support for Ukraine should be reconsidered.

Can Ukraine secure higher military support from the West, or is there a chance for its reduction?

Western support is still relatively strong, but it is unlikely to increase. The EU is now the biggest donor overall. There are significant problems with sustaining the previous levels of support in the US given the politics in Congress and the gradually heating up 2024 election campaigns, above all for the presidency but also for the House and Senate. With the war in the Middle East and its potential for escalation, it is unlikely that Washington will be able to increase support for Ukraine. At the same time, the consensus within the EU has also started to fracture. While forming a new government in Poland removes one problem, both Hungary and Slovakia have signalled their objections. Orban's recent meeting with Putin in Beijing is also not very promising. This does not mean that Western support for Ukraine will suddenly stop. It may not even noticeably reduce given the long lead time for some of the earlier aid commitments, including military aid, that have yet to materialise. But, I am doubtful that we will see any significant increase in military or financial support. It is also essential to be aware that this is a bit of a Catch-22 situation: Ukraine needs to be seen successful with its current strategy on the battlefield and be united as a country behind this strategy, but this, in turn, depends on the continuation, and arguably the increase, of current western military, economic, and diplomatic support.

Are there a risk of Western allies pushing Ukraine to seek compromise with the Kremlin?

There has been some discussion in the news recently about this, which indicates that policymakers in different capitals are thinking about various options for the endgame. That said, I don't see any signs of strong pressure yet, but much will depend on how Ukraine will get through the winter and where the situation will be more generally in a couple of months. If we have a full-scale escalation of the war in the Middle East, if US-China relations do not stabilise, if Hungary and Slovakia block progress on Ukraine's accession negotiations, the general context will be very different, and may some in the West give pause for thought. In Europe, another important calculation will be the likely outcome of the US presidential elections. If Trump looks like a probable winner, there may be a push to find a settlement, even if it is only in the form of a ceasefire, simply because Ukraine's position with Trump in the White House as of 2025 may look much weaker.

How can Putin be stopped in Ukraine? What are risks for Ukraine and the world if he succeeds?

In my view, Ukraine is more than capable to stop Putin on its own, that is deny him further significant territorial gains. It will not be able to defeat him without western support. And for that to happen, Western support would need to increase substantially above current levels. So far, none of the Western commitments have been the kind of game changer that would have enabled Ukraine to defeat Russia--the country still lacks sufficient air defence systems to protect its forces at the front and its critical infrastructure in the rear, as well as the necessary offensive capabilities to force a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine's sovereign territory, including Crimea. Therefore, there are no risks that Putin could win in the foreseeable future. The main risk is that there doesn't seem to be a clear plan for the continuation of the current war of attrition and how to manage this both in terms of the war against Ukraine itself and in terms of the geopolitical and geoeconomic implications--whether this is food and energy security or the management of other global crises like the war in the Middle East. This lack of a clear vision for an endgame is also reflected in the discussions about alleged Western pressure on Ukraine to negotiate with Russia, as well as in the different perspectives on how the war is going offered by President Zelensky and his commander-in-chief, Valery Zaluzhny. And this is another risk, entirely unrelated to Putin: consensus on strategy must also be maintained in Kyiv and Ukraine.

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