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Ukraine Cannot Wait

Ukraine Cannot Wait
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

The EU agreed on 14 December to open accession negotiations with Ukraine in a highly symbolic, albeit partial, victory for Kyiv. But, the good news from Brussels could not take away from the urgent need for operational support for Ukraine’s war effort. With the counteroffensive stalled and Vladimir Putin increasingly confident he can win, two major threats loom for Ukraine: waning US support and a world resigned to accepting compromises to bring the conflict to an end.
Following a review of the strategic options still in contention for Kyiv, Michel Duclos argues for Ukraine’s allies to provide the robust response needed to stop the war. He outlines the tactics this would involve: financial and material support, ongoing reviews and key turning points, and the role of the Franco-British alliance. Because time is ticking and neither Ukraine nor Europe can wait. Now is the time for action.

As had been widely expected, the European Council gave with one hand and held back with the other in its decision regarding Ukraine on 14 and 15 December.

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, stepped out of the room to allow his colleagues to green-light the opening of EU membership negotiations with Kyiv. While that decision was certainly a boost for the citizens of the war-torn country, the process will be lengthy with innumerable further stages to complete. Nor was the news from Brussels all good. The very next day the Hungarian leader vetoed a deal to release the €50 billion four-year assistance package for Ukraine agreed in the EU budget.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the stalled Ukrainian counteroffensive over the past few months has dampened support rather than galvanize its allies into delivering even more aid

Europe’s leaders will no doubt find a way around Hungary’s opposition to the funding early next year. But the failure to agree on the €50 billion package at the same time as the accession talks was a missed opportunity to telegraph to the world that Europe stands firm, just as the US Congress was refusing to heed President Biden’s call to pass the latest aid package for Ukraine – despite President Zelinskyy’s in-person plea in Washington. On both sides of the Atlantic, the stalled Ukrainian counteroffensive over the past few months has dampened support rather than galvanize its allies into delivering even more aid.

What is the way forward?

A strategic offensive targeting Crimea

There are several opposing views being aired in the debate (mostly between experts) about what comes next for Ukraine. Before we consider the options, let us leave aside the view that Kyiv should quickly enter into negotiations with Russia, a process that would ultimately involve Ukraine bending to Moscow’s will.  Another more sophisticated strategy would be for Ukraine to refocus the war effort on purely defensive objectives, renounce the aim of retaking lost territory and, once again, ultimately sit down at the negotiating table with Russia. While not a surrender, such a strategy would involve pivoting to a defensive posture and narrowing Kyiv’s aims to holding onto the territory it currently controls. In any negotiations, Ukraine would in effect be conceding the areas under Russian military control.

This policy should be firmly and forcefully rejected by Europe, whose security, it is increasingly clear, depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. And if a reminder were needed, President Putin’s confidence was clear to see in his press conference on 14 December.

If we adopt a policy of only throwing Ukraine a lifeline to avoid further losses, we will encourage Russia to wait it out. To wait until patience flags in the West and, in the latter stages of the conflict, until goals are moderated. How often have we heard that Putin is waiting for Trump’s return to the White House? Even if this hope is dashed, the chances of America continuing to back Ukraine in a drawn-out and inconclusive war are uncertain at best.

So, at least from a European viewpoint, we need a third policy option, one that would continue to support the Ukrainian military in an offensive strategy. But what would such an offensive posture look like? Or, to be more precise, what would the new priorities be?

The crucial aim must be to deal major blows to Russian positions in sectors that are strategically and politically sensitive for the Kremlin. This means Crimea.

The peninsula is a vital staging ground for Russian attacks on the whole of southern Ukraine. Some of the missiles launched at Kyiv in the past few days were fired from Crimea, casting doubt over the wisdom of the notion that Crimea should be "off limits" in any new offensive by the Ukrainian military. What is more, Crimea is not only essential to Moscow’s strategy, but also a trophy, vital for what Mr. Putin sees as his mission of restoring the Russian empire in all its glory. Threatening his grip on Crimea is the surest path to bring Russia’s leader to the negotiating table.


Threatening his grip on Crimea is the surest path to bring Russia’s leader to the negotiating table

Two recent articles, one in Foreign Affairs and one in Foreign Policy, discuss Crimea as Putin’s biggest weakness. To break the deadlock, Ukraine’s backers should aim to send the powerful weapons systems the country needs, first to inflict enough damage to cripple the Kerch bridge, severing the link between Crimea and the Russian mainland, and second to attack Russian bases and arms depots in the peninsula. US experts highlight the need for Washington to increase the flow of Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) weapons (mid-range cruise missiles), provided they have warheads powerful enough to at least partially demolish the Kerch bridge. The current US-supplied ATACMS carry fragmentation warheads. These work well for other missions, but they do not have the power to take out a bridge’s supporting columns.

German-made Taurus missiles are another heavyweight weapon capable of successfully carrying out the mission. However, as we all know, Berlin has no plans to send any such weapons to Ukraine.The UK Storm Shadow and French Scalp missiles manufactured by Franco-British group MBDA are also comparable in their destructive power – and have been put to good use by Ukraine’s forces. But again, Kyiv does not have enough of them to strike the big blow it needs in Crimea.

 London and Paris should place a large joint order with MBDA for Storm Shadows and Scalps to be delivered to Ukraine over several years.

This analysis logically brings us to a number of possible ways forward: London and Paris should place a joint order with MBDA for more SS and Scalps  to be delivered to Ukraine over several years with the view of triggering similar decisions in Washington and Berlin regarding ATACMS ( with heavy charges) and Taurus.

The cost would be considerable. But France and Britain, two of Ukraine’s main allies, could then go to Washington and Berlin and make the case for supplying Kyiv with the ATACMS (which the US has in plentiful supply) and TAURUS missiles with the firepower for the job.

Potential for objections

Of course, people will object that this strategy could create potential for Russia to escalate the war.But when has the Kremlin followed through on its many threats against the West? The feared escalation has yet to materialize, despite Putin’s thundering. Each time Ukraine’s allies have intensified their support, or Ukraine has notched up significant wins, including in Crimea and its strike against the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, Russian rhetoric ramps up, but without escalation occurring.

On the other hand, unless the West steps up its support for Ukraine moves to a more determined offensive posture, Russia, which has moved its economy on to a war footing, will remain free to pursue the war and amplify its offensives and strikes aimed at destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure.

Yet another objection to the proposed strategy of intensified military pressure against Russian assets in Crimea posits that it would not achieve its goals. It is self-evident that Ukraine’s armed forces must continue to commit sufficient resources to blunt the advance of the Russian army. To do this it needs to strengthen the air-defense systems protecting Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. Ukraine should be provided with sufficient capacity to target the military bases in Russia from which attacks are launched, the Russian army’s logistics hubs, and the supply routes for weapons coming from North Korea and Iran.

Instead, the recent drop in newly committed aid has been dramatic.

This brings us to a second proposal.

Special EU fund to arm Ukraine

One way to ensure long-term funding for Ukraine would be to establish a special EU fund for credit facility to finance that country’s arms purchases over a period of several years. This structure would take over from the European Peace Loan, which is running low. Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Estonian President Kaja Kalas have already tabled proposals in this vein. In France, Nathalie Loiseau and Benjamin Haddad have put forward the idea of a European fund similar to the €200 million facility set up by the French government in 2022 to streamline Ukraine’s arms purchases.

In this author’s opinion, now is the time to do more, especially in view of the risk of flagging US support. Now is the time to act. But how and with what? One good option could be to extend a substantial credit loan, modeled on the EU’s €800 billion post-Covid recovery plan to kick-start the European economy. An appropriate figure to arm Ukraine could be in the region of €100 billion.

One way to ensure long-term funding for Ukraine’s military needs would be to establish a special EU fund for credit facility

What form would such a loan take?
The loan could be presented as focusing on building up Europe’s defense industry. For starters, and now that a new pro-European government has been elected in Warsaw, the initiative could be launched by a group spearheaded by the “Weimar triangle” countries  (France, Germany and Poland).  It is true that Germany had  insisted that the Covid-19 loan should not set a precedent; however, nobody foresaw a war in Europe at the time, least of all Berlin. To get around the fiscal rules, the European Council could endorse the German idea of excluding military expenditure from the ceiling on budget deficits of 3% of GDP. Other countries with a large defense industry, such as Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands, could be involved in this program . If opposed by countries like Hungary, the funding could be arranged according to a “variable geometry” model (the idea that not every country need take part).

Finally, we come to the question of the United Kingdom, one of the largest donors to Ukraine’s defense.

Ukraine cannot wait. And with both the European Parliament and US presidential elections in the offing, a loan launch announcement in February or March would be perfectly timed for maximum impact

 Not only should the UK be involved in such an initiative, but the loan could be launched during the next meeting of the European Political Community due to be held in London. Timing is everything:  Ukraine cannot wait. And with both the European Parliament and US presidential elections in the offing, an announcement in February or March would be perfectly timed for maximum impact.

Copyright image : Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

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