Ukraine at War: The Year Past and the Year Ahead (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 192

(Ukrainska Pravda)

*Read Part One.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made clear in 2023 that Ukraine could not expect to be offered a sought-after membership plan so long as Russia’s war continues. Any decision on this matter has been postponed until “after the war.” The NATO summit in Vilnius confirmed this policy (see EDM, July 13, 17, 19), as did US President Joe Biden when receiving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the White House in early December (Ukrinform;, December 12, 13).

As an alternative to NATO membership, the Group of Seven (G7) leaders decided during the NATO summit (separately from the alliance as such) to establish security commitments to Ukraine for the postwar period. The G7 and additional willing countries plan to work out a multilateral treaty with Ukraine and, in that framework, bilateral security treaties between Ukraine and each participant country. The Ukrainian government has already entered into preliminary discussions with individual G7 countries on this proposal. Kyiv, however, regards such arrangements as merely transitional to NATO membership, not an alternative to it.

One common weakness in NATO’s official position and the G7 proposal is the “after the war” expectation. In contemporary conditions of hybrid war, Russia is hardly likely to allow a “postwar period” to develop and stabilize—even less so when Western powers rule out security guarantees to Ukraine so long as hostilities continue.

Ukraine intends to redouble its effort to obtain an official membership invitation at NATO’s 2024 summit in Washington. Ukrainian public support for NATO membership registers at 70 to 80 percent in opinion polls, reinforcing the government’s motivation to seek membership.

Equally high is public support for EU membership. Ukraine was finally granted official candidate status in December. The decision in Brussels symbolically coincided with the tenth anniversary of the 2014 Euromaidan, which had enshrined the goal of Ukraine’s integration with the European Union. The European Commission and other EU institutions acted as the main drivers of this decision, ultimately lining up the necessary unanimity among member states whose attitudes ranged from eager for most eastern member states to caution for most western ones. The decision’s primary motivations are strategic more than technical, with a nascent “geopolitical” European Union seeking to anchor Ukraine to the 27-member bloc in spite of Russia’s invasion. Unlike NATO, which defers any decision until after the war, the European Union intends to open accession talks with Ukraine in the first quarter of 2024, conditioned on Kyiv’s progress in fulfilling the established accession criteria and ruling out any fast-tracking of Ukrainian membership (EurActiv, December 14, 15).

Economic interest groups within the European Union look set to slow down negotiations by adding protectionist conditions. Throughout 2023, farmers and truckers in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary staged vigorous protests against the import of Ukrainian agricultural products and preferential policies for Ukrainian truckers. These issues will likely fester in the year ahead. Farming interests in some Western European countries are also likely to object to competition from Ukraine’s grain production if the country is admitted into the European Union’s common agricultural market.

Brussels anticipates bearing the brunt of postwar reconstruction in Ukraine. Reliable, up-to-date cost estimates are lacking, and a definition of what constitutes “postwar” remains elusive. EU discussions about seizing Russian assets to finance reconstruction in Ukraine seem far from conclusive at this point. The European Union, meanwhile, supported Ukraine’s state budget with grants and loans averaging 1.5 billion euros (about $1.6 billion) per month during 2023 (EurActiv, December 18). Hungary threatens to block this support, but its vetoes have always turned out to be negotiable. EU institutions have accordingly postponed a decision to prolong considerations on additional funding until February 2024. Of greater concern is the possibility that Russian devastation and the accompanying Ukrainian demographic hemorrhage (see below) may turn Ukraine into a long-term economic ward of the European Union, rather than an attractive integration partner.

Russia’s war has inflicted a demographic catastrophe on Ukraine, with destruction of infrastructure and housing driving the exodus of refugees. This is described as the largest and fastest European population movement since World War II. Ukraine’s population was estimated at 45.3 million in 2013, the last pre-war year. Massive population losses began with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and parts of the Donbas region in 2014 and increased with the refugee exodus in 2022. International and Ukrainian organizations’ estimates of refugee numbers for 2023 are inevitably marked by approximations and discrepancies—not least owing to Russia forcing fluctuations in Ukraine’s borders. Taking estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a base, more than eight million Ukrainian refugees are currently in Europe, North America, and Israel. Another one to two million are apparently in Russia’s interior. No reliable population estimates are available for the territories that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2022 (OSW, July 11; Euronews, September 20; UNHCR, accessed December 1).

The refugee crisis looks to intensify in the coming year. According to Ukraine’s Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies, many refugees in Western countries are likely to turn from temporary into permanent refugees and residents of the recipient countries. The loss of this labor force will severely constrain Ukraine’s economic recovery, while the large share of women among the refugees will constrain its demographic recovery. According to the Kyiv School of Economics, Ukraine’s employable population declined from 17.4 million at the start of 2022 to 11.7 million at present, with an expected 4.5 million deficit of workers in the coming years (Ukrinform, September 19; New Voice on Ukraine, October 31).

The exact number of Ukrainian war casualties will remain classified information for the duration of the war. Those numbers add to the demographic and labor losses that result from the shrinkage in territory and departure of refugees. These factors will weigh heavily in any assessment of the war’s net outcome in terms of winners and losers.

In early December, Zelenskyy and the top military command jointly decided to shift from the counteroffensive to perimeter defense of the entire government-controlled territory. Inadequate levels of Western military assistance, coupled with delays in financing Ukraine’s war effort practically forced that decision on Kyiv (see Part One). Some symptoms of declining civilian morale inevitably resulted and could be gleaned from Ukrainian mainstream media. Notably, draft evasion has increased, and the military’s mobilization targets are posing political dilemmas for Kyiv. Zelenskyy had masterfully promoted optimism in Ukraine’s ultimate victory, and the retrenchment just announced looks all the more disappointing to many. A backlash against “rose-tinted” views has unsurprisingly ensued across the political spectrum.

Ukraine and its Western partners are now at risk of losing the war altogether. They cannot win on the strength of Ukrainian motivation alone. To maintain that zeal, Western allies must re-commit to delivering long-range accurate fires, modern tanks, air power capabilities, air defense systems, and munitions to Ukraine in preparation for a proper counteroffensive.