As we welcome the New Year and the Russia-Ukraine conflict approaches its third year, many on both sides of the Atlantic are anxious to know whether Ukraine has any chance of winning the war in 2024 or if a peace settlement could be achieved. Last year, I correctly predicted that 2023 would see the ‘hottest phase’ of what has become the biggest and bloodiest war in Europe since World War II. Here’s my assessment for 2024.
Moscow will likely escalate hostilities in the first quarter of the year, aiming to force Kyiv to capitulate, ahead of Vladimir Putin’s run for re-election in March. As neither Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy nor the Biden administration are likely to hand Putin such a clear victory – losing face in the process by signing a peace agreement on Putin’s terms.
Alternatively, and more likely, none of the three sides – Moscow, Kyiv and Washington – would be willing to compromise. In this case, the conflict will grind on until it reaches the threshold when the level of attrition of Ukrainian manpower becomes unacceptable to its citizens – probably in summer, early fall – or till the U.S. government stops sending weapons and money to Kyiv. At that point, active combat operations will gradually transition to low intensity fighting, with occasional flare-ups. And by 2025, the conflict will be ‘frozen,’ with no formal peace settlement in place.
Contrary to President Biden’s and the Washington establishment’s expectations, and tragically for Ukrainians, Kyiv’s victory remains mathematically impossible. Here’s the basis for my analysis.
Russia holds an overwhelming military and economic advantage over its former Soviet satellite. Since the very start of the war, Russia has held an overwhelming military and economic advantage over its former Soviet satellite. Despite the valor of its citizens and episodic tactical successes – such as a missile strike on Tuesday that damaged a Russian warship in the occupied Crimean port of Feodosia – strategically, Ukraine is in a deadlock with Russia, fighting a losing battle of attrition.
There’s a reason why the Pentagon considers Russia a ‘near peer competitor.’ The war in Ukraine, has not changed this view, according to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall. Kendall acknowledged last year that, although the Russian military has experienced logistics and command and control problems in Ukraine, his service’s plans for countering Russia remain unchanged, still calling for modernization of the U.S. combat arsenal.
While Russia has suffered significant losses in the past 20 months in Ukraine, the Russian military remains very well resourced, in manpower and matériel. Putin has prepared Russia for a long fight, in which he believes Moscow will come out triumphant.
An attorney by training with a Ph.D. in economics, Putin began transitioning the Russian economy to a wartime footing and sanction-proofing it, well in advance. In 2015, seven years prior to his forces surrounding Ukraine on February 2022, Putin declared the so-called ‘special period,’ a legal regime that allows the Russian state to mandate that factories switch production from civilian goods to military hardware, such as missiles, drones and tanks.
Since 2014, when the first U.S. sanctions hit Russia after it invaded Ukraine’s Crimea, Putin began to de-dollarize Russia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, its state investment fund, in favor of the Chinese yuan, the euro and gold. He beefed up Russia’s foreign exchange reserves to an all-time high of $630 billion. As of October, the fund is still $563 billion strong. Putin has recently doubled Russia’s 2023 defense budget to more than $100 billion, the highest level since Soviet times. The Russian ‘supreme commander’ is directing an ever bigger share of the state revenues to his war effort.
Conversely, Ukraine is heavily reliant on Western money for its survival. Ukraine’s 2023 GDP was $155 billion, according to the World Bank. Biden’s current request for Ukraine aid of $61 billion is 40% of that GDP. But the U.S. aid to Ukraine is running out at the end of this month, according to the White House. And it is far from certain whether Congress will approve another package to Kyiv when it returns from its holiday break in January. The dispute between conservative Republicans on one side and the Biden administration and the Democrats on the other, regarding conditioning aid to Ukraine on stronger border security measures, shows no signs of being resolved.
The funds from the U.S. and some European countries pay not only for Ukraine’s weapons supply but also for its civil expenditures such as salaries for government officials, school teachers, college professors, health care workers and housing subsidies. Consequently, without foreign financing, Ukraine’s economy and society will likely collapse and its defensive operations against Russia will be over, probably in a matter of weeks.
The disparity in manpower also indisputably favors Russia. Although Moscow has lost approximately 315,000 or 87% of its forces to death or severe injury, according to the recently declassified U.S. intelligence estimate, Putin has been replenishing his army throughout the conflict, including by covert mobilization measures. Russian armed forces are being increased by 170,000 servicemen, to the full strength of 1,320,000. To attract more warm bodies to fight for Mother Russia, the Russian government pays a staggering signing bonus of one million rubles ($11,000).
Ukrainian forces, on the other hand, are nearing the breaking point. Kyiv’s losses are approaching 200,000 dead or badly wounded. The average age of a Ukrainian soldier is 43 and getting older. Not only are these troops exhausted from almost two years of bloody fighting, many of them are physically unable to withstand the demands on the battlefield. ‘Physically, I can’t handle this,’ lamented a 47-year old Ukrainian front-line soldier and former electrical engineer, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.
Lacking an effective mobilization system, Ukrainian recruiters resort to using physical force and intimidation, grabbing men on the streets to replenish the troops, according to the New York Times. Although Ukrainian President Zelenskyy wants to draft half a million additional recruits to fight against Russia – an effort for which he seeks $13.4 billion – it is unclear how he plans to achieve this objective. Meanwhile, on the battlefield, Ukraine’s much anticipated counteroffensive has failed and Russia is gaining momentum, continuing to destroy Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and defense industrial facilities.
Confident that his country outguns and outmans its opponent, Putin smells blood, seeking Ukraine’s full capitulation. ‘There will be peace when we achieve our goals,’ Putin said during a recent four-hour press conference. The deputy Russian U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy wrote on his Twitter account two weeks ago that Zelenskyy ‘has blown [Ukraine’s] chances for a favorable peace agreement.’ ‘Any possible deal,’ concluded Polyanskiy, will reflect Ukraine’s ‘capitulation.’ He used the 1945 ‘full and unconditional capitulation’ of Germany to the USSR as an example.
Putin outright mocked the comment by U.S. deputy national security adviser Jonathan Finer, who suggested on Dec. 8 that sustained Western aid to Ukraine would compel Russia to negotiate on terms favorable to Kyiv by the end of 2024. ‘Ukraine, unlike Russia, has no future,’ said Putin, according to Izvestiya. ‘Their defense potential is running out. They do not have their own base, and when they do not have their own base, neither ideology, nor their own industry, nor money of their own, nothing of their own, then there is no future. And we have it.’ These are not the words of a worried leader.
It may be tempting to dismiss the former KGB operative’s comments as propaganda. But weighing the situation candidly – something that the Washington establishment seems to be incapable of whether it’s with regard to Afghanistan or Ukraine – Putin is far more realistic than Zelenskyy, who continues to accept nothing short of victory. ‘Nobody believes in our victory like I do,’ Zelenskyy recently told Time magazine.
Zelenskyy is correct. No one with common sense believes that Ukraine can win against Russia, whose population is three times higher than Ukraine’s, allowing the Kremlin to throw flesh in the meat grinder long after the last Ukrainian perishes. Even the U.S. media – which was blindly cheerleading Ukraine for the past two years, rather than delivering objective analysis – have all but acknowledged that Putin’s war machine will likely outlast Zelenskyy’s arsenal, as well as Western support.
Mathematics doesn’t lie, no matter how hard the Washington establishment tries to rig the numbers.
Regretfully, in the upcoming year – just like the last one and many years prior, during the ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan – Team Biden will continue to try to squeeze a few more billions out of us, promising that Ukraine’s victory is just around the corner. This magical thinking will almost certainly result in yet more bloodshed, death and destruction of Ukraine and Ukrainians in 2024.