Friendly fire? Ukraine’s chief commander, Valeriy Zaluzhny, is said to have a frosty relationship with Zelensky © Ukraine President’s Office / Alamy

Ukraine’s fate, Europe’s choice

After a century of struggle, Ukrainians have chosen Europe against Russia. Now Europe must decide: allow Ukraine to be defeated or help it to victory?
January 24, 2024

The Air Alert app flashes on my phone: “Immediately proceed to the nearest shelter.” I click on the map and see red spreading across the country from the east, like a bloodstain on a shirt. In the first days of 2024, as Russia launched a massive barrage of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones at civilian targets in Ukrainian cities, the entire map showed red. You need to activate this app when you’re in Ukraine, but I keep it live all the time to remind me that the biggest war in Europe since 1945 has been raging for almost two years, since 24th February 2022.

We were all shocked and horrified at the outset. We said we must not “normalise” it. But we have. As the television news crews have decamped from Ukraine to Israel, to cover the war in Gaza, this has become just another war in a faraway country. Why does it matter that it’s a war “in Europe”? Not because a Palestinian, Israeli, Yemeni or Sudanese life is one jot less valuable than a Ukrainian or British one, but because we are in Europe and our own security is more directly affected. When Europeans said “Never again!” after 1945, they meant in the first place never again in Europe. It happened again in former Yugoslavia, and again we said “Never again!”. Now Bucha has joined Srebrenica in Europe’s long gazetteer of barbarism. Somehow that “Never” never comes.

The scale of the Russia–Ukraine war sets it apart as much as its brutality. Four out of every five Ukrainians say that they have a family member or close friend who has been killed or wounded. The Ukrainian government doesn’t release figures, but last summer US officials estimated there were already some 70,000 Ukrainian war dead—more in 18 months than the US had in two decades of war in Vietnam—and upwards of 100,000 wounded. By now, the numbers will be larger. When I first visited Lviv’s military cemetery in December 2022, there were two long rows of fresh graves. When I visited it again last October, to lay flowers on the grave of a very brave volunteer I had met the previous year, there were four long rows, the last resting places of more than 500 soldiers from just one city. The display of photographs of the fallen along the outside walls of St Michael’s monastery in Kyiv seems endless.

And that’s just the dead. Late last year, I found the corridors of Unbroken, a national rehabilitation clinic in Lviv, full of soldiers missing arms, legs, hands or feet—mainly victims of the terrible Russian minefields on the southern and eastern fronts. Then there are the millions of internal refugees from cities such as Mariupol, weeping tears for the homes that they may never see again. No one is untouched. I have been to Ukraine four times since the outbreak of the full-scale war, and each time I’ve been struck by how much more visibly exhausted, traumatised and frustrated my friends and acquaintances have been.

High hopes were invested in last year’s big counteroffensive, which was supposed to punch through to the Sea of Azov, breaking Vladimir Putin’s “land bridge” between the Donbas and Crimea. In fact, only small strips of territory have been recovered and Russian forces are on the offensive in the east. Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and its seizure of parts of eastern Ukraine, Russia occupied some 42,000 square km, a territory larger than Belgium. At the end of last year, Russia occupied about 108,000 square km—equivalent to the area of Portugal plus most of Slovenia.

Nursing the partly healed stump of a foot blown off by a Russian mine, Maksym, a burly army sniper from Poltava I met in the Unbroken clinic, told me he thinks that victory will not be possible for Ukraine in 2024. “Victory can happen if Putin dies or they have a coup. If not, this war can continue for years or even decades.” After all, “the Russians have more men.” However, he added, if he and his comrades got significantly more weapons and training from the west, they could eventually win back the Kherson and Zaporizhia provinces, thus breaking the land bridge and reversing most of the gains that Russia has made since February 2022. The leading western military experts I have consulted broadly agree with him.

Before we consider what might happen this year, however, it’s worth dwelling on a victory that Ukraine has already achieved.

The entry for Ukraine in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published 1910–1911, comes between Ukaz (a Russian imperial edict) and Ulan (Central European cavalry). It reads, in its entirety:

UKRAINE (“frontier”), the name formerly given to a district of European Russia, now comprising the governments of Kharkov, Kiev, Podolia and Poltava. The portion east of the Dnieper became Russian in 1686 and the portion west of that river in 1793.

The entries on Ukaz and Ulan are both longer than that for Ukraine.

The Ukraine that we see today is the product of a century’s struggle for recognition as a distinct European country and an independent state. Already, in 1918, Ukraine’s nation-building historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky wrote an essay on the country’s “European orientation”. In the revolutionary, state-creating period immediately after the First World War, competing versions of Ukrainian statehood briefly emerged. The entity that prevailed, the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, initially had limited autonomy inside the Soviet Union, before that was crushed by Joseph Stalin with the aid of a forced famine, the Holodomor. 

This struggle has been both internal and external. When Ukraine held a referendum in December 1991, all parts of the country—including Crimea—voted for independence. But there was not a strong sense of shared national identity and “European orientation” uniting it, especially not in the predominantly Russian-speaking east and southeast. It’s a great mistake to confuse being Russian-speaking with being Russian, as Putin does. If that were the case, President Volodymyr Zelensky, a native Russian-speaker, would be a Russian. But in a 1997 public opinion poll, 56 per cent of the population identified as “Ukrainian only”, 11 per cent as “Russian only”, and 27 per cent as “both Ukrainian and Russian”. There was no nationwide majority for joining the EU, let alone Nato.

It took three great national moments to unite Ukraine around what is now a passionate shared commitment to being an independent, sovereign European country, firmly anchored in Europe and the west. The first was the Orange Revolution of 2004. I will never forget standing on the Maidan, Kyiv’s now famous central square, on a freezing evening in December of that year—I’ve never been so cold in my life—and looking out over a forest of both Ukrainian and European flags. And yet as late as 2013, a poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) showed majorities against joining the EU in both the eastern and southern parts of the country.

In Lviv’s military cemetery, tributes surround the grave of Yevhen Hulevych, a “brave volunteer” killed in the war © Timothy Garton Ash In Lviv’s military cemetery, tributes surround the grave of Yevhen Hulevych, a “brave volunteer” killed in the war © Timothy Garton Ash

The second catalytic moment was the “Revolution of Dignity” or Euromaidan (the clue is in the name) in 2014, sparked by a decision by then president Viktor Yanukovych to renege on a promise to sign an association agreement with the EU. It ended with a new government signing that agreement—but also with Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the beginning, in eastern Ukraine, of the Russia-Ukraine war which, as Ukrainians always remind us, has been going on for almost 10 years. After 2014, the country made significant efforts to reform and prepare for possible EU membership, also securing visa-free travel for its citizens in 2017.

Zelensky’s 2019 presidential election campaign was focused on Europe. In his inaugural speech, he said “Our European country begins with each one of us. We have chosen a path to Europe, but Europe is not somewhere out there. Europe is here”—and he pointed to his head. But it’s one thing to want to be a European country, another to be accepted as such by the rest of Europe. For decades, this acceptance was lacking. Asked in 2005 about Ukraine’s prospects of becoming a candidate for EU membership, a spokeswoman for the European Commission said: “There will first have to be a discussion of whether a country is European.” (Irony of ironies: she was British.)

Even after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in 2014, former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt pontificated that “as late as 1990, the west did not doubt that Crimea and Ukraine—both—were part of Russia... Historians disagree as to whether a Ukrainian nation exists at all.” The resistance to EU membership lasted even longer.  Just four days before Putin’s full-scale invasion, a key adviser to Olaf Scholz told me the current German chancellor’s position was clear: the EU should enlarge to include the western Balkans, but no further.

What a difference a war makes. Russia’s attack has been the third and final catalytic moment, both internally and externally. Internally, there’s now an overwhelming consensus that the country should join the EU and Nato as soon as possible. Already in May 2022, those same KIIS pollsters found an 81 per cent majority in favour of EU membership, with a whopping 94 per cent in western Ukraine and 76 per cent even in the east. This has accompanied a profound revulsion against Russia and all things Russian. In 2010, KIIS found that 92 per cent of Ukrainians had a generally positive attitude to Russia; by May 2022, this was 2 per cent. An academic told me his students now write the word “russia” with a small r—“I don’t correct them.” 

More remarkable still is the external recognition. I have compared Ukraine’s 2022 to Britain’s 1940: the moment of wartime defiance that defines the nation for decades to come, both in its own eyes and in those of the world, with Zelensky as “Churchill with an iPhone”. But no one doubted before 1940 that Britain was a major independent country, so Ukraine’s breakthrough is doubly exceptional. Shortly before he died in November, Henry Kissinger grandly opined that “Ukraine has become a major state in Central Europe for the first time in modern history.” More colloquially, Tetiana, a young activist and part-time tattooist I met in Lviv, told me that when she had travelled abroad previously, foreigners “thought Ukraine is, like, part of Russia”, but now “finally the world finds out what Ukraine is.”

That same Scholz who in mid-February 2022 was resolved that the EU should enlarge no further than the western Balkans was standing in central Kyiv less than four months later, shoulder to shoulder with three other EU leaders and Zelensky, declaring that Ukraine should be accepted as a candidate for EU membership. This year, membership negotiations will begin. But whether, when and in what shape—territorial, demographic, military, economic and political—Ukraine might actually join the EU depends on the outcome of this war.

History is full of surprises, and no one is more surprised by them than historians. Barring major surprises, however, it’s unlikely that this war will be resolved in 2024. Yet choices made in 2024 will decide who wins it in 2025, or 2026 or whenever it finally ends.

Russia is at once the most predictable and the least predictable actor in this conflict. It’s a dictatorship whose dictator is utterly determined to defeat Ukraine. Putin’s own future—perhaps even his life—depends on it. His idea of victory crucially entails Ukraine not being a sovereign country that becomes part of the west. Moreover, he has formally decreed that four Ukrainian provinces, the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts, large parts of which (including two capital cities) his forces do not control, are already incorporated into the Russian Federation—a commitment hard to step back from. 

Using all the advantages of a dictatorship, he has rapidly stepped up weapons and munitions production, by central command. He has also got drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea and dual-use technology from China. Western economic sanctions have proved less effective than many hoped, because non-western economies have taken their place. India is purchasing a good deal of the oil that the west no longer buys while Chinese trade with Russia has soared. Domestic political opponents have been murdered or imprisoned, or they have fled the country. Now Putin is trying to bomb Ukraine into submission and score a few symbolic battlefield victories to bolster his own almost inevitable re-election as president in March. Above all, he is waiting for Donald Trump to be elected for a second term as US president and to cut off American support for Ukraine.

Such regimes, however, are strong but also brittle. They are more liable than democracies to sudden, non-linear developments. They don’t bend, but sometimes they break. No one predicted last year’s extraordinary episode of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny and lightning march on Moscow. True, that ended with Prigozhin’s death in a well-organised air crash; but sustained external pressure could eventually contribute to another hidden or overt regime fracture. No one should count on it, but it would be equally foolish to exclude the possibility.

After two years of war, Ukraine has huge problems of its own

Ukraine is determined to keep up this pressure. But after two years of war, it has huge problems of its own. Besides the parlous state of its economy and the relentless attacks on its energy infrastructure, there’s the challenge succinctly identified by Maksym: “the Russians have more men.” The surviving members of the Ukrainian armed forces are exhausted. Amazingly, the average age of a Ukrainian soldier is around 40. For all the patriotic fervour, the country has tens of thousands of draft-dodgers. The army badly needs new blood. (In this context, the familiar phrase has a terrible literalness.) Thus far, men under 27 have been excluded from conscription. The government is proposing to lower that age to 25 and conscript as many as 500,000 men. But worryingly, the responsibility for making this long overdue proposal kept being passed between Zelensky and General Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the armed forces. They have a strained relationship, with others sniping from the sidelines.

This goes to another Ukrainian problem, familiar from all democracies at war: the tension between national unity and democracy. On the regular peacetime schedule, there would have been parliamentary elections last autumn and a presidential election this spring. But elections are not allowed under martial law, which has been in force since February 2022. Fair democratic competition is impossible while all the main TV channels have a single 24/7 news programme, the United News telethon, which is effectively controlled by the government. There is still a wide consensus that while the country is fighting a war for its survival, it can’t risk the divisions that would open up in an election campaign. 

Nonetheless, domestic politics are back. In Kyiv, I heard sharp criticism of authoritarian and centralising tendencies in the presidential administration. Beside his tense relationship with Zaluzhny, the president is at odds with the heavyweight mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, and has a bitter rivalry with former president Petro Poroshenko. In a conversation last summer, the deputy speaker of the parliament, Oleksandr Kornienko, told our visiting European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) study group that parliament could not go on for years without elections.

When that moment approaches, there will be new contenders, such as Serhiy Prytula. He started out like Zelensky as a TV star, but has achieved great popularity, not least among the young, by leading a charity that directly supplies the Ukrainian army with weapons and equipment they need. Whether or not Zaluzhny throws his hat into the ring, some other military figures may swap their uniforms for civilian clothes to do so—and the conduct of the war will be an election issue. One thing that western policymakers who fondly dream of a negotiated settlement fail to understand is that any Ukrainian politician who publicly suggests territorial concessions to Russia will be committing electoral suicide. Opinion polls indicate that the Ukrainian public, far from having been exhausted into accepting territorial compromise, now strongly favours the restoration of the nation’s entire legitimate sovereign territory, including Crimea.

The third and most decisive actor this year will be the west. Thus far, the west has done just enough to stop Ukraine being defeated but not enough to enable it to win. Even before the probable disaster of Trump being re-elected US president, it’s clear that declining support in American public opinion, hyperpolarised politics in an election year and the competing priority of the Israel–Hamas war mean the Biden administration will be hard-pressed to maintain its current level of military and economic support for Ukraine, let alone to increase it. But without a significant uplift in western support, Ukraine is highly unlikely to recover significant amounts of territory. So what happens next depends on Europe, the only set of countries with both the vital interests in this conflict and the resources to make a difference. Germany alone has an economy twice the size of Russia’s; the EU, seven times. In this context, Britain, one of Ukraine’s foremost supporters, is also very much part of the relevant Europe.

At the moment, Europe is confusedly not facing up to its real choice. If support for Ukraine continues only at the current level of scale and boldness, Russia will have successfully seized nearly one-fifth of Ukraine’s territory. Privately, some policymakers in major west European capitals hope for either a frozen conflict or a negotiated settlement on that basis. Some kid themselves this would be an outcome in which “Ukraine does not lose but Russia does not win.” Surely Ukraine should be content with the prospect of EU membership and some sort of security guarantees, perhaps eventually leading to Nato membership, for four-fifths of its territory? How unreasonable can these pesky east Europeans be? 

In reality, neither Russia nor Ukraine is ready either to negotiate or to freeze the conflict. If, however, the current line of division, or something close to it, were to become frozen, Putin could claim a famous victory. This would be a huge defeat for Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainian men and women would face a choice between never returning to their homes or living under a hated dictatorship, speaking a language they no longer wish to speak, and having their children indoctrinated at school with a grotesque falsification of their own history. The rest of Ukraine would be demoralised, demotivated and depopulated, with millions more Ukrainians permanently making their lives abroad and, back home, an angry populism of internal discord and bitter recrimination against the west.

In the eyes of the world, it would not only be Ukraine that had been defeated. Polling done by ECFR, in partnership with my Oxford University research project on Europe in a Changing World, shows that 57 per cent of Chinese respondents, a majority in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as pluralities in South Africa, Indonesia and South Korea, believe that the US is at war with Russia. Many of them also think Russia will win in Ukraine and that the EU will fall apart in the next 20 years. The outcome muddleheadedly envisaged by some European policymakers would confirm these major non-European powers in this view of the weakness of Europe, and of western democracies altogether. And if Putin can get away with seizing a territory larger than Portugal right next door to Nato and the EU, Xi Jinping might start thinking that he can get away with seizing Taiwan, an island in China’s backyard.

If the current line of division were to become frozen, Putin could claim a famous victory

The alternative is for Europe to do what is needed to enable Ukraine to break the land bridge and recover at least the Kherson and Zaporizhia provinces in 2025. What would this require? Rapidly and massively enhancing Ukraine’s air defences. Supplying long-range missiles such as Germany’s Taurus so that Kyiv can continue to push back Russia’s Black Sea fleet—its one big military success in 2023—and pressurise Crimea, which has both strategic and symbolic importance for Putin. Working with Nato and the US to provide Ukrainian forces with the large-scale, multi-week training needed for combined arms operations. Actually moving towards what French president Emmanuel Macron merely talks about: a “war economy”. In free-market democracies, this means national and European authorities guaranteeing long-term, coordinated orders for weapons and munitions, to which Europe’s private sector defence industry would respond. This would also position Europe to tell an incoming US president that it’s doing more for its own defence, which is the closest it can realistically come to “strategic autonomy” in just one year.

What happens if and when Ukraine has pushed Russian occupying forces back close to the lines they occupied on the eve of the 2022 invasion? Does that catalyse a change of policy or even of leadership in Moscow? Is there a possible opening for negotiation, with perhaps a demilitarised special status proposed for Crimea? Or does a half-crazed Putin actually try lobbing a tactical nuclear weapon at Ukraine? We must plan for all these contingencies, but the first imperative is to put Ukraine in a position where it is clearly winning and can genuinely choose to negotiate from strength.

Ukraine has made its European choice. Now Europe must make its Ukrainian choice. The path I have outlined is the only good way forward, not just for Ukraine but for Europe, for a lasting peace and for the global credibility of the west. We Europeans need to decide and act fast. If we continue to dither, Hamlet-like, we will end up making the wrong choice by default, with disastrous consequences for decades to come.