Feb 23, 2024 - World

Ukraine’s best hope in 2024 might be to limit its losses

Ukrainian solider in foxhole with mortar

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar near the front lines in Donetsk. Photo: Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu via Getty

Ukraine's best hope for year three of Russia's invasion may be to avoid losing additional territory — and some military analysts question whether even that will be achievable without urgent help from Washington.

Why it matters: Ukrainian hopes for a decisive breakthrough were dashed in 2023, and Russia now has clear manpower and firepower advantages. As the war crosses the two-year mark, it has devolved into a deadly stalemate that could tilt in Russia's favor.

State of play: Russia has a five-to-one advantage in artillery ammunition, and Ukraine is also contending with a shortage of infantry, according to Michael Kofman, a leading analyst of the war and Carnegie Endowment senior fellow.

  • "It seems unlikely that there will be resources for another major Ukrainian offensive this year," Kofman says, noting that Kyiv has "fundamental issues" to address in terms of strengthening its defensive positions and mobilizing more fighters.
  • Russia is pushing forward in eastern Ukraine and recently notched its most significant victory of the year by capturing Avdiivka — though the small city fell only after months of heavy fighting, in an indication of how static the battle lines have become.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who fired his top commander this month and whose rhetoric about the war has grown increasingly dire, warned in a visit to the front this week that his forces were in an "extremely difficult" position due to "delays" in weapons supplies.

Despite Russia's advantages, Ukraine can still hope to "hold and potentially exhaust" Russia's forces this year, but only with sufficient support from Western backers, Kofman says.

  • With the House deadlocked over further Ukraine funding, and a potential Trump presidency looming, Kofman believes the question of whether U.S. support endures may decide the outcome of the war.

There are no indications that Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking peace — and certainly not on terms Zelensky would accept.

Between the lines: Some analysts and many Western officials continue to argue that, over time, Western sanctions and arms will degrade Russia's ability to wage war and allow Ukraine to gain the upper hand on the battlefield. Few are optimistic about 2024.

  • Russia's economy is projected to grow by 2.6% this year — juiced by energy revenues and a staggering increase in defense spending — despite the U.S. and its allies having pulled virtually every sanctions lever they're willing to touch.
  • Russia is now spending 6% of its GDP on its military, translating into more troops and more ammunition — two areas in which Ukraine finds itself severely outmatched.
  • Despite international efforts at isolation, Russia continues to export huge volumes of oil — chiefly to China and India — and import weapons from Iran and North Korea.

By the numbers: Polling from the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center reflects the more pessimistic outlook, though Ukrainians overwhelmingly continue to believe victory will ultimately be theirs.

  • This time last year, 47% believed victory would come in 2023 and 71% by 2024.
  • In the Jan. 2024 edition, just 17% expected victory this year.
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