14.02 War Review

Year of resilience: If Ukraine holds out in 2024, experts believe Russia will never be able to achieve victory in the war

2024 will be the most difficult period of the war for Ukraine, with the exception of the first weeks of the Russian invasion. Against the backdrop of reduced Western assistance, a significant resource advantage for Russia will allow it to exhaust the Ukrainian army, gain a decisive advantage on the battlefield, and end the war on its own terms. Conversely, if Ukraine, with sufficient Western support, establishes a competent defence and consolidates its forces, the situation may turn in its favour. In 2025, Russia's defensive resources will begin to decline, while the West will increase arms and ammunition production and prepare a professional reserve for the Ukrainian army. However, to withstand, Ukraine must first create a fortified, deeply layered defence system similar to what the Ukrainian counteroffensive encountered in 2023. It should revise its mobilisation policy, including lowering the average age of conscription, establish repair and manufacturing of components for military equipment and the production of its own drones, and prepare forces for counteroffensives in 2025. And, if the West assists Ukraine with this in 2024, Russia is unlikely to ever realise its victory strategy, according to military experts.

After visiting the front line, the new Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Oleksandr Syrskyi, described the 'operational situation' as 'extremely complex and tense'. Ahead is the most unfavourable period of the war for Ukraine, when Russia will have a significant resource advantage against the backdrop of uncertainty and instability when it comes to Western assistance to Ukraine.

Experts from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, believe that Russia expects to achieve victory in the war during 2024–2025. The plan for this victory involves increasing pressure across the entire front line, followed by offensive operations that will lead to the capitulation of Kharkiv and Odesa. This will be possible in part due to reduced Western assistance and the exhaustion of Ukrainian forces. At the same time, they believe that Russia's military potential will diminish. Currently, Moscow is managing to replenish its arsenal with reserves of weapons and equipment being repaired and modernised at defence industry enterprises. However, by 2025, this resource will be largely depleted. At the same time, by then, the West will have deployed new production of ammunition and military equipment.

If the West helps Ukraine to withstand 2024, the experts believe that Russia is unlikely to achieve its victory strategy in 2025. By this time, Kyiv may have prepared significant professional military reserves, including junior command reserves, which will largely neutralise Russia's numerical manpower advantage. Conversely, if Russia achieves significant success in exhausting Ukrainian forces and capabilities in 2024, then restoring the army's potential in 2025 will be extremely difficult for Kyiv.

Prominent military experts Michael Kofman, Rob Lee, and Dara Massicot also believe that 2024 will determine the future trajectory of the war. If Western military and economic support weakens, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) will exhaust their resistance potential, and Kyiv will have to negotiate with Moscow from a position of weakness. However, if the West continues to provide assistance, Ukraine will be able to effectively resist Russian forces this year and will gain battlefield advantages for conducting large-scale offensive operations in the next year. According to experts, Ukraine should adhere to a strategy based on three pillars: holding positions, improving defensive capabilities, and restoring offensive potential.

Ukraine needs to focus on deterring Russia to minimise the success of its offensive operations and maximise the damage inflicted on the enemy. It is necessary to create a fortified, deeply layered defence system similar to what the Ukrainian counteroffensive encountered. Today, according to experts, Ukraine's efforts in this area are insufficient. In Russia, there are special engineering brigades that build and improve fortifications, while in the Ukrainian army, regular manoeuvre brigades are responsible for defence. A more thoughtful defensive strategy should include underground bunkers and tunnels to compensate for Russia's advantage in artillery and bombs.

Thanks to Western support and the transfer of industrial capacities, such as 3D printing machines, Ukraine can independently service and produce new components for Western equipment. However, the problem is that the arsenal of equipment received by Kyiv from Western countries is extremely diverse — it includes 14 different types of artillery and numerous models of tanks (Leopard, Challenger, Abrams), infantry fighting vehicles, mine-clearing vehicles, and so on. Experts suggest partially addressing the shortage of components by establishing closer cooperation between Western governments and defence companies on the one hand, and private charitable organisations on the other. The West should also assist Ukraine in the production of drones and electronic warfare systems to combat drones, which will partially compensate for the shortage of ammunition that the AFU will experience throughout this year.

Moreover, to attract additional manpower, Ukraine will still have to revise its mobilisation policy, including lowering the average age of conscription. At the same time, with the help of the West, Ukraine needs to conduct extensive military training of new forces capable of conducting offensive operations in 2025. Commanders of platoons, battalions, and brigades, as well as their staff, cannot be properly prepared in a short period of time.

If Ukraine can exhaust Russian forces at the peak of Moscow's defence spending in 2024 and then seize the initiative and inflict a series of defeats on the Russian army in 2025, this will give Kyiv the necessary leverage over the opponent, the experts conclude. But for this scenario to be realised, the West must develop a long-term strategy to support Ukraine and adhere to it. Otherwise, Ukraine's defeat will lead to Kyiv irreversibly losing control not only over its territory but also over part of its sovereignty.