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February Trends and March Alerts 2024

What happened in February? As the war in Ukraine entered its third year, Ukrainian forces withdrew from the embattled town of Avdiivka in eastern Donetsk region after months of heavy Russian bombardment. The retreat marked a significant setback for Kyiv. Its forces are feeling the sting of waning U.S. support and momentum has swung toward Moscow. 

Why does it matter? Ukraine is at a critical juncture. Its disappointing 2023 counteroffensive, along with lagging defence production and political gridlock over military assistance in Washington, has emboldened Moscow, which remains determined to achieve President Putin’s war objectives (ie, the permanent subjugation of Ukraine) and is confident it is on track to do so. If current trends continue, Ukraine and its Western backers face the prospect of a Russian victory, emboldening an increasingly aggressive Moscow and shaking up the European security architecture. 

What to watch in coming weeks and months? With its larger population and greater capacity to produce weapons, as well as its willingness to absorb great costs to its economy and people, Moscow’s upper hand is increasingly evident. Following the fall of Avdiivka, Russia has managed to bring several settlements west of the town under its control. Ukraine may well lose more territory here and in other areas in the east and south where Russian forces concentrate their firepower.

Russia’s steady drumbeat of missile and drone attacks, helped by stepped-up military cooperation with Iran and North Korea, has stretched Ukraine’s air defence systems. Without a continuous stream of Western air defence interceptors, Ukraine is increasingly exposed to intensified Russian bombardments. Higher casualties are likely, including among civilians, as cities lose their protection. 

Looking further ahead, a victory for Republican frontrunner Donald Trump in the U.S.’ November 2024 polls could lead to a distancing between Washington and its longstanding NATO allies, and major cuts to any remaining U.S. aid for Ukraine.

What should be done? Ukraine needs more well-trained, well-armed troops to stave off Russia’s increasingly overwhelming firepower. To do this, Kyiv’s Western backers on both sides of the Atlantic must deliver on pledges of support by ramping up arms production. Kyiv, meanwhile, urgently needs to reform its broken recruitment system. Specifically, it should mobilise and train fresh troops to allow rotation of forces on the frontlines, some of whom have been there since the full-scale invasion, collaborate with partners on improving training for existing and incoming recruits, and tackle corruption. 

Finally, Kyiv and its backers need a more realistic and joined-up strategy to make longer-term military aid predictable. Without it, Ukraine’s chances of withstanding Russia’s attritional war could begin to fade rapidly.