Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Seven key questions that will determine what happens next in Ukraine

This is Ukraine’s darkest hour since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. The country is exhausted. But no one trusts Putin to respect a negotiated settlement

No one, not even Vladimir Putin or Volodymyr Zelenskiy, can tell us how this ends. But in a week of symbolic anniversaries10 years after the Maidan revolution, two years since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine – the following questions give an indication of what might unfold.

What is the military state of play?

Ukraine has sunk two dozen Russian vessels since the beginning of the war, making the Black Sea unsafe for the Russian navy and enabling Ukraine to resume shipping. Ukraine has also taken the war to Russian cities with long-range drone attacks behind Russian lines.

But Ukraine has been forced to move from an offensive to a defensive footing because it is outmanned and outgunned. Last year’s counter-offensive failed and Russia is able to produce or buy far more weapons and ammunition. In a war increasingly dominated by unmanned aerial vehicles, Russia manufactures 100,000 drones monthly, Ukraine half that many. Russian forces are putting pressure on the Ukrainian army the length of the 1,000km frontline.

Russia claimed its first victory in nine months at Avdiivka on February 17th. Ukrainian General Oleksandr Tarnavsky said Russia fired 10 times as many artillery shells there. “We feel the ammunition hunger acutely,” a Ukrainian officer in Donbas told me recently. Some units are limited to two shells per day. Ukraine’s western allies have consistently provided too little, too late because they fear provoking a war between Nato and Russia. Promised F-16 fighter jets haven’t arrived yet. Germany is reluctant to send the Taurus cruise missiles Ukraine needs to destroy the Kerch Bridge between Crimea and Russia.


What is Ukraine’s strategy?

While Zelenskiy hectors allies for weapons, troops dig more trenches and bunkers to hold the line on the eastern front. Much hope is placed in a technological breakthrough. “In order to break this deadlock we need something new, like the gunpowder which the Chinese invented,” the former commander-in-chief Gen Valery Zaluzhnyi said last November.

What is Putin’s strategy?

Putin’s main gamble is that the West will tire of supporting Ukraine. As the EU and Washington delayed funding packages last October, the Russian dictator predicted that Ukraine “would fall in less than a week” without western financial and military support.

A study published on February 13th by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London says Putin’s plan is to test and weaken Ukrainian frontline troops, break the resolve of Ukraine’s western partners, then stage further offensives to seize more territory to be used as leverage in negotiations.

Ukrainian capitulation is Putin’s idea of negotiation. His current demands, according to Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of RUSI, would be for Ukraine to relinquish the 18 per cent of territory already under Russian occupation, plus Kharkiv and possibly Odesa. Ukraine would abandon hopes of joining Nato and give Putin the right to veto its choice of head of state.

What is the mood in Ukraine?

This is Ukraine’s darkest hour since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. After two years of atrocities, drone and missile attacks and an estimated 70,000 soldiers killed and 120,000 wounded, the country is exhausted. It is not unusual to hear Ukrainians say privately that it might be better to accept the loss of some territory to save lives. But it’s a catch-22 situation because no one trusts Putin to respect a negotiated settlement.

Ukraine urgently needs to relieve extenuated frontline troops. The soldiers who lost Avdiivka had not had a break in two years. Incomprehension between the military and civilians is growing. “I can’t help looking at young men in the streets [in Kyiv], imagining them as infantrymen or assault troops and resenting the fact they have not joined up,” says an officer from Donbas who recently went on leave. The pool of volunteers dried up months ago and unwilling conscripts make ineffective soldiers who are killed quickly, the same officer said. Some Ukrainian men shut themselves away to elude army recruiters who seize conscripts in public places. Some pay thousands of dollars to traffickers to lead them over back roads to neighbouring countries.

Will the West stay the course?

Europe and the US have a record of underestimating the ferocity of Russian aggression and the determination and resilience of Ukraine. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Barack Obama told Kyiv not to resist. Boris Johnson claims that Chancellor Olaf Scholz advised Kyiv to “fold” two years ago.

A poll published this week by the European Council of Foreign Relations found that only 10 per cent of Europeans still believe Ukraine can win, half the number who believe that Russia will win. A majority still support Ukraine, but they believe that a “compromise settlement” is necessary. One year ago, a majority said Ukraine must regain all of its lost territory.

Will the US stay the course?

The US has not delivered a single rocket or shell to Ukraine this year, because House Republicans are blocking €55 billion in military assistance. The Republicans may be shamed into passing the aid package, because they’re being blamed for the fall of Avdiivka. Or Alexei Navalny’s death in an Arctic penal colony might convince them that Putin is not the great guy Donald Trump seems to think he is. US isolationism is nonetheless a long-term trend.

Is Europe up to the challenge?

If Trump is elected to a second term, US support for Ukraine may end and the celebration in April of the 75th anniversary of Nato’s founding could be the last. The Europeans have the wherewithal to replace the US contribution, but it’s unlikely they could move quickly enough to save Ukraine, largely because they’ve been slow organising weapons production. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban would likely be a spoiler.

Back in the 13th century, Pope Innocent IV promised Prince Danylo Romanovych he would send the papal army to help drive the Mongol horde from Kyiv. The crusaders never came. Ukrainians fear that history is repeating itself and the West will again leave them to the mercy of “the horde from the east”.