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Defence investment boost is crucial to deter a resentful and unpredictable Russia

Donbas, November 2022: Ukrainian soldiers near the frontline | Alamy

6 min read

Ukraine’s demands for material support will not just continue unabated but are likely to increase dramatically

We are now into the tenth year of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and the second year of the latest and most violent phase of the conflict – the widening of the illegal invasion – which has seen casualties run into the hundreds of thousands. It’s a butcher’s bill which will only grow, and rapidly, over the coming months.

As this grim reality continues to unfold and the suffering of Ukrainians mounts, the question one hears most frequently from people is: “How and when will it end?” 

The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. Just about all wars begin and end in politics – and this one is no different. Eventually there will have to be a political conclusion, but it appears to be a long way off, and it does not imply – as some seem to believe – the appeasement of Russia.

In thinking about what that might imply for the near term, it is perhaps worth taking a step back and reflecting on broader strategic objectives. Ukrainians are clear about theirs: it is the full restoration of their country’s pre-2014 borders, including the recovery of Crimea. 

The Russian position is less certain. Their initial objective was undoubtedly the removal of the Ukrainian government and its replacement by a regime friendly to, if not under the control of, the Kremlin. Whether the events of the past year have changed this calculus is open to debate, but for my part I doubt it. Vladimir Putin is certainly aware that trying to make progress towards his original objective is a lot harder and is taking far longer than he had imagined, but there is no reason to suppose that he has given up on it. To the contrary, there is much evidence to suggest that Putin is doubling down on his original intent. 

As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, our strategic objective must surely be to ensure that Putin’s aggression is widely perceived to have failed; that such illegal assaults on the international order are seen as not just very costly but also unlikely to succeed.

Looking at these strategic objectives, it is apparent that they differ markedly. That is of course unsurprising in the case of Russia and Ukraine, but it is also true with regard to the UK’s aims – and, I suspect, those of many other nations supporting Ukraine. This makes it very difficult to see what shape a long-term political solution might take, but there is, I suggest, far less uncertainty about the near term. 

If Putin’s aggression is to be widely perceived as having failed, then Russia must end up in no better a position than when it started the conflict, and preferably in a worse one. That means Ukraine recovering its southern coastline and at least part of the Donbas. 

Both outcomes are, at best, some way off, so for the moment we need not concern ourselves with how much further the Ukrainian government’s ambitions might stretch. That may become a pressing issue if Russian forces are driven back significantly, but there are a great many bridges to cross, both literally and figuratively, before we get anywhere near that point. For now, then, we should focus our minds and our efforts on those bridges, and not worry unduly about what forks may lie along the road in the far distance.

Ukrainian forces will need to make demonstrable gains over the course of 2023

Our immediate priority, like that of Ukraine, must therefore be further reversals of Russia’s territorial gains. But Ukraine’s continued success in this regard relies not just on the sustained valour of its people, but also upon the willingness of Western nations to maintain their high level of material support. That, in turn, depends to an extent on the perception of military progress – something of a chicken and egg situation. My conclusion is that Ukrainian forces will need to make demonstrable gains over the course of 2023.

That begs the question of the means required to achieve such an outcome. We have seen some very welcome decisions on the provision to Ukraine of tanks, to go along with the other armoured fighting vehicles and artillery already delivered and promised. We should be in no doubt, though, that offensive action to retake and hold ground is a very different proposition to mounting a defence against the kind of uncoordinated and poorly led attack that we saw from Russian forces last summer. 

Tanks in sufficient numbers will be very helpful in this regard, but the ability to manoeuvre sizeable units with concentrated firepower to clear obstacles, both natural and man-made, and to co-ordinate different elements both on the ground and in the air, are all significant challenges to any military. 

And, of course, the offensive forces need extensive logistical support, technical capabilities and, crucially, significant weapon stocks. They will also need to achieve at least local air superiority over the areas in which they mount their attacks. It is clear that the continued existence on both sides of capable ground-based defences has led to something of a stalemate in this regard, and recent promises of pilot training and F-16 fighter aircraft will not affect the situation during the fighting season this year. Ukrainians will therefore need to find novel ways to break the impasse.

Most importantly, from our perspective, Ukraine’s demands for material support will not just continue unabated but are likely to increase dramatically during the period of an offensive. Our own weapon stocks are diminishing rapidly, and years of under-investment mean that defence industrial capacity among Western nations has atrophied. Expanding it has become essential if we are to meet our own needs and continue to support Ukraine, but such expansion relies upon private sector investment. That investment will only be made if there is a strategic commitment by the government to a substantial and more predictable long-term equipment procurement plan. 

We also need to become much better at taking innovative ideas – at which we are good – and transforming them rapidly into frontline military capability – at which we are not so good.

The conflict in Ukraine continues to throw up many complex and difficult questions, but this is a time for clarity. We should not expect the war to be decided this year, but it will be a decisive period in determining whether both we and Ukraine are able to achieve our objectives. 

With that in mind, we should strain every sinew to promote Ukrainian military success over these crucial months. Whatever the outcome, though, we should remember that for years to come we are likely to be facing a resentful and unpredictable Russia; a Russia which has certainly suffered severe losses in Ukraine, but whose nuclear, maritime and long-range air forces remain largely untouched by the current conflict; and a Russia that will undoubtedly have learnt from its tactical defeats. We must prepare – and invest – accordingly. 

Lord Stirrup is a Crossbench peer and former chief of the defence staff

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