Ukraine war: Kyiv needs a fundamental rethink of its strategy, not just a reshuffle of military leadership
The recent replacement of Valeriy Zaluzhnyi as commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces may have put a temporary end to the increasingly public disagreements between the very popular “iron general” and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. But it has not answered the fundamental question of what a winning – or even surviving – strategy in the war with Russia could look like as it moves into its third year.
Several dynamics have come together that are deeper and more complex than just a major reshuffle of the military leadership. The bigger picture that will shape the future of the war – and with it the future of Ukraine and the European and international security order – comprises four main factors. These need to be analysed together to understand the present, and – most importantly – the future predicaments of Ukraine and its western partners.
First, the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in 2023 and the increasing pressure that Russia has put on Ukraine’s frontlines and hinterland put into serious question the ability of Kyiv to win. This is especially the case if victory for Ukraine means forcing Russia’s complete withdrawal from all territory occupied since 2014.
The impending fall of Avdiivka, a town about 20kms to the west of Donetsk in the east of Ukraine, suggests that Kyiv ultimately has a weaker hand to play in a battle of attrition when confronted by a ruthless adversary with greater resources.
Much like the loss of Bakhmut in May 2023, or Soledar in January 2023, this was a symbolic rather than strategic defeat for Ukraine. It also represents, at best, pyrrhic victories for Russia – as in the case of Bakhmut.
But taken together, and seen in the context of the failed 2023 counter-offensive, these were not just symbolic defeats. They marked a real and extremely wasteful loss of financial resources, manpower and military equipment.
Zelensky’s dismissal of Zaluzhny puts the blame for last year’s disappointed hopes clearly on the latter. It also indicates, more worryingly, a lack of learning the lessons of these setbacks on the part of the Ukrainian president. The fact that the new commander-in-chief, Oleksandr Syrskyi, is associated with several of these costly defeats – notably Bakhmut – does not bode well for the necessary change in Ukrainian strategy.
To his credit, Syrsky also masterminded the defence of Kyiv in the early days of the war in 2022 and the successful counter-offensive the following summer which saw Ukraine recapture significant territory first around Kharkiv in the north and then Kherson in the south. Notably, these successes happened before Russia embarked on the first of several mobilisations and shifted its economy to a war footing.
Faltering international support
The second key factor to keep in mind is that Ukraine’s battlefield successes in 2022 occurred at a time when western support for Ukraine was in full swing. Those days are long gone. This has been evident in the protracted battles in the US congress over sending more military aid to Ukraine. The comments by former president – and 2024 Republic nominee-apparent – Donald Trump on his lack of commitment to Nato should he be reelected in November are equally worrisome.
Despite some detractors, the EU remains committed to support for Ukraine. This became clear following the recent agreement on a new €50 billion (£42.7 billion) funding package for Ukraine through 2027. But this will barely cover Ukraine’s budget deficit, let alone make up for a potentially significant drop in US military aid. Combined with Ukraine’s own shrinking domestic capabilities to mobilise further resources, the war will have to be fought in far more difficult conditions than in the first two years.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian society is increasingly suffering from war fatigue. Military setbacks, economic decline, deteriorating living conditions, corruption and the scale of the loss of lives – among troops and civilians alike – makes sustaining the war effort at present levels more difficult as well. Especially if the goal remains retaking all the land that Russia has occupied since 2014.
The amended law on mobilisation, intended to underpin this strategy, was adopted in the Ukrainian parliament on February 6. Its provisions, including lowering the conscription age from 27 to 25 years, mandatory digital certificates and electronic prescription notifications and stricter penalties for evading military service, are further evidence of the waning enthusiasm in Ukrainian society for the war effort.
Together with yet another 90-day extension of martial law and several financial measures designed to tighten the government’s control over the economy, the more draconian provisions in the new mobilisation law also heighten the sense of uncertainty over Ukraine’s political direction.
Zelensky’s presidential term comes to an end in May 2024 and new parliamentary elections would normally be due in the autumn. While it is generally agreed that elections are close to impossible at present, both the president’s and parliament’s legitimacy after the expiry of their constitutional terms will be open to question.
This will ultimately be an issue for the constitutional court to resolve. But it has not stopped political forces within Ukraine opposed to Zelensky and his Servant of the People political party to pile pressure on the president to agree to a government of national unity.
Given the lack of popularity of this opposition, associated primarily with former president Petro Poroshenko – who Zelensky defeated in a landslide election in 2019 – this is hardly driven by popular demand. But it nonetheless signals further political turmoil at a time when Ukraine needs unity.
It is not clear whether Zelensky’s dismissal of Zaluzhny will strengthen or weaken any political opposition. In the short term, it is likely to benefit Zelensky whose popularity still dwarfs that of Poroshenko. Yet, because replacing Zaluzhny has not come with a signal that Ukraine’s war strategy will fundamentally change, this is a very risky move on the part of Zelensky.
Maintaining the current direction asks Ukrainians for yet more sacrifices. What Zelensky is offering in return depends on a range of at best highly uncertain returns that depend on many factors beyond the Ukrainian president’s control.
Stefan Wolff is a past recipient of grant funding from the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK, the United States Institute of Peace, the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, the EU Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the EU's Jean Monnet Programme. He is a Trustee and Honorary Treasurer of the Political Studies Association of the UK and a Senior Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre in London.
Tetyana Malyarenko receives funding from Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and University of Regensburg, Germany