Politics

What Ukraine needs from its European partners (and the US) in 2024

What Ukraine needs from its European partners (and the US) in 2024

As 2024 approaches, the top priority of the Ukrainian government is best summed up as ending the war against Russia while regaining as much territory as possible.

President Volodymyr Zelensky claims that Ukraine will only stop fighting when it regains its pre-2014 borders, including Crimea.

This objective appears highly unlikely in 2024, but if it wants any hope of achieving it, Ukraine will need help from its European partners – the main ones being the EU, which has generally shown strong support to Kyiv (with some notable exceptions) and the UK. Ukraine’s objectives are largely overlapping with those of its allies, and help will likely need to come in three forms.

First, military support. Despite Russia having the bigger army, Ukraine has so far been able to stop the Russian army advancing further than the Dnipro river in the south and the Donbas region in the east. This is mainly because of sophisticated military equipment sold or gifted by its partners, and because of intelligence information transferred by Nato and the US.

To avoid being outmatched, Ukraine will need continuous support by its allies in 2024 because, having nearly exhausted its own equipment, it is “almost totally reliant on western assistance for artillery and rocket artillery systems and ammunition”, as reported by a study from the US Congress.

The EU has already distributed finance to its member states to deliver military equipment to Kyiv, and now, for the first time in its history, the EU will finance member states to assist with the production of military equipment. The EU finances member states both through a special common fund called the European Peace Facility (for the transfer of existing weapons), or through its budget (for assisting with production costs).

Second, economic support. Because of the war, Ukraine is in huge financial debt. But unlike other countries in the same condition, its dire economic situation is much harder to manage due to the war efforts. The US Congress decided to block financial aid to Kyiv, and now the EU has done the same.

However, the reason for the EU’s decision not to commit more money was not that the US had not done so. It was, instead, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán – sometimes called Russia’s “Trojan horse in the EU” – who vetoed the transfer of €50 billion (£43 billion) in EU aid to Ukraine.

Third, political support. This is the ideological underpinning of the other two forms of support. It is also necessary to influence public opinion. It is important for Kyiv that public opinion in Europe remains overwhelmingly in its favour, so that democratic leaders have another incentive to stand with Ukraine. Political support may come in the form of public statements (“we stand with Ukraine”), as well as by visiting or hosting Zelensky.

These are acts which show that, two years into the conflict, the commitment of European partners to the Ukrainian cause remains strong – despite the economic cost for their constituencies, shifting international attention towards the war between Israel and Hamas, and the manifest disunity of European leaders.

Another important symbolic decision was the EU’s choice to formally open membership talks with Kyiv. But it is, at this stage, largely symbolic because the accession process typically takes nearly a decade.

Will aid continue?

In 2024, there will be three elections that have the potential to determine what might change: the presidential elections in Russia in March, the EU parliamentary elections in May, and the US presidential elections in November. The US and EU have been Ukraine’s most influential supporters so far, but electoral changes could mean a different policy. (The UK is also likely to have a general election, but both main parties seem committed to continuing aid.)

Military aid looks likely to remain untouched at least until the European elections. It is in the European nations’ interest to stop Russia moving further into Ukraine. Advances could allow Vladimir Putin to cut off more access to the Black Sea ports, for instance, or even target Moldova.

So far, this has overridden political contentiousness, even though some opposition figures have suggested that providing weapons to Ukraine only prolongs the war and exacerbates insecurity. With the exception of the previous Polish govervnment, the new Slovakian one and Hungary, no other EU member government has announced that it would stop – or is considering stopping – the sale or gift of weapons to Ukraine.

This is likely to continue even if Donald Trump, who is essentially a pro-Putin candidate, were to be elected US president and were to announce an end to US military support to Ukraine, as has been hinted.

Ongoing financial aid from the EU is also looking possible. The situation in the US is more uncertain, where the bipartisan support of Ukraine that existed at the beginning of the war seems to have evaporated . There is some likelihood that a Trump presidency would try to block both military and financial aid, according to some sources. This has been suggested in the policy agenda drafted by America First Policy Institute, which is staffed by former Trump officials.

The Ukrainian government hopes that its membership of the EU will materialise soon. The commission has said that it must fulfil the conditions for membership as any other candidate would. The next legislature (2024-2029) in the EU will likely decide at least the timeframe for membership, if not the specific conditions.

Ukraine faces a formidable challenge in reclaiming its pre-2014 borders. To achieve this, continued military support, economic aid and unwavering political backing from European partners, particularly the EU and the UK, are crucial. While a policy shift in the EU is unlikely, the concrete possibility of a Trump presidency in 2024 holds a lot of uncertainty for Ukraine – and that has got to be one Zelensky’s biggest worries.

Luigi Lonardo is the Principal Investigator of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence 'European Integration and Citizens' Rights', which receives funding from the European Commission.