Why 2024 could be a grim year for Ukraine - with momentous implications for the world

A child observes a residential building destroyed by an explosion after a Russia
A child observes a residential building destroyed by an explosion after a Russian missile attack.

As we approach the two-year anniversary of war in Ukraine, the conflict looks to enter a more dire stage.

Associate Professor Matthew Sussex

Visiting Fellow, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs

Two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022, Ukraine’s resistance remains remarkable. Confident initial predictions of a swift Russian triumph were repeatedly proven wrong. Instead, Russia’s military was beset by  poor logistics , corruption, a  sclerotic command structure  and an inability to  counter  Ukrainian tactics.

Kyiv’s armed forces successfully prevented a rash  Russian attempt  to seize the Ukrainian capital and then stopped the entire Russian advance. After six months, they began turning the Russian invaders back,  recapturing  swathes of territory around Kharkov in the north and Kherson in the south.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was feted by Western leaders, parlaying his  personal popularity  into commitments of military aid and insisting Ukraine could prevail with a more sophisticated arsenal.

Yet for all these early successes, the war soon devolved into repeated  human waves  of attacks by Russian conscripts against well-defended Ukrainian positions. The slow drip-feed of Western weapons forced Kyiv to significantly delay its 2023  counteroffensive. This gave Russia’s armed forces time to design deep and elaborate defensive fortifications, minefields and tank traps.

Indeed, thanks largely to Russian efforts, Ukraine is now the  most heavily mined  country in the world.

Once Ukraine’s counteroffensive commenced, its forces made  little headway  and took heavy losses, especially given the lack of air support.

Facing personnel and equipment shortages, Zelensky dramatically  fired his military chief , Valerii Zaluzhny, earlier this month, opting for a new strategy that seeks to build Ukrainian strength while blocking further Russian advances.

Russia: weakened, but determined

After being humiliated by failing to immediately achieve the objectives of its "special military operation" in early 2022, the Kremlin attempted to cow an obstinately united West through bluff and bluster, while bludgeoning Ukrainian cities and military positions.

It repeatedly  rattled nuclear sabres , mobilised isolationist and far-right groups throughout  Europe  and warned of a looming  world war. President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric bordered on unhinged, punctuated by rants about the  moral decrepitude  of "Satanic" Western culture that only Russian traditional values could resist.

Tellingly, in a rare moment of honesty, Putin also admitted the obvious: invading Ukraine was about  restoring  what he saw as Russia’s "historic lands".

While  mobilising  hundreds of thousands of men for sacrifice in the Ukrainian meat-grinder, the Kremlin sought to project an image of a society  overseen  by a stable, albeit xenophobic troika. Putin was the wise tsar, the Orthodox Church was the steward of Russia’s conservative soul and the military served as Russia’s armoured bulwark.

With no good news to report, Kremlin propagandists created a bizarre narrative in which Russia was defending itself against NATO aggression, liberally labelling Russia’s opponents as " Nazis ".

But this failed to mask the reality that Russia itself was increasingly becoming Nazified, as its hyper-nationalist  "Z" movement  made clear. So, too, did repeated genocidal and antisemitic language:

    Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s  crude observation  that both Adolf Hitler and Zelensky had Jewish blood

Simultaneously, Russia’s draconian crackdown on internal dissent resulted in  lengthy jail terms  for anyone found guilty of criticising the war or army.

Russia’s failures also brought the audacious revolt in June 2023 by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, and one of Putin’s closest confidantes. And despite Prigozhin’s subsequently convenient death, the fact he had managed to march largely unchallenged through Russia until voluntarily stopping 200 kilometres from Moscow made Putin look  considerably weakened.

However, with the start of 2024, Russia’s forces have started pressing again on the battlefield, making small territorial gains.

A recent report puts the  current number  of Russian military personnel in Ukraine at 470,000. And although it is believed to have lost a staggering  8,800 armoured fighting vehicles  and some 315,000 dead and wounded - fully  90 per cent of the forces  it began the war with - the Russian armed forces have finally begun to adapt.

What will the coming year bring?

How the war unfolds in 2024 will have momentous implications for the world - a fact not receiving near enough attention in Western media coverage.

It will determine whether Ukraine is able to retain its territory and begin the painful rebuilding process.

It will be decisive for Putin’s wager that conquest comes without consequences, perhaps emboldening him to sets his sights on other states on its periphery.

It will confirm whether Europe can remain stabilised, secure and united, and whether America will continue to be seen as a reliable ally.

For the Kremlin, the key question is whether it can keep domestic discontent muted long enough for the West to lose interest in the war and withdraw its support for Ukraine. It is unlikely to run out of weapons, having massively ramped up domestic production of armaments and sourcing drones and ammunition from a  rogues’ gallery  of pariahs: Iran and North Korea.

Ukraine, which is fighting for national survival, faces a tougher and grimmer 2024. It will need to continue absorbing relentless Russian attacks, keep its economy afloat and rebuild its military strength for yet another attempt to evict Russia’s forces.

Zelensky’s  famous  "I need ammunition, not a ride" response to a US offer to evacuate him in 2022 holds just as true two years later. Without a constant stream of military aid, Ukrainian resistance will be very hard to sustain.

Aid from Ukraine’s most crucial supporter, the United States, has been  stymied  by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. This is causing  ammunition shortages  that are already being measured in Ukrainian lives and territory.

But a far greater threat lies on the horizon, in the real prospect of a second Donald Trump presidency. Putin is well aware Trump will give him a free hand in Ukraine and  probably beyond it , too.

Accordingly, he is investing significant efforts to back his candidacy. The extraordinary spectacle of Putin - the leader of a hostile foreign power - using an " interview " with ex-Fox News personality Tucker Carlson to rally the Trump base was a keen indicator of that.

Europe is finally beginning to wake up to the reality a Trump-led United States could abandon NATO, in addition to Ukraine. But whether European nations are able to overcome their institutional inertia and webs of entangled interests to stoutly resist Russia on their own remains an open question.

It’s an old adage, but wars are world-shaping. Their outcomes are far-reaching: redrawing maps, establishing new fault lines, and ushering in the birth and death of nations.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is proving to be no different.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.