As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its third year, Europeans face difficult questions about how to approach the next twelve months and sustain their support to give Kyiv the tools it needs to drive back Russian forces. 

“The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said two years ago in response when asked to evacuate Kyiv at the behest of Washington.

As Russia’s war against the country enters its third year, Ukraine’s request remains the same.

Over the past months, Ukraine has stepped up warnings that its troops are increasingly outgunned and outmanned, with a shortage of ammunition hampering its armed forces’ ability to push back at Russian troops.

Ukraine’s forces last weekend pulled back from the embattled eastern city of Avdiivka in the face of the latest Russian advances.

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The withdrawal seemed to be Moscow’s first big battlefield win and territorial grab since its destruction and capture of the city of Bakhmut in May 2023.

Kyiv is on the defensive after a year of stalemate.

Ukrainian defence officials have requested more air defence systems., and long-rage missiles while expecting a delivery of F-16 fighter planes that could help them regain their airspace. But the wound point remains artillery shells.

“This is a dangerous moment for Ukraine and European security,” Oana Lungescu, Distinguished Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told Euractiv.

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The objective of the Summit was to develop strategies that would enhance support for Ukraine and safeguard its interests amid unparalleled security and existential threats.

“The loss of Avdiivka shows the real impact that delays in delivering Western ammunition and weapons have on the ground,” Lungescu said.

“NATO and EU member states have done a lot to support Ukraine, including with contracts for ammunition worth $1.2 billion concluded by NATO in January – but it’s not enough and not fast enough,” Lungescu said.

Missing shells

Arguably most important among those questions: How long can Europe practically sustain support for Ukraine?

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The EU and its top leaders have made it repeatedly clear they intend to continue backing Kyiv, but artillery ammunition deliveries have slowed.

“[Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro] Kuleba has put it well – the fall of Avdiivka is the result of us not providing ammunition,” an EU official told Euractiv, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“They [the Ukrainians] really feel – and we know that they feel – the stage when supplies are drying out, and we really need to feel the urgency to provide them with all we can,” they added.

In late January, the EU publicly acknowledged that the bloc would fall far short of its target of sending one million artillery shells to Ukraine by March this year, saying that about half of that amount would be delivered by that deadline.

The bloc collectively has so far donated 355,000 rounds since February 2023, according to EU estimates. By the end of March, it aimed to donate about 524,000 rounds, with 1,155,000 rounds expected by the end of the year.

EU member states should find ways to increase support to Ukraine, particularly the delivery of badly needed ammunition, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell on Thursday (22 February) urged his counterparts in a letter first reported by Euractiv.

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Borrell said the options were “digging further into your stock”, placing more orders with European industry, buying ammunition wherever available or funding the Ukrainian sector.

“What is needed is immediate financial liquidity. Doing nothing is not an option,” he said.

Among EU diplomats and officials in Brussels, there remains the sense that the EU still has a long way to go to convert its economic heft into military might.

“Everybody believed this war would be short, so why build a [weapons] factory? But the war is going to last long, we should get used to the thought,” one senior EU official told Euractiv.

“If we know that the European industry can’t provide, then we will buy outside [the bloc], I’m certain of that,” they added.

EU diplomats expect that by the EU summit in March, the bloc’s leaders will have taken stock of the current situation and come up with a plan.

“With the final approval of the EU’s €50 billion Ukraine Facility, financial aid to Ukraine seems assured. This is much less clear about military aid, where the dynamics have slowed,” Christoph Trebesch, head of the Ukraine Support Tracker and Research Director at the Kiel Institute, told reporters in Munich last weekend.

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The EU and its 27 members have pledged €49.7 billion of military aid since the start of the war but have delivered or earmarked some €35.2 billion to date.

Efforts are primarily driven by a few big donors, such as Germany, the Nordic countries or the UK, while most past donors have promised little or nothing new, the report stated.

Urgency is added by US aid tied up in Washington’s pre-election squabbles. Should the need arise to replace US military assistance this year, Europe must double its current level and pace of arms assistance.

Senior EU officials are saying the bloc needs to show Russia that it will not abandon Ukraine, whatever happens in Washington. But for that, it would need to fill the funding gap.

European officials also believe Putin is digging in and trying to wait out the West, which makes the next 12 months decisive.

“Everybody believed this war would be short, so why build a [weapons] factory? But the war is going to last long, we should get used to the thought,” one senior EU official told Euractiv.

“If we know that the European industry can’t provide, then we will buy outside, I’m certain,” they added.

But the same officials say it is crucial that whatever happens across the Atlantic, Europeans keep spending, however hard it seems.

“As US Congress continues to hold up the next US aid package, Europeans can make a difference – but only if they put their money where their mouth is, put aside ideological arguments that they should only ‘buy European,” and shift from peacetime to war production and mindsets,” Lungescu said.

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“Ukrainians are paying for our delays with their blood and their territory, and ultimately we will all pay a much bigger price,” Lungescu said.

National interests

An increasing number of EU diplomats and officials over the past weeks, in conversations with Euractiv, has vented their anger at the slow pace and delayed decisions.

Uncertainty over the next military aid package from Brussels is added with the bloc’s European Peace Facility (EPF) bogged down in national interests.

The increase in financing has been held up by Germany, which had wanted its bilateral support to Kyiv offset against new contributions to EU funds, while France has insisted on buying arms inside rather than outside the bloc.

“In Brussels, what is interesting is our reluctance or inability to learn from mistakes,” one EU diplomat said, adding that “national interests are still being considered before Ukrainian – and to some extent – European interests”.

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“We were bogged down in the “buy European”-discussions a year ago, which led to us missing our artillery target, and now we have the same problem with the EPF as the French, more intent on improving the defence industry than helping Ukraine,” they said.

Western European diplomats remain optimistic that arming Ukraine fits perfectly with a much-needed European drive to reduce its reliance on the US.

A second EU diplomat said: “If you’re dying of a heart attack, you’re not asking the nationality of the person doing a heart massage, you want help as quickly as possible.”

It does not help that in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, Paris isn’t seen at the forefront of Ukraine support.

Based on the rankings of the Kiel Institute, which has been used as a benchmark since the start of the war, France would come in 15th place regarding bilateral military support to Ukraine, with transfers and financial support valued at €540 million.

It would still come ahead of Spain (19th with €340 million), but behind Italy (13th with €690 million), and above all far behind Germany (2nd with €17.1 billion), the UK (3rd  with €6.6 billion) and Poland (6th with €3 billion).

In a new push, French President Emmanuel Macron next Monday (26 February) is expected to host “several heads of state and government” for a conference on supporting Ukraine and called for a “collective leap forward”.

Keeping faith

European leaders now see their hands increasingly tied by internal politics, both with the US presidential election and potential re-election of former US President Donald Trump and the threat that the June EU elections could see a rise of right-wing forces led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

There is growing pessimism across Europe about Ukraine’s ability to secure a battlefield victory, according to a recent poll by the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR).

With a deepening sense of gloom and resignation, leaders in European countries most exposed to Russia’s flank are preparing for scenarios that would have been deemed impossible just 25 months ago.

Most Europeans support Ukraine in its war against Russia, but only 1 in 10 think Ukraine can win, according to a survey, with most seeing a “compromise settlement” as necessary to end the war.

While the survey overall paints a bleak picture, most of those asked still favour supporting Ukraine.

“In order to make the case for continued European support for Ukraine, EU leaders will need to change how they talk about the war,” said Mark Leonard, a survey co-author.

“Our poll shows that most Europeans are desperate to prevent a Russian victory. But they also don’t believe that Ukraine will be able to recover all of its territory.”

“The most persuasive case for a sceptical public is that military support for Ukraine could lead to a durable, negotiated peace favouring Kyiv rather than a victory for Putin,” said Leonard.

European leaders and diplomats have indeed stepped up their rhetoric in the past weeks, with an eye towards a gearing up EU election campaign that could see the far right trying to exploit the topic.

A defeat of Ukraine would put European values at risk, which is why there is no alternative but for Europe’s support to continue, European Council President Charles Michel told a group of media, including Euractiv, in an interview.

“There is one Plan A – and only a Plan A – and that is support for Ukraine,” Michel said.

“We need to explain to people that when we invest and spend money for supporting Ukraine, this investment is also an investment for ourselves because it is an investment for peace and stability in the EU,” he added.

French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné in Le Monde advocated for more Ukraine support by stressing that the price of non-action would be higher.

“Today’s efforts in Ukraine are nothing compared to the efforts we would have to make against a Russia that feels victorious. Let us retain control over energy and food prices, over our freedom and our destiny,” he wrote.

Between there being no end to the war in sight, competition for crisis management attention in the Middle East, and domestic concerns from inflation-led cost-of-living crises worldwide, spending large sums on Ukraine could become politically harder to defend for some EU member states.

“On a positive note, day to day we tend to get lost in discussions what part of our support is not good enough, but it is not only doom and gloom,” a third EU diplomat said.

“Politically, the sanctions regime was impossible to imagine in February 2022,  the enlargement discussion impossible to imagine in May 2022, the frozen assets were impossible to imagine even last year, and then with the EU budget review, we gave 10 times to Ukraine than we gave to ourselves,” they said.

“When you take a step back and look at the trend – we are doing a shit ton of things,” they added.

But the mood on Ukraine’s prospects in the West, however, remains grim, with most Western officials at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, pointing towards the need to ‘keep faith’, both in Europe and Ukraine.

“We’re in a boxing match, where both sides are retired, but one side is very clear about what it is fighting for – that’s where this war is at,” Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, told Euractiv in Munich.

Hodges stressed that with more Western military aid on its way, especially Western F-16 fighter jets,

“The [Russians] have lost half a million troops, the Black Sea Fleet is getting worse by the day, and their air force is unable to get air superiority even with the Ukrainians having nothing to fly with at the moment,” Hodges said.

“Russia actually is in worse shape than we think,” he said.

“What is needed is a clear commitment from leaders that we will see this though with them [the Ukrainians] until the end, which is their victory,” Hodges concluded.

How will it end?

While Ukrainians expect to fight until the bitter end, the Kremlin has made it abundantly clear that he only negotiated the end it will accept Ukraine’s surrender.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Munich last weekend gave a glimpse of how some European leaders and diplomats are quietly shifting language on war aims in Ukraine.

Rather than say, “Ukraine will win” or “Russia must leave Ukraine,” Scholz argued that Putin should not be allowed to dictate the terms of peace in Ukraine.

“There will be no dictated peace. Ukraine will not accept this, and neither will we,” Reuters quoted Scholz as having said.

While European leaders insist only Ukraine will decide the terms of any future negotiated peace, Ukrainians have made it equally clear they will continue to resist or likely face destruction.

“The only place we plan to speak with [Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin is The Hague,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Euractiv late last year when asked whether Ukraine would be ready to sit down with Putin.

“We can get our land back, and Putin can lose,” Zelenskyy told security leaders last weekend in Munich, adding: “We should not be afraid of Putin‘s defeat and the destruction of his regime. It is his fate to lose — not the fate of the rules-based order to vanish.”

“We don’t lack capacity, we lack the political will and urgency necessary to support Ukraine and maintain our collective security,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told Euractiv.

“Some people would, in principle, support Ukraine but are too worried about what will happen if Ukraine defeats Russia,” he added.

Asked by Euractiv whether he agreed with Zelenskyy’s plea not to fear a defeat of Russia, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a top contender to be the next NATO chief, said:

“But when that happens, we will also have to sit down with the US, within NATO, [and] collectively with the Russians to talk about the future security arrangements between us and the Russians.”

“It could be like when the German unification took place in 1990 because, at the same time, the discussion was going on the security guarantees for the whole of Europe,” he added.

EU diplomats acknowledge that such negotiations have failed in the past, especially with the Minsk Agreements, which many by now believe have led to the full-scale invasion being made possible in the first place by having previously frozen the so-called ‘contact line’.

Many fear a repeat of the situation in the future, only buying Putin time to prepare for the next offensive.

“Putin has no intention of stopping [and] those who think that Minsk III would be the end of this war are showing gross naivité, to say it in polite terms,” Lithuania’s Landsbergis said.

“The only way is Ukrainian victory,” he added.

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