After the Supplemental, Ukraine’s Path Forward

Ukraine is hanging on, but only just. As both artillery and air defense munitions run low, Russia has gained the upper hand in the war. There has been a widespread sense that the war is in an equilibrium, a stalemate. After all, at first glance, Kyiv is bustling, the Odesa port is open, the economy is resilient, and the front lines and air defenses are largely holding back the Russian forces. But after recently visiting Ukraine, it is clear that the current situation is tenuous.

More and more Russian missile and drone strikes are penetrating Ukraine’s depleted air defenses, both terrorizing the country and, strike by strike, destroying Ukraine’s energy sector. Russian troops are making gains on the front lines and have found a way to bring their air power into the war through the use of “glide bombs”—retrofitted dumb bombs that glide to their targets. Ukrainian forces have little defense against the use of glide bombs, which are causing significant damage. Russia is now believed to be gearing up for another massive early summer offensive, potentially targeting Kharkiv, as well as pressing Ukraine all along the front line. Ukraine is a country on edge. And it is desperate for the resumption of aid flows to simply hold the line.

But what happens if Congress acts and U.S. aid starts to flow? What will this mean? And how should Ukraine and its backers take advantage of the additional aid? Assuming Congress acts along the lines of the supplemental passed by the U.S. Senate, the impact could be transformative. The aid could turn the tide of the war if the United States, Ukraine, and Europe act with purpose.

Most immediately, the aid will allow Ukraine to hold back the Russian advances. The supplemental will instantly open the tap on the flow of weapons into Ukraine. The administration is almost certainly ready to move massive quantities of weapons to Ukraine from U.S. military stocks, and fast. This would mean arrival of weapons within days or weeks of approval. I visited the temporary S base in Rzeszow, Poland, set up to help manage the flow of weapons into Ukraine. U.S. forces there have seen the flow of weapons slow but are ready and able to move more kit. This should allow Ukraine to hold onto what it has—to hold the line, protect its cities and infrastructure, and impose massive costs on Russia for trying to make more gains. The aid will also be a huge boost to Ukraine’s morale.

The amount of funding in the supplemental passed by the Senate will provide huge quantities of arms. The Biden administration, meanwhile, should plan to spend down the $60 billion aid by January 20, 2025—before President Biden leaves office, should he be defeated in November. Critics of the “restraint” of the Biden administration may have had a point in 2022. But in 2023 the administration pointed to the need to ration its spending down of the aid, given the uncertainty of funding. This meant providing more expensive higher-end systems, such as F-16 aircraft or Abrams tanks, which would mean less funding for ammunition. But once this new aid package is passed, the administration will need to move a lot of money out the door. There should therefore be money to provide both technologically advanced (and therefore more expensive) weaponry and the basics, such as artillery rounds. The aid will give Ukraine the resources to inflict considerable damage to Russian forces in 2024 and may set up Ukraine to have a much more capable force in 2025.

The supplemental funding will thus give Ukraine a huge boost. But to turn the tide of the war, Ukraine and its partners will also need to take a number of steps.

First, Ukraine needs to use 2024 to rebuild its force for the long war. The supplemental funding is critical to this effort, as it will provide the equipment and resources to provide robust training to its new forces. Ukrainians rushed to join the armed forces in the wake of the invasion, increasing the numbers of the Ukrainian army. But the force is now running on fumes. Ukraine has not done subsequent rounds of mobilization, as the government has sought to spare its 20-something generation. Yet the soldiers on the front lines are exhausted and need rotation—replacements are needed. To do this, Ukraine needs to not only launch a huge round of conscription but do so in a sustainable way, where rotation off the front is routinized.

Second, European nations need to ramp up production now. There is little Europe can do presently to backfill for the loss of aid from the United States. Europeans simply do not have the stocks, and their defense industrial production, while increasing, is nowhere near where it should be to effectively support Ukraine. Europe’s goal should be to put itself in a position to potentially fill a future gap left by the United States should it not pass another supplemental. Thus, Europe has less than a year to ramp up production, particularly of ammunition for both artillery and air defense, to ensure Ukraine’s survival. Should U.S. aid continue beyond 2025, Ukraine will find itself relatively flush with munitions and capabilities, as both the United States and Europe will have ramped up production and could provide significant support.

Third, the United States and Europe should go after Russian oil. This will almost certainly not happen before the elections given the political sensitivity of U.S. politics to gas prices. But the United States and Europe are now better placed to go after the Russian energy sector in a more holistic and determined way than at the start of the conflict. The oil price cap imposed against Russia may have deprived the country of some revenue and created some logistical headaches for Moscow, but ultimately Russia was still able to overcome the obstacles, sell oil on the global market, and accumulate vast revenues used to support its war effort. Russia is pumping enormous sums of government revenue into the defense industry, as well as using significant funds to incentivize recruitment and buy the support of those with loved ones killed in the war. The United States and Europe should plan a massive economic offensive against the Russian oil sector in 2025 to curtail these activities.

The timing is becoming right to hit the oil sector. First, inflation throughout the world is much lower than it was in 2022 and 2023, meaning that the global economy—and the U.S. economy, in particular—can better absorb an increase in oil prices without experiencing or causing runaway inflation. Second, U.S. domestic oil production has ramped up over the past two years, thereby increasing global supply. Third, electric vehicle production and supporting infrastructure is more developed. Higher oil prices could benefit the green transition and accelerate electric vehicle adoption. Fourth, elections for much of the world will be out of the way by the end of 2024, limiting the potential global political backlash, given voter sensitivity to higher oil prices. But most importantly, hitting Russian revenue in 2025 could significantly handicap the Russian war effort, just when Ukraine is ready to potentially hit back at Russian forces.

What Is the Strategy Then?

There have been pointed critiques of the Biden administration that it has not offered a clear strategy for Ukraine. Yet it is hard to develop a strategy without knowing what resources are available. Aided by the supplemental, Ukraine and the Biden administration should set a goal of breaking Russia’s will to continue to fight.

Ukraine should use 2024 to hold the line, exhaust and attrit Russian forces, and rebuild and replenish its own forces and civilian defense capabilities. The attrition of the Russian army may accelerate due to Russia trying to go on the offensive against a successfully resupplied and increasingly dug-in Ukraine. Already, Russian armored vehicle losses have been so extensive that they are increasingly relying on civilian vehicles.

Additionally, Ukraine will need to focus on strengthening its civilian defenses. This means Ukraine needs a long-term strategy to build up its air defenses. Air defense systems have become critical infrastructure for Ukraine, meaning Ukraine needs full-spectrum capabilities and massive stockpiles of air defense munitions. The economic support part of the supplemental has critical funding to strengthen the resilience of the energy and transportation sectors. The goal is to make striking Ukrainian cities and infrastructure a futile task for Russia. With Western resupply, Ukraine could focus more of its defense industrial production on expanding its own drone and missile development for use against Russian military targets inside of Russia.

Next year could then present an opportunity for Ukraine to go back on the offensive. Ukraine will hopefully have hundreds of thousands of additional freshly trained troops, as well as substantial stocks of artillery and other advanced weapons from the United States and increasingly from Europe. Ukraine, with more experience in combined-arms warfare, could then take on an attrited and potentially demoralized Russian force. Should Ukraine break through Russian lines, something it failed to do in the summer 2023 counteroffensive, it may be able to break the back of the Russian military. The strategy therefore should be to use 2024 to build up Ukrainian forces to go on the offensive in 2025.

Whether Ukraine could succeed militarily and push the Russian army out is unknown. But the key is to use the offensives in 2025 to make Russia want to come to the negotiating table. Negotiations are a nonstarter right now, in large part because Russia’s leaders do not want to negotiate—they think they are winning. Moreover, for Ukraine to accept a deeply painful loss of territory at the negotiating table, Ukrainians themselves must believe there is little to no chance of fully pushing Russia out. That likely requires Ukraine to attempt another counteroffensive. The key for Ukraine will be to do so in a way that does not attrit its forces or exhaust them to such a degree that Russia could then gain an advantage.

Ukraine also needs to make Russia actively want the fighting to stop. Russia knows that it can stop Ukraine from joining the European Union or NATO simply by continuing the fighting, just as it did between 2014 and 2022 in the Donbas region. Russia is therefore strongly incentivized to create a frozen conflict, where the fighting never definitively ends. For Russia to want the war to end, it must believe it could lose, meaning that continuing to fight could threaten the survival of the regime. That requires Ukraine to impose significant costs on Russia itself. Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory are therefore vital and could eventually create a semblance of deterrence, whereby Russia is dissuaded from undertaking strikes against Ukraine out of concern over Ukraine’s retaliation. The Biden administration has recently expressed concerns about Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian oil refineries. But these strikes are done with Ukrainian-made weapons and are vital for Ukraine to be able to impose costs on Russia to deter Moscow.

But ultimately, getting the Kremlin to want to end the war requires turning Russian society against the war. Support for Putin’s war is stable and widespread. But it is also soft. This is a war of choice for Russia—and Russians know it, despite sporadic propaganda efforts by the Kremlin to convince the public of the war’s necessity. After all, it is still not even officially called a war, but rather a special military operation. The mood in Russia right now is relatively positive: Russia is on the offensive, the West is hesitating, and the economy is going through a wartime boom, with a tight labor market and high demand for industrial production that particularly help the lower end of the economic ladder.

But passing the supplemental would likely sap Russia’s morale, in addition to boosting Ukraine’s. Moreover, another year of high casualties and minimal military gains could take a significant toll on Russian support, particularly if Ukraine is back on the offensive in 2025. That, combined with the potential economic shock caused by hitting Russian oil revenues—thereby causing the government to choose between scaling back its war support payments or defense or social spending—could make a huge dent in Russian support.

This is unlikely to result in mass protests or people taking to the streets given the Kremlin’s repression. But the notion that this war makes little sense and was a mistake could spread like a virus and prove corrosive to the Russian system. The Kremlin is extremely focused on regime survival and therefore keeps close tabs on public opinion. The potential corrosion in support could reduce Putin’s freedom to choose options like another round of mobilization and may make Russia more amenable to peace talks.

For those more optimistic about Ukraine’s chances to dislodge the Russian forces, using 2024 to exhaust and attrit Russian troops, while Ukraine is preparing, training, and equipping itself for a 2025 counteroffensive, could lead to a breakthrough. For those skeptical of Ukraine’s ability to displace entrenched Russian forces, the only way to get to a negotiated settlement that does not deprive Ukraine of its European future is if Russia is put on the back foot and wants the war to end. For that to happen, Ukraine must be militarily strong. The passage of the supplemental will put Ukraine on the path to eventually end the war on its own terms.

Max Bergmann is the director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program, and the Stuart Center in Euro-Atlantic and Northern European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Max Bergmann
Director, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program and Stuart Center