Report - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Strengthening Ukrainian Resiliency in the Medium to Long Term

| May 2023

The ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia has left Kyiv at a crossroads with a range of questions to consider for the future. What does extended conflict mean for Ukraine’s survival and prospects? How can Ukraine’s allies best support Ukraine through a long war? While no one knows how the war will play out, this paper assesses that neither Russia nor Ukraine is likely to execute a decisive military operation leading to the end of the war anytime soon, thus portending a conflict that could last for years absent a significant change in trajectory.

Given the potential for a long war this paper offers an assessment of key economic and political factors which will help define Ukraine’s capacity to effectively resist Russian aggression, occupation, and ultimately strengthen affected sectors of society. It offers corresponding recommendations for policymakers in Washington and Europe. For the purposes of this paper, medium-term is between 12 months to 24 months and long-term over 24 months.

The report starts with two key assumptions that frame the war as an ongoing conflict through 2024.

Russia does not have adequate conventional force to defeat Ukraine in 2024.

Despite Ukrainian counteroffensives and the skilled use of Western-supplied multiple-rocket launching systems such as the HIMARS, the correlation of forces still favors Russia by a significant margin. Russian troops, though weakened and demoralized, have captured large swaths of Ukrainian territory in the country’s east and south. Though Ukraine has had highly successful counteroffensives, the army must still defend the territories it has reclaimed. Ukraine has faced heavy casualties and material losses, and the economy has been battered.

Nevertheless, the Ukrainian army has pushed Russia out of some territories it captured in the early months of the war. Russia’s prospects of capturing Kyiv, Odesa, or Kharkiv have faded. Russia continues to face significant challenges in force mobilization. Russian troops are reportedly demoralized, exhausted and ill-trained, and it may take Russia years to revamp and prepare its military for any consequential assault. In contrast, Ukrainian troops are receiving increased Western training and modern military equipment. Western sanctions further impede Russia’s efforts to replace military equipment losses.

Ukraine does not have the capability to force Russia back to February 24 borders or to completely retake the occupied territories in the Donbas and Crimea in the short run.

There is a mismatch of expectations between Ukrainians and many Western politicians and experts regarding whether Ukraine will be able to soon return to its previous borders in the short-term. Most Ukrainians are determined and confident in their army’s ability to push the Russian military back to the pre-February 24 borders, with many believing that it is possible to return all eastern Ukraine and Crimea. According to a poll conducted by the Sociological Group “Rating” on behalf of the International Republican Institute, which was published in August, 98% of Ukrainians believe in their country’s ultimate victory toward these ends.

Some Western experts believe the war will not last much longer. According to retired U.S. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Russian President Vladimir Putin has overextended his military. Hodges predicted the invasion may conceivably come to an end in 2023 if Western powers continue their military backing of Kyiv. Hodges had previously made an even more positive assessment, suggesting a pre-February 24 victory is possible by the end of 2022. However, most Western experts believe the war will last much longer given the correlation of forces between Russia and Ukraine. In June 2022, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the West must prepare to continue supporting Ukraine in a war that lasts for years, while then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Russia’s war in Ukraine is possibly a longer-term conflict.

The paper assesses it is unlikely that Ukraine will militarily push Russia back to its pre-February 24 borders soon. Instead, we are likely to see continuous conflict, raising several key questions regarding Ukrainian military capacity and governance, Russian force mobilization and strategy, and levels of Western support for Ukraine. These two assumptions also rest on the notion that most Russians remain in favor of the war. If the overall sentiment inside Russia changes over the next year, developments could shift in Ukraine’s favor.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Timtchenko, Ilya. “Strengthening Ukrainian Resiliency in the Medium to Long Term.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, May 2023.

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