By then, however, a slim majority of opinion polls suggest Donald Trump may be in the White House, possibly ending Washington’s support for Ukraine. Many analysts expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch a new round of military mobilisation after what is expected to be his own election win in March, either to keep pushing back Ukrainian forces or to win concessions at the negotiating table.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government says Russia fired more than 500 drones and missiles into Ukraine in the five days leading up to Jan. 2, believed to be among the heaviest bursts of aerial attacks since the war began in February 2022. Ukraine was widely seen in the West as starting to gain the upper hand almost a year ago, but the position now is less certain.
Kyiv maintains its priority is evicting Russian forces from all territory captured since they seized Crimea and part of two other Russian-speaking regions in 2014. Increasingly, however, Ukrainian officials blame the West for failing to resource that ambition even as they supported it in public.
There is clearly plenty of truth to that suggestion – the military aid provided by the United States and its allies, from shells to body armour, tanks and drones, has been more limited in both quantity and effect than Western officials initially promised.
The United States committed $46.3 billion worth of military aid and equipment Ukraine between the start of the invasion and the end of October, well over twice the $18 billion committed by Germany. The next largest donor, Britain, contributed just under $7 billion, followed by smaller Nordic, Baltic and Eastern European nations, some of which are now donating more than 2% of their gross domestic product directly to Ukraine.
In the first year of the war, U.S. and to a lesser extent British aid was critical – particularly anti-tank rockets blocking Putin’s opening offensive and efforts to grab the capital Kyiv.
But as the war evolves and U.S. political reluctance to supply Ukraine increases, particularly in Congress, it is Kyiv's relationship with mainland Europe and the European Union that is becoming particularly important.
That itself points to a growing suspicion that whoever wins November’s U.S. presidential race, the United States is now a declining power in Europe and the fate of European member states will lie in their own hands.
ESCAPING RUSSIA, EMBRACING EUROPE
For Ukraine itself, where the final border ultimately sits is arguably less important than that the Western-facing Ukrainian state survives the Russian onslaught, finally locking itself into a permanent and militarily defendable relationship with the West and mainland Europe in particular.
This is a battle of identities, ideas and armies that has already lasted centuries, from the initial rise of “Kyivan Rus” – in many respects the first real precursor state of what is now modern Russia – a millennium ago to its subjugation in more recent centuries by Moscow and the Kremlin.
By the time of the Cold War, most in Ukraine and beyond believed Ukraine and both its Russian and Ukrainian-speaking populations might forever be subdued. Multiple senior Soviet officials – including leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev – came from the Russia-Ukraine border regions, where Soviet rule was seen as secure as Russian Orthodox Christian dominance in centuries before.
Even after the USSR’s collapse and Ukrainian independence in 1991, opinion polls suggested Ukraine’s population and political elite remained either ambivalent or deeply divided over how to chart the path between Russia and the West.
In 2004-5 and 2013-14, pro-Kremlin governments both run by on-off Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych were ousted by pro-Western, anti-Putin “colour revolutions” – the latter followed almost immediately by the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and the start of fighting in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern Donbas region.
Over the last decade, however, particularly since the 2022 invasion started, those in regions of Ukraine still controlled by Kyiv appear to have become permanently committed to keeping the country Western-facing.
Putin’s invasion showed what he was willing to do to stop that happening. The question for 2024 is once again whether the Kremlin believes it can yet defeat Ukraine entirely, and what NATO and the European Union are prepared to do stop that happening.
From 2014 onwards, it was Washington and London that were the most important supporters of successive Kyiv governments, providing military resources and training as well as sending their own troops, warships and planes to Ukrainian territory, a move they hoped would deter further aggression from the Kremlin.
For the first year after that gambit failed and Russia launched its invasion, Britain and the United States remained heavily in the driving seat of support for Kyiv. More recently, however, the possible return of Trump, Britain's political chaos and the decreasing Western weapons stocks have made it clear that pushing Russia back requires more than short-term moves.
Both the United States and Britain have now signed multiple deals to build weaponry both on their own soil and within Ukraine. But it may be the agreements with European manufacturers, particularly from Germany and the Baltic states, that create the longer-term basis for the security of both Ukraine and the countries of the eastern EU flank.
In May 2022, a poll by the U.S. National Democratic Institute showed enthusiasm within Ukraine for joining the EU at 90%, compared to only 73% expressing a desire to join NATO. As the war progressed, numbers for NATO climbed to roughly the same level – but it remains to be seen what a Trump administration would do for confidence in the alliance.
For those within Ukraine, what nations or structures within the West they have to link with to secure lasting independence is arguably academic. But the shifting of Christmas Day – and the now clear schism between Ukraine’s Orthodox Church and that of Russia – is designed to demonstrate it is a national, societal decision to permanently divorce from Kremlin influence.
Not all believe success is certain. According to a survey by Deloitte, almost 45% of Ukrainians chose to celebrate Christmas exclusively on Dec. 25 this year, while only 17% continued with the traditional Russian date of Jan. 7. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church made it clear people could choose.
Almost a third of Ukrainians said they planned to keep celebrating it on both dates, at least for now. Thousands, perhaps more, will likely die on battlefields in the coming year to help shape that decision for years to come.
* Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues. He joined Reuters in 2003, reporting from southern Africa and Sri Lanka and on global defence issues. He is also the founder of a think-tank, the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and, since 2016, has been a Labour Party activist and British Army reservist. His first book – "Deterring Armageddon: A Biography of NATO" – will be published next month.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)
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