Eurasia Group | Partitioned Ukraine: Eurasia Group's #3 Top Risk of 2024

Risk 3: Partitioned Ukraine

A plate split in half with Ukraine in red and blue on each side
Ukraine will be de facto partitioned this year, an unacceptable outcome for Ukraine and the West that will nevertheless become reality. At a minimum, Russia will keep control of the territory it now occupies on the Crimean peninsula and in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson oblasts—about 18% of Ukraine's territory—as the war settles into a defensive struggle with a fairly static line of control. But Russia now has the battlefield initiative and a material advantage, and it could take more land in 2024. This year is an inflection point in the war: If Ukraine doesn't solve its manpower problems, increase weapons production, and set a realistic military strategy soon, it could “lose” the war as early as next year.

Kyiv has taken a body blow from ebbing US political and material support for Ukraine. Americans are increasingly split on the war, and many Republican lawmakers actively oppose more aid. Even if Congress approves additional military assistance for 2024, this will probably be the last significant appropriation Kyiv will get from Washington. If Donald Trump wins, he will drastically cut aid. If President Joe Biden wins, another large package is a long shot unless Democrats improbably win both the House and the Senate.

The outlook for European assistance is only slightly better. German budgetary challenges on one side, growing Hungarian opposition on the other, and a lack of leadership from most everyone else will make it hard for the Europeans to fill the gap in military aid the Americans will leave over the medium term. While Europe is ramping up production capacity, it doesn't have the infrastructure to provide the high volume of ammunition (including all-important artillery shells), heavy tanks, howitzers, and infantry fighting vehicles that Ukraine needs.

The material balance has also shifted in Russia's favor. On manpower, Russia is attracting significant numbers of men to new contracts, so a politically fraught second mobilization this year is unnecessary for now. President Vladimir Putin has also successfully converted his economy into a war operation. Roughly one-third of government spending and 6% of GDP will be devoted to the war in 2024, and Russian domestic production of missiles and artillery shells is now greater than before the war. North Korea is providing a large volume of additional ammunition, and Iran continues to provide (and now produce in Russia) drones (please see Top Risk #5).

Ukraine is in a more troubled position. On manpower, it must mobilize and train new recruits to improve force quality. Kyiv is considering mobilizing 500,000 additional troops, which is probably impossible but shows the quandary Ukraine is in as it confronts the army of a much larger country. Kyiv also needs to scale up its domestic defense production, especially of drones for the battlefield and to hit targets inside Russia.

Russia's material advantage will be reflected on the battlefield, where Moscow has seized the initiative and is now attacking in Donetsk Oblast, showing limited but effective offensive capability for the first time in over a year. Russia will form additional armies with fresh recruits and continue to develop offensive capability, ratcheting up the pressure on Ukraine.

Land war settling into defensive struggle with static line of control

For their part, Ukrainians will be forced to entrench and defend during 2024, and in a predominantly artillery-based war, defense is much easier than offense. This means that Kyiv probably won't lose much land this year. But Ukraine will need to develop its military forces and come up with effective military strategies for both 2024 and 2025 by early in the year. Ukraine will also need to end the growing domestic infighting between the presidential administration and both the military leadership—which contributed to the failure of last year's counteroffensive—and other political leaders like Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko.

The upshot is that Ukraine must make progress on mobilization, training, defense production, strategizing, and political infighting. If it succeeds in most of these tasks, Kyiv will be in a strong position to defend its existing territory in coming years, with a future that could include hard security guarantees from the West, eventual NATO membership, reconstruction aid, and EU integration—a better geopolitical trajectory than could have plausibly been expected before the Russian invasion two years ago. But if it fails, Ukraine is likely to lose the war in the near future, where losing means giving up more territory in Donetsk and possibly Kharkiv oblasts, and then being forced to accept a much more unfavorable ceasefire or settlement.

Ukraine is at risk of losing, but Russia has no way to “win.” Whatever longer-term gains its forces can make on the ground in Ukraine, NATO is now strengthened by new members Finland and (soon) Sweden. This month, the EU will open a membership process for Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, an outcome that wasn't on the table before Putin ordered his invasion. Russia has faced 11 rounds of sanctions, with more on the way. Half of its sovereign assets have been frozen, at least some of which are likely to be seized to finance Ukrainian reconstruction. Europe will no longer buy Russia's commodity exports, which instead must be sold to China, India, and others on the cheap. Moscow has been rendered permanently dependent on Beijing. All of this, just to get pieces of eastern and southern Ukraine that will take years and years to consolidate.

Still, a partitioned Ukraine will pose real risks. The first pertains to the Black Sea, where Ukraine has developed a new export route through the littoral waters of NATO members to the Bosphorus. Russia is currently deploying mines in the area and could start to sink ships this year. Should Moscow mistakenly strike a NATO or Western vessel, naval warfare between the alliance and Russia could ensue.

Diminishing Western support and growing political infighting will leave Ukraine feeling increasingly desperate, which will cause President Volodymyr Zelensky to become more risk-acceptant (please see box in Top Risk #5). He will turn to asymmetric warfare away from the frontlines in an attempt to degrade the Russian military, keep Ukraine in the headlines, and potentially bring NATO into the conflict. More targeted killings are likely, focusing on individuals connected to the war and occupation. The Ukrainians will also launch deep strikes with drones and missiles in Crimea and Russia targeting military and economic infrastructure—possibly including Russian oil and grain facilities on the Black Sea, which would lead to global oil and food market disruptions. Attacks are also likely on the Kerch Strait Bridge, Russian railroads, and Russian cities, which would provoke stepped-up Russian attacks against Ukrainian cities. The risk of a miscalculation or accident that results in NATO casualties and draws the United States more directly into the war will be heightened accordingly.

Tapering US political and material support will deepen a rift in the transatlantic alliance, which is the cornerstone of the international system. Europeans view current and likely future cuts in US assistance to Ukraine as an Afghanistan 2.0 policy lurch, but with much higher stakes for European security. Their concern is magnified by the risk that Trump will try to take the US out of NATO if he wins in November. Russia's upper hand will make the Kremlin feel like it successfully stared down the West on an existential issue, emboldening Putin to lean on unsupportive countries in the EU and NATO (such as Hungary and Slovakia) and driving further division.

A partitioned Ukraine will also undermine US credibility on the global stage. The United States made a major security commitment to help Ukraine protect itself and regain its land for “as long as it takes.” Domestic politics is leading the US to renege on this commitment, worsening the image of the US as an unreliable partner (please see Top Risk #1). Rogue and revisionist states will be emboldened accordingly (please see Top Risk #5). What's more, the war's trendline will make Ukraine a political loser for Biden during an election year, giving Trump a boost. A Trump win would accelerate this decline in US credibility.  

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