OPINION - Vladimir Putin's Russia is getting stronger and Ukraine is in real danger

Volodymyr Zelensky (AFP via Getty Images)
Volodymyr Zelensky (AFP via Getty Images)

Ukrainian flags, last year a common sight on the East Coast of the United States, are now noticeably absent. With the battles in the Donbas having dropped off the headlines, eclipsed for months by Gaza, this speaks truth to the national mood — but also to the politics in Washington. Whereas exactly a year ago Volodymyr Zelensky was received like a visiting hero by both houses of Congress, now the White House is failing to get critical funding through Capitol Hill so Ukraine can keep fighting. President Joe Biden, blasting the Republicans behind this, called this “the greatest gift” that Vladimir Putin could hope for. He is right.

Ukraine is in danger. The US, to quote Biden, has “run out of money” to help Ukraine and needs Congress to agree to a new funding package to keep crucial arms supply and economic support flowing to Kyiv. The chances of Ukraine getting the $60 billion the White House is asking for before the end of the year is slim.

The long-term outlook for Ukraine is bleak. Senior American officials believe that while security funding will eventually pass, the vital economic support which Kyiv needs not to face a financial crisis might not. And on the off chance it does, that will certainly be the last time the US can provide such a package.

Biden’s troubles should be a wake-up call to all Europeans from London to Kyiv. If they don’t want to gift the Russian president a massive Ukrainian financial crisis sometime next year — with the state struggling to pay its soldiers and keep its hospitals running — Ukraine’s European allies are going to have to do more. And that means spending more. As it stands, when military, financial and humanitarian support are all factored in, the EU, UK and other European allies contribute about two-thirds of total support to Kyiv. The gap is not unbridgeable, but for big states like Britain, this means contributions will still need to rise by billions.

The chances of Ukraine getting the $60 billion the White House is asking for before the end of the year is slim

Ukraine’s failed offensive and now the loss of interest of its most powerful backer is handing the advantage once again to Putin. This doesn’t mean Russia is about to overrun Ukraine. The Kremlin’s army was ravaged by its own failed 2022 offensives and it has its own huge problems doing combined arms operations. But in the First World War-like conditions in eastern and southern Ukraine the battle is about exhausting and demoralising not only your opponent's armies, but also their society. Putin, who thinks of himself as a historical peer to the great czars in Russian history, who fought decades long wars and lost whole armies, only to triumph, believes he can win.

Russia is getting stronger. Senior US officials believe that the Russia of 2023 is profoundly different from the pre-war actor. They see the Kremlin as having thrown in its lot with Iran and North Korea, which it is heavily supporting, in return for large amounts of weapons. Moscow is building up its weaponry. Russia is on course to manufacture two million shells a year and far outstrips Western production in what has ultimately become an artillery war. This is still far from what it needs — its army fired 12 million shells last year — but in this race not to run out first, Moscow is ahead.

Worse still, the EU is nowhere near its one-million-shell target.

Britain needs to face facts. The Conservative Party, seen from Washington, has led a showboating policy when it comes to Ukraine. Picking flashy military transfers the UK can send before the United States, in order to avoid the hard task of investing in arms plants, or coughing up as much as it can when it comes to financial support. Russia is not interested in negotiating, but in ultimate victory. Putin would even see temporary truces as simply pauses to rearm.

If Britain is serious about supporting Ukraine, that means a serious long term investment not only in the Army but the defence industry, as rightly championed by Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey. Britain’s weapons stocks are more run down and hollowed out than its prisons and hospitals. The situation is so bad that General Sir Richard Barrons, former head of the joint chiefs, has even warned that if fighting Russia the UK would run out of ammunition in a day.

The UK and its European allies need a rearmament plan. Flashy, this is not, nor will it be cheap. But it is absolutely necessary.

Ben Judah is an Evening Standard columnist and fellow of the Atlantic Council