On November 14, the Ukrainian flag was officially raised in Kherson in a ceremony overseen by President Zelenskyy. Kherson — an area historically sympathetic to Russia — was the only regional capital captured by Russian forces during the February invasion of Ukraine. Nine months later, the exuberance of local citizens greeting members of the Ukrainian military and the prominent displays of blue and gold testified to the significant political changes the invasion brought about.
As winter in Eastern Europe settles in, the Russian military continues to cede ground to advancing Ukrainian forces. Stories of domestic unrest within Russia are trickling out from behind the state-approved media narratives, and Putin was noticeably absent from the G20 Summit in Bali. The question many people are asking now is: “What happens next?”
To offer insight on what’s happening in Ukraine and how it is shaping the long-term trajectory of the conflict, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, an affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and, and Francis Fukuyama, the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International (FSI), join Michael McFaul, the director of FSI, on the World Class podcast.
Listen to their full conversation and browse highlights from the episode below.
Click the link for a full transcript of "The War in Ukraine: What's Next?"
Fighting on the Ground
For the last two and a half months, Ukraine has made numerous advancements on the battlefield. The military has pushed the Russian military out the Kharkiv oblast in the northeast. They simultaneously are moving into the Luhansk region, and down in the south, they’ve successfully pushed Russian forces out of the city of Kherson. Once those lines are secured, this will mean there is no longer a Russian military presence on the western side of the Dnipro River, which roughly bisects Ukraine.
This is clearly not what Moscow envisioned for its invasion of Ukraine. In response to Ukraine’s gains, attacks on Ukrainian cities and energy, power, and water infrastructure have increased.
As a result, Steve Pifer advocates for the West to supply air defense systems, additional armor, and longer-range HIMAR rockets to the Ukrainian military. He points to Ukraine’s successful use of the 50-mile HIMAR rockets to disrupt Russian logistics and argues that providing 200-mile range HIMARS would relieve even more pressure by allowing Ukrainian forces to target Russian logistical points in Donbas and Crimea.
Fukuyama agrees that Crimea is a hinge point in Ukraine’s war efforts.
“It's a very unbalanced war,” he explains. “The Russians have been free to attack civilian targets all over Ukraine, but the Ukrainians can't fight back, particularly against the military targets where these rockets are being launched from in Crimea.”
The strategic importance of Crimea could expand further if Russia moves forward with purchasing longer-range ballistic missiles from Iran. Given the limitations of Ukraine’s current air-defense systems, any counter strike abilities will have to be provided by NATO or the United States. As long as provisos are given to not strike targets within Russia proper, Pifer believes providing Ukraine with this level of firepower is warranted.
Financing and Support
Ongoing support from the West remains a major factor in Ukraine’s ability to maintain the momentum of their counteroffensive and hold on to the ground they’ve regained. Ukraine has historically had bipartisan support in the United States, but Pifer and Fukuyama share concerns over waning commitments in the United States Congress, particularly among more extreme contingencies.
Former president Donald Trump’s announcement as a candidate in the 2024 presidential campaign could bring the question of aid for Ukraine to the forefront of U.S. domestic politics.
“It’s very hard for me to imagine him supporting Joe Biden on this particular issue, given how his base is increasingly turning against this,” says Fukuyama. “And that means that what Putin has been hoping for all along may actually come about, which is to say that the United States will be weakened.”
While he may be losing logistically on the battlefield, Putin understands that undercutting American and Western support for Ukraine and limiting the flow of financial assistance and arms will allow the Russian military to recoup and prevail on the battlefield.
One means of hedging against this possibility is for the Biden administration to push legislation through the lame duck session of Congress that will create guaranteed financing for Ukraine at least through 2023. The end goal of any support, Pifer stresses, is to drive the Russian military out of Ukraine entirely, or to sustain the Ukrainian military to a point where there can be a negotiated settlement on terms acceptable to Kyiv. Unfortunately, neither scenario is likely in the immediate future.
The Ukraine of the Future
Current estimates place the current cost of reconstruction in Ukraine anywhere between 750 billion and a trillion dollars. Some of that funding could potentially come from the 300 billion dollars of frozen Russian Central Bank assets, but additional support from the West will be needed to rebuild and revitalize the country.
Beyond economic support, Ukraine will also need security guarantees. Without a change of leadership in Moscow, a permanent peace between Russia and Ukraine is unlikely.
“If at the end of this war Vladimir Putin is still in Moscow, the war can be suspended, but it won’t be ended,” cautions Pifer.
So how can Ukraine avoid military aggression by Russia in the future?? Fukuyama envisions the hardening of Ukraine into a “little Sparta” or a warrior state similar to Israel. Neither Fukuyama nor Pifer see NATO membership as a viable option at the moment.
Instead, Ukraine should press for commitments from Washington, Berlin, London, and other Western governments to help modernize the Ukrainian military and build a robust army with full access to and training on assets like Leopard tanks, M1 tanks, modern air defenses, anti-tank missiles, and F-16 aircraft. Fukuyama and Pifer agree that commitments to help Ukraine defend itself against a future invasion will be easier to secure than commitments to directly intervene in a fight against Russia.
It is impossible to know how long the conflict may continue. But what the last eight months have made clear is the resolve Ukrainians have to resist.
“The Russians have fought in a way that was almost designed to foster an increase in strength and Ukrainian resolve,” says Pifer. “There’s a serious lack of understanding in the Kremlin about Ukrainians.”