“MEGA”: What is Viktor Orbán’s Next EU Game – Survey
22 February 2024
The main risks facing Ukraine are not limited to external factors as internal divisions also pose a significant danger to success on the battlefield. Currently, mobilisation stands out as a pivotal concern.
The year ahead promises to include a number of important events, especially elections in countries that share close ties with Ukraine, namely the United States, the European Union and Russia.
Beyond the global electoral landscape, Ukraine faces the imperative task of advancing towards Euro-Atlantic integration. Commencing with accession negotiations with the European Union, the nation’s agenda also includes the symbolic staging of a NATO summit in Washington.
Simultaneously, Kyiv’s official administration must deftly navigate diplomatic waters, fostering robust and fruitful communication with partner countries. It is crucial to preserve the support that has faced increasing scrutiny since the conclusion of 2023.
In 2024, Ukraine faces the crucial task of preserving the backing of key allies like the United States and individual member states of the European Union. Following elections in several European countries, new leaders emerged who did not perceive a necessity to continue extending support to Kyiv. This was evident after the parliamentary elections in Slovakia and the Netherlands, where the need for further assistance for Ukraine was overlooked.
Equally, the conclusion of 2023 showcased the wavering nature of Washington’s position. Ukraine was forced to grapple with a decline of support from both chambers of the US Congress, which was a precarious setback given the Ukrainian Armed Forces already faced dwindling US assistance. On 12 January, John Kirby, the coordinator of the US National Security Council, revealed that the United States had recently delivered its final military aid package to Ukraine. However, the future provision of additional support hinges upon the crucial decision of Congress to allocate further funding to Kyiv.
Nevertheless, Kyiv still garners bipartisan backing in the US Senate, as Republicans acknowledge the significance of Ukrainians fighting not only for their own nation but also for democratic principles. Senator James Lankford, the Republican top negotiator, has indicated that the long-awaited text of the border and immigration deal, with the potential to unlock vital funding for Ukraine, may be revealed as early as this week. Lankford expressed confidence that the Senate’s approval of this document in the near future would pave the way for its transfer to the House of Representatives, where further revisions and enhancements can be undertaken. This collaborative effort aims to ensure that the final version of the agreement comprehensively addresses the complexities of border security and immigration policy while allowing for necessary improvements to be made.
The House of Representatives’ abrupt shift in stance against Ukrainian aid can be attributed to the commencement of the US election campaign, which has inflamed intraparty battles within Congress. Such infighting will be the main obstacle faced by Ukraine and other nations that will rely on the United States during the forthcoming election period and possibly beyond.
Contrastingly, Joe Biden has consistently shown support for and even visited Ukraine. The situation with Donald Trump, however, is more intricate. While the initial arms deliveries to Ukraine occurred during his presidency, Trump has made statements that contradicted the official stance regarding Kyiv during Russia’s full-scale aggression, leaving his position ambiguous.
Even during his tenure as president, Trump made efforts to establish a rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin while also exerting pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the 2020 US election season, when he was competing against Joe Biden for the presidency.
Additionally, the 45th US president claimed that he could end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine within 24 hours if re-elected. However, when pressed by Zelenskyy to divulge the specifics of his plan, Trump chose not to respond. The Ukrainian president himself acknowledged that Trump’s presence in the White House would inevitably lead to a shift in US policy towards Ukraine.
In contrast, several European and allied countries – including Germany, the Nordic nations and Japan – are emphasising the importance of supporting Ukraine, with some calling for increased assistance in the event of a shift in the political situation in the United States.
While most EU countries are striving to enhance their defence industry capabilities to shore up their own security and provide Ukraine with assistance, the underperforming reality shows the limitations of systemic underinvestment in this sector. One such notable example is the promised one million artillery shells for Ukraine, which has fallen behind schedule.
It becomes evident that effective communication between Ukrainian authorities and representatives of partner countries worldwide is crucial. Kyiv faces the challenge of combating war fatigue among its partners and maintaining international attention on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, with the ongoing emergence of other conflicts in the coming year. This communication is necessary to convey ideas that will bolster support for Ukrainian civilians and defenders in 2024.
In March 2024, Vladimir Putin is poised to secure his fifth term as President of Russia. The upcoming elections, slated to span three days from 15-17 March, are widely viewed as a farce, aimed solely at solidifying the Kremlin leader’s hold on power.
One key factor influenced by the Russian presidential election is the escalation of frontline hostilities. Eager to prove to his nation that Russia is achieving military triumphs, Putin has since October ordered intensified attacks on Avdiivka in the Donetsk region. He has shown little regard for the lives of its citizens, with the sole aim of securing control over this Ukrainian city.
Furthermore, the number of missile and drone strikes on Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, Odesa and Kharkiv, have been ramped up in the hope of obliterating Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and presenting this as yet another victory in the war.
Additionally, Russia plans to hold sham elections in the temporarily occupied territories, including Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and the annexed Crimea. The Russian Central Election Commission has already acknowledged that the procedures for these “elections” will differ from those within the Russian Federation, though specifics have yet to be disclosed.
The Kremlin’s motive for holding these pseudo-elections in the occupied territories extends beyond mere political manoeuvring. It aims to exploit the question of these lands’ belongingness to Russia on the international stage while also initiating the forced Russian passportisation of Ukrainians following the “election” process.
In a significant move, the European Council has recently decided to initiate negotiations with Ukraine regarding its potential accession to the European Union. This decision marks the beginning of a challenging and lengthy journey for Ukraine as it strives to align itself with the EU.
To kickstart this process, Ukraine must first reach an agreement on a negotiation framework with Brussels, a milestone expected to be reached in March 2024. Subsequently, Ukraine will embark on the gradual alignment of its legislation with that of the EU, requiring the country to address 35 chapters of the EU acquis communautaire.
However, Ukraine’s path to EU integration has not been without obstacles. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán voiced his opposition to the commencement of negotiations with Ukraine and has subsequently indicated his intention to impede Ukraine’s European integration further.
It is important to acknowledge that Ukraine should not anticipate becoming a full-fledged EU member by 2024. The accession process is unique for each country, and some EU member states are already expressing discontent over Ukraine being granted certain advantages over the Western Balkan states, which have been awaiting EU membership for an extended period.
NATO is gearing up for a momentous summit in July 2024 as the Alliance celebrates its 75th anniversary. This event presents a significant opportunity for Ukraine, which aspires to join NATO and commence the gradual process of integration into the military and political bloc.
Zelenskyy emphasised the importance of preparing for the upcoming NATO summit during remarks in August 2023, noting its potential historic significance for his country: “We would like to see a real step from NATO countries that brings Ukraine closer to the Alliance. So that there is no stagnation. We want this to be a successful and powerful summit (NATO in Washington), and we want NATO countries to show that they are not afraid of Russia”.
Julianne Smith, the United States Permanent Representative to NATO, affirmed that NATO member states would prioritise their support for Ukraine. However, she acknowledged the unpredictability of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict’s trajectory through to July of 2024.
During his visit to Kyiv on 12 January, UK Prime Minister Sunak signed a long-term UK-Ukraine security agreement. During his address in the Ukrainian parliament, Sunak proudly announced that Britain had successfully accomplished a crucial commitment, which was originally agreed upon by 30 nations during last year’s NATO summit. This commitment aimed at forging new bilateral security agreements, with Britain being the first country to fulfill this significant pledge. The provided guarantees will be valid until Ukraine joins NATO.
“I believe that Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO. But it’s not just about how NATO will benefit Ukraine. It is also about how Ukraine will benefit NATO,” he said.
Nevertheless, observers currently harbour scepticism about the likelihood of NATO member states extending an invitation to Ukraine during the Washington summit. The United States and Germany, in particular, have been identified as the primary opponents to Ukraine’s membership, according to Western media outlets. Furthermore, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico recently voiced his opposition, warning that Ukraine’s accession to NATO could provoke a catastrophic global conflict.
In Ukraine, President Zelenskyy is navigating treacherous waters, which surpass in complexity even the days when Russian invasion forces crossed the border two years ago. He faces his greatest leadership challenge yet, as public divisions between the president and other political leaders, including former President Petro Poroshenko and Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, have widened, fueling a blame game over disappointments in the ongoing war.
Adding to the situation’s complexity, Zelenskyy and Commander-in-Chief General Valery Zaluzhny also appear to be at odds. Zaluzhny’s admission of a current stalemate regarding the war prompted a public rebuke from the president, exacerbating tensions within the leadership. Mariana Bezuhla, the deputy head of the Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Defence, as well as a lawmaker for the presidential Servant of the People party, actually accused Zaluzhny of unprofessionalism and demanded his resignation.
At the same time, Ukrainian authorities’ challenge of mobilising half a million recruits has exacerbated societal and political conflicts. In a recent announcement, Zelenskyy revealed that Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces has recommended the mobilisation of an additional 450,000 to 500,000 individuals. The proposed draft legislation has ignited wide-ranging and intense public discourse, as well as widespread criticism, surrounding the conscription norms and contentious provisions it outlines.
Particularly contentious are the restrictions imposed on individuals evading conscription, such as the freezing of bank accounts and limitations on their ability to manage both movable and immovable assets. Additionally, the proposed introduction of electronic summonses and the elimination of deferment for individuals with group III disabilities have sparked significant contention and garnered substantial backlash.
In a disconcerting display of political manoeuvring, the government has skillfully sidestepped its responsibility regarding scandalous policies, leaving the public disheartened and seeking answers. As the nation grapples with the fallout of these policies, parliamentary members have resorted to pointing accusatory fingers at the government, while the government, in turn, deflects blame onto the military.
On 4 January, in a meeting of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on National Security, Defence and Intelligence, General Zaluzhny expressed his strong opposition to various provisions outlined in the proposed draft law on mobilisation. Among his concerns was the inclusion of previously convicted individuals in the draft. At the same time, he said that tools are needed to strengthen mobilisation: “The Russians have already conscripted 400,000 people and are preparing several hundred thousand more for June, up to 400,000. Who should I fight with?”.
Last week, the Verkhovna Rada had slated to commence deliberations on the draft law on mobilisation. However, to everyone’s surprise, it was remanded back to Cabinet, where it had initially been introduced to the parliament at the end of the previous year. The leader of the Servant of the People faction, David Arakhamia, had affirmed that all political factions comprehended and endorsed the necessity of mobilisation. Consequently, the government is now tasked with presenting a revised rendition of the unpopular draft law.
It is also worth noting that Ukraine is scheduled to hold its next presidential election in March 2024. As the spring season approaches, President Zelenskyy’s five-year tenure at the helm of the country will reach its conclusion. Addressing the current state of affairs, however, Zelenskyy expressed his reservations about the appropriateness of conducting elections in 2024 amidst the backdrop of wartime challenges: “We need to recognise this is a time for defence, a time for battle, upon which the fate of the state and its people depend….I believe elections are not appropriate at this time.”
Given the infeasibility of running democratic elections, Zelenskyy’s ability to legitimise his leadership to the public could be reduced, thus intensifying the imminent risk of internal conflicts. It is imperative for Ukraine’s leadership to anticipate and address potential conflicts in a transparent manner.
Clearly, 2024 will see Ukraine face significant internal challenges that will test the leadership of President Zelenskyy. Political criticism, disagreements with military leadership and the challenges of mobilisation will exert significant pressure in the upcoming year. The looming prospect of reduced Western military aid could also have serious consequences for the trajectory of the ongoing war.
This article is published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.
The featured image uses a photo from the office of the President of Ukraine. All materials on this site are placed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license, and it is available here.
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