For an academic, there is nothing like a focused, concentrated encounter with the reality of what you are studying. I was recently part of a delegation to Kyiv of military, intelligence and diplomatic experts organised by the thinktank Globsec. One abiding impression remains – the profound determination of Ukrainian people to fight what almost everyone now accepts is going to be a long war.

At no level is there any appetite for settlement or ceasefire. In the words of a very senior intelligence chief: “A ceasefire would bring us a new war, maybe in 2026 or 2027 after the restoration of Russian [military] potential.” By the same token, very few take the view that Ukraine’s spring offensive will be decisive.

Seeing the war as likely to be long and grinding, Ukrainian senior leaders are focusing on two closely connected elements of sustaining their country’s security into the next (long) phase of the war. First is the prospect of eventual Nato membership. Given the nature of undertakings made so far, the question is likely to be not if, but when. Second, and closely connected, is how the Ukrainians are going to sustain their defence – with or without Nato membership – in the medium and long term.

ISW Map of conflict in Ukraine May 9 2023
The state of the conflict as at May 9 2023. Institute for the Study of War

At Nato’s Vilnius summit in early July, Ukraine will be seeking a firm assurance of eventual membership in the form of a roadmap or clear process. The headwinds there are strong but not overwhelming. Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Turkey need to be made to understand that fence-sitting with (in Hungary’s case) the occasional stroll on the other side is no longer an option.

Messages to the effect that outright siding with the enemy is not compatible with Nato membership may need to be passed on, preferably long before the summit.

Roadmap to Nato membership

It should be stressed that no Ukrainian official is naive on the issue of Nato membership. They fully understand that no country will ever be admitted to Nato while a war is raging. Instead, they are asking for some form of roadmap to membership.

The default option being proposed by Ukraine is security guarantees – perhaps even bilateral, such as those offered to Sweden and Finland by the UK and US pending their full Nato membership.

Clearly, as with Nato membership, there would be no question of the UK or any other bilateral party committing to defend Ukraine during the current conflict. The provisions would take effect after the end of the war, providing Ukraine with some assurance of intervention following further aggression. Ukraine is a little wary about security guarantees following the collapse of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which offered similar assurances by the US, UK and Russia in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.

There is a sense that frustration is growing in Ukraine’s leadership about a failure on the part of western leaders to understand the existential nature of the war, both for Ukraine and Europe itself. In one meeting with our delegation, a senior Ukrainian minister broke the generally calm and formal tone, saying:

We are sick and tired of our people dying while western politicians dither.

The minister was too diplomatic to state the truth behind this. The war will be long. Ukraine needs more help now and will need it for many years. Firm decisions need to be made very soon if Ukraine is not to languish into the twilight of a “frozen conflict” with no realistic way of bringing it to an end.

Military assistance

This brings us to the second aspect of sustaining Ukraine’s security – maintaining and increasing the supply of military equipment in the long term. As we are regularly and somewhat eagerly reminded by the international press, the “spring offensive” will begin soon. It is likely this campaign will be composed of several consecutive and concurrent operations over several months.

There is no question of the forthcoming campaign winning a decisive victory for Ukraine. General Sir Richard Shirreff, a former deputy commander of Nato forces in Europe, was a fellow member of the Globsec delegation to Kyiv. He told us these operations are “more likely to resemble the Allied campaign in Italy during the second world war” than the sweeping Ukrainian campaign of last year, which retook Kharkiv oblast. The wave of operations against a series of German defensive lines took two years, eventually liberating the Italian peninsula. This is the sort of timescale we should be expecting and preparing for.

Sustaining such an effort over the next few years in Ukraine would require a step-change in the level of support provided by the west (specifically the US), dwarfing what has already been supplied. There is no question that western military assistance has probably made the difference between Ukraine holding the line so far and defeat.

Despite the scale of assistance provided so far, western help has been staccato and ad hoc in nature. Donations are announced after a monthly meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at Ramstein air base in Germany, where Ukraine’s needs are matched with the declared resources of the 40-nation group. This ad hoc arrangement is surely not sustainable, and sustainability is the key to Ukraine’s – and Europe’s – long-term security.

Even more difficult than increasing the flow of weapons will be building the necessary industrial and technical strategy in Ukraine, and in Europe more widely, for the long term. Ukraine is doing its part. A Ministry of Strategic Industries has been developed, which is working on ideas to replace the development and production capabilities they have lost to Russian bombs and occupation.

Another initiative, Brave1 – a platform for bringing together defence tech firms, innovators and the military – aims to bring ideas from concept to deployment on the battlefield in two months, less than one-tenth of the time taken in even the quickest western defence development agencies.

We will begin to learn in July if Nato and the west is serious about accepting Ukraine as a future military partner, either in Nato or some other arrangement pending entry. If we are genuinely interested in helping Ukraine secure itself, we need to get serious about replacing the current piecemeal system of dripfeed donations with a large-scale resupply and re-equipment programme.

The aim must be to help Ukraine create an army which can integrate properly with its western allies and defend itself well beyond the spring offensive – indeed, after the war and in the long term.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.