Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 13 minutes

Keeping the Right Balance in Supporting Ukraine

Russia’s war in Ukraine may go on for some time to come. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2023, Crisis Group explains how the EU and its member states can keep supporting Kyiv while avoiding direct clashes with Moscow.

Nearly a year since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, no clear path to peace is in sight. After trying and failing to take Kyiv in the first weeks of the war, Russia faced Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east and south starting in the late summer of 2022. Fighting is still concentrated in those areas, and for now the front lines are not moving much. Moscow has also been bombing cities across the country, in an attempt to deny Ukrainian civilians a sense of safety as well as heat, electricity and running water. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly invoked Russia’s nuclear capabilities in a manner that seems, among other things, intended to constrain the support Ukraine’s backers offer. As yet, Moscow shows no sign of willingness to compromise and, for its part, Kyiv is understandably categorically uninterested in doing so, either. Ukraine continues to seek Russia’s withdrawal from all its territory, while the Kremlin, which in the autumn announced the “annexation” of four Ukrainian provinces (including swathes of land well beyond its control) wants Kyiv to accept its claims there and commit to an ill-defined demilitarisation.

Western actors, including the European Union (EU) and its member states, have judged that allowing Russia to achieve its strategic aims in Ukraine through a combination of aggressive military force and nuclear sabre-rattling would undermine security in all Europe and, indeed, farther afield. They have thus supported Ukraine through military aid and attempted to weaken Russia through sanctions until a peace deal acceptable to Kyiv becomes possible. At the same time, they have, sensibly, tried to minimise risks of direct confrontation with Russia by providing military equipment to Ukraine incrementally; the recent decisions in Berlin and seemingly Washington to supply tanks to Kyiv make sense today but would have been a huge escalation six months ago. Broadly speaking, Western capitals should maintain this careful balance, meeting Ukraine’s immediate needs while avoiding direct confrontation with Russia. Western leaders should also signal to Moscow that when it negotiates there is an off-ramp from at least some of the sanctions imposed in response to its aggression, and prepare Kyiv to stand on its own feet as quickly and sustainably as possible once peace comes. The EU plays an especially important role in communicating to Moscow the benefits of peace and in setting the stage for a new, improved security order on the continent.

In particular, the EU and its member states should:

  • Continue to give Ukraine military, economic and humanitarian aid, as well as military training, while managing the risk of escalation by avoiding direct military involvement, ensuring that capability increases remain incremental and carefully calibrated, and implementing mechanisms for the oversight of assistance so that it is not misused.
  • Signal to the Kremlin willingness to lift some sanctions imposed in response to Russian aggression and related acts and provide other benefits if an agreement acceptable to Ukraine is reached, however unlikely that appears at present. European capitals should also consider the impact of actions, such as judicial measures relating to the crime of aggression, that would seem to close off paths to agreement and dialogue because of the threat they would pose to Kremlin leadership.
  • Close loopholes in the existing sanctions regime that enable Russia to obtain Western technology and components for weapons production.
  • Support independent Russian media in Europe and elsewhere with access to Western countries for their operations and staff.
  • Remind Kyiv that in order to keep faith with the norms and values expected of EU candidate countries and better serve its people through rights-respecting governance, the government should not use wartime exigency as a basis for placing further pressure on workers’ rights, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience or for undermining social cohesion.
  • Even while supporting Ukraine, look ahead to what a next-generation European security architecture might look like. While prospects for a negotiated end to the war for now seem remote, if that does happen, the EU and other Western powers should be prepared with their visions for such an architecture and both Russia’s and Ukraine’s place in it.

A woman tries to save some personal belongings from her destroyed flat in ruins after hard combats in Arkhanhelske, a recent liberated village by ukrainian army after the russian occupation in Kherson province, Ukraine. Celestino Arce / NurPhoto via AFP

The Long Haul

Russia’s war in Ukraine may last for some time to come. From late February 2022, Ukraine has surprised the world with its fighting prowess, refusing to yield to Russian forces that sought to capture Kyiv and instal a more pliant government. Western states responded to its show of fortitude by pouring in military and economic aid. This assistance sustained Kyiv through months of attrition on the battlefield and eventually enabled the counteroffensive that pushed Russian forces back and recaptured some territory in the east and south. But Moscow has not dialled down its demands that Ukraine change its government, demilitarise, and accept the loss of territory in Crimea and the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Indeed, it has added new demands: that Ukraine also surrender its southern Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. Kyiv has been steadfast is saying no. Russia controls Crimea, but only parts of the lands it claims to have annexed in September following sham referendums. With winter having set in, fighting has again turned positional, with the front shifting only slightly as Russia bombards Ukraine’s cities and energy infrastructure nearly every day. Increasingly, Kyiv is striking back from the air as well as on the ground, hitting Russian troops and logistics facilities in occupied parts of Ukraine and in Russia itself.

Both Kyiv and Moscow say they want peace, but on their own terms. Ukraine wants Russian troops gone. Its officials also press for mechanisms that would require Moscow to pay reparations and to establish a mechanism to hold Russia accountable for the international crime of aggression. Russia, in effect, seeks its neighbour’s subjugation. At present, both feel that they can force the other side to back down through military means. Moscow may also hope that its airstrikes will break Ukrainians’ will and that the war’s price tag and the economic and energy uncertainty it creates will corrode support among Kyiv’s backers.  

Thus far, Russia’s actions have mainly strengthened resolve in Western capitals. Indeed, its aggression and tactics during the war have strengthened the conviction among EU member states and their transatlantic allies that supporting Ukraine and weakening Russia is in their own interest. They assess, with good reason, that a Kremlin emboldened by the successful use of force, especially if its gains are partly attained through intimations of nuclear use, would create risks more dangerous than helping Ukraine in the current war. Berlin’s apparent decision in late January, after much debate, to give Ukraine German tanks and allow others to do so, and the U.S. supplying tanks of its own, are in line with such thinking and in keeping with both Ukrainian and Western interests. As deliveries and training begin, Western states should take care that the capabilities provided can be integrated effectively into Ukraine’s armed forces – disparate weaponry requiring equally disparate ordnance and maintenance must be carefully managed.

At the same time, the EU and member states have wisely tried to minimise risks of an escalation to direct conflict between NATO and Russia. They have prevented direct NATO involvement in the war. They have avoided the supply to Ukraine of some weaponry and kept military aid incremental; the gradual build-up of support has avoided the sense of a sudden rush to war and may well have softened Moscow’s reaction. In this sense, the agonising that preceded Germany’s apparent decision to send tanks reflects this caution which, while much criticised, is not in itself a bad thing.

Risks of escalation remain significant, however, including potentially if and when new weapons supplies translate into substantial new battlefield successes for Ukraine. It would be hard to overstate the consequences of a direct Russia-NATO war. Because of the West’s military superiority, a direct confrontation with NATO could be seen by Russian leadership as posing an existential threat, potentially even, in its eyes, justifying the use of nuclear weapons.

Verbal support for an internationally backed mechanism that could hold Russian officials accountable for the crime of aggression has grown within the EU.

It is thus all the more important to avoid language that indicates a desire for a change in government in Moscow. Western leaders have, sensibly, largely steered clear of such rhetoric. That said,      verbal support for an internationally backed mechanism that could hold Russian officials accountable for the crime of aggression has grown within the EU. The desire for accountability is completely understandable. Still, even leaving aside the legal uncertainties, some Western officials and others rightly voice concern that such a mechanism could signal a desire for regime change. It could also undermine efforts to send Moscow the message that resolving the conflict through negotiations remains possible, even if for now the Kremlin appears uninterested in doing so. Such messaging may also become more crucial if Ukraine makes rapid battlefield progress.

Ukraine has been transformed by the war. Massive grassroots civilian movements, often led by women, have helped procure both military and humanitarian supplies (especially in the conflict’s early months). Today, Ukraine’s military, despite a more than two-fold expansion, continues to attract fighting men and women, and Ukrainians from all walks of life remain engaged in tasks related to war and reconstruction. The damage to the country is enormous. A third of its residents have now been displaced at least once, some abroad and some within Ukraine. The economy is in tatters, notwithstanding the buzzing cafés in many towns, with industry destroyed by air raids, supply chains interrupted and workers scattered. Meanwhile, legislation Kyiv dubs crucial for the war and reconstruction – but that seems in tension with EU norms – is compromising workers’ rights and media freedoms while risking ill treatment of people accused of a poorly defined new crime of collaboration.

Against this background, Western aid is keeping Ukraine afloat, but its high volume is sparking worries that some could wind up diverted for private gain. A recent military procurement scandal, unrelated to Western aid, underlines that graft has not disappeared from Ukraine, that Kyiv is taking steps to counter it, and that Ukrainian whistleblowers and watchdogs remain crucial.

Russia, too, has changed. It has become more authoritarian, with individuals and organisations added to foreign agents lists almost weekly and continuing arrests for social media posts and protests. Kremlin propaganda continues to message that the war is the fault of a West hostile to Russia and Russians. The Kremlin’s “partial mobilisation”, announced in late September and deemed complete about a month later, seemingly drove more men (and often accompanying family members) out of the country than into the military ranks. Many have fled to Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. A number of neighbouring EU countries refused to accept them, citing both security and capacity concerns. Russian independent journalists who fled the country as war began have faced challenges as they try to continue their work. Although many have benefited from relocation visas and grants arranged by the EU, member states or European NGOs, they often face restrictions on employment and services for family members. The Dozhd TV channel, a major Russian opposition outlet exiled since the invasion, lost its Latvian license and home in December due to an ill-advised comment by a reporter, though he was fired nearly immediately. Dozhd was in limbo for weeks before finding a new base in the Netherlands.

Amid reports of Russian reliance on private military companies, of recruitment from the prison population, and of Russian soldiers being sent to the front undertrained and barely equipped, small grassroots movements (including of soldiers’ female family members) and widely read bloggers have begun to question the military effort, although some of the latter complain that Russia’s army is too restrained, and much of the population appears to remain enthusiastically pro-war. Economically, Russia is holding on despite the heavy sanctions imposed upon it, but laudatory news stories about men choosing military service in order to feed their families bespeak widespread poverty. 

The Russian military, although clearly hard-pressed on the personnel side, is continuing to deliver combatants to the front lines. It has also continued to produce and purchase weapons. Russia has been able to find loopholes in the export control system and circumvent Western sanctions intended to limit its access to technology that can be used for warfare. Russian defence enterprises can readily obtain some Western technology components, including commercial drones and microchips, because dual-use items, particularly, are notoriously difficult to contain. Other items reach Russia via companies in intermediary countries such as Türkiye, Kazakhstan, Armenia, China and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, despite the announced end to partial mobilisation, draft notices continue to arrive, and the mobilised who are not at the front continue to train. 


The EU and member states continue to play an essential role in supporting Ukraine. They will also be key players in shaping post-conflict scenarios. To optimise their contributions on both fronts, they should take the following steps:

First, the West calculates, correctly, that the risks and costs of supporting Ukraine outweigh those of clearing the path for Russia to reap the strategic gains of its aggression and nuclear menacing. Fighting will continue until one side or the other makes decisive military gains or until a political shift changes war aims in Moscow or Kyiv. The EU and member states should thus continue giving Ukraine the tools it needs to fight until peace is at hand, but avoid direct involvement in the conflict, while always being mindful of the escalatory risks.  

As Ukraine keeps using its own capacities to push Russian red lines, the EU and its allies will need to continue to calibrate carefully what new weapons to provide to ensure Ukrainian defensive capacity while mitigating risks. As the recent discussion over German tanks illustrates, the choices are never easy or perfect, but delivering components that can support Ukrainian capacity, such as increased and heavier armour capabilities, are advisable at this point, as are increasingly capable air defences, to help Ukraine meet Russia’s continuing barrages. To the extent possible, systems should be compatible with one another, to avoid creating new strains for Ukraine’s armed forces.  

At the same time, to ensure that aid is effective and does not wind up in the wrong hands – and because they are accountable to the public in Europe – the EU and member states should continue to ensure appropriate transparency and accountability measures are in place to track the use of their assistance. They might, for example, think in advance about how to bolster Ukrainian customs capacity to prevent weapons flows in the future, when active fighting ends.

Sanctions ... should be used to the extent possible to encourage a peace process.

Secondly, as for sanctions, these should be used to the extent possible to encourage a peace process. The EU and its member states should join their allies in emphasising to Moscow that some sanctions, particularly those that isolate ordinary Russians, will be eased or lifted once a peace acceptable to Ukraine is found. The kinds of measures that might be lifted in that circumstance could include, in the first place, restrictions on Russian airlines flying to Europe or on Russian ships entering European ports, as well as impediments to normal transport links and logistics with Russia. Likewise, the EU could make clear that it would also be prepared to lift sanctions on banks that are not linked to the Russian defence complex and Putin's entourage, as well as on the Russian National Settlement Depository. (The latter measure would unfreeze the money of Russian private investors.) The EU could also, under those conditions, make efforts to restore international payment systems in Russia and bring much of the Russian financial system back into the global one. In the meantime, the EU should establish stricter control over the export of technology and dual-use goods to Russia as well as maintenance service to key sectors including petrochemicals, chemicals and energy.

Thirdly, to the extent that European actors want to preserve space for a negotiated outcome, measures that pose a risk of criminal prosecution for Russia’s leadership (like, for example, the creation of an international mechanism to try the crime of aggression) may be an impediment.

Fourthly, given the withering of the free press inside Russia, the EU should continue to support independent Russian-language media, including outlets run by expatriates, and remove bureaucratic obstacles that hinder journalists’ work and livelihoods. The main bases for these media, apart from Georgia and Armenia, have become EU countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Germany. They continue to work with Russian audiences and convey to them a perspective on the war that differs from Russian propaganda. The EU should ease bureaucratic obstacles for Russian journalists and their family members to live in Europe by granting them residency permits. 

Fifthly, the EU should continue to back the Ukrainian government as it pushes for reforms to help ensure that its policies align with European values and best practices. The EU can caution Kyiv that reversals on human rights, basic workers’ rights, religious freedoms or freedom of speech could undermine its goals to build a strong, successful democracy and would be inconsistent with its candidacy for EU membership.  

Lastly, the EU and member states should keep an eye on the long term when it comes to European security arrangements. Should the war in Ukraine end in a negotiated ceasefire or in a settlement that creates space for Russia and the West to re-establish a substantive dialogue to prevent further clashes, the EU, together with its allies, should be prepared with a vision of what a new European security architecture might look like and what place both Russia and Ukraine might have in it. Negotiations over a more secure European order, which would have to include Kyiv and Moscow both, could lead to negotiated limits on weapon deployments and exercises in several key European regions.

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