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From Trump to Orban: External challenges Ukraine facing in 2024

From Trump to Orban: External challenges Ukraine facing in 2024 Trump, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Viktor Orban (Photo: RBC-Ukraine collage)

The US presidential campaign and the possible victory of Donald Trump are considered to be the main factors of uncertainty for Ukraine and the whole world. Read more about what else Ukraine will face in 2024 in the RBC-Ukraine article.

The article was based on data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, data from the Politico Poll of Polls, and off-the-record comments from RBC-Ukraine's interlocutors in the government.

It is unlikely that anyone can predict how 2024 will go for Ukraine. What is clear is that the country will have to face a huge number of challenges, both internal and external. And the latter seems even more significant. In general, successes or failures will be largely determined by the external environment.

First and foremost, it is about Ukraine's dependence on assistance from its Western allies. This, for example, is a significant difference from the situation in the Middle East. Israel, of course, has significant military and political support from the United States. However, it mostly relies on its forces and, therefore, may well de facto ignore Washington's constant calls for "restraint" in the Gaza Strip and independently determine its strategy and tactics in the war.

Ukraine cannot afford such independence (although, of course, the potential of the enemies, Hamas and Russia, respectively, is also incomparable).

For several weeks now, the Western media have been actively circulating theories that without substantial military assistance from the West, there can be no successful counteroffensives and that it is at least a matter of defending existing positions. And Ukrainian top officials are already openly saying that without Western funding, there could be potential problems with salary and pension payments.

According to estimates by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, from August to October 2023, the volume of aid to Ukraine decreased by 87% compared to the same period in 2022 and was the lowest since January 2022.

Other armed conflicts taking place in the world at the same time have not yet had a direct effect on Western aid to Ukraine. For example, the problems with American aid to Ukraine arose not because of the war in the Middle East, but because of the migration issue in the United States, and the European Union did not provide the promised 50 billion euros again not because of Israel, but because of the stubbornness of Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.

However, this is not to say that wars in other parts of the world do not affect Ukraine. Firstly, they inevitably lead to a scattering of the Western audience's attention (and its support is the foundation of the entire coalition in support of Ukraine), and secondly, they increase the risk that the world's leading countries and smaller players will enter into some kind of tacit package deal with each other that may not always be in Ukraine's favor. According to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, there are currently 183 regional conflicts globally, the largest number in the last three decades.

Trump and the election

But the number one challenge in 2024 for Ukraine, and indeed for the entire world, is, of course, the US presidential election. According to most polls, Donald Trump is now overtaking Joe Biden in popularity, which is much more important given the American electoral system - he is beating him in most swing states.

In a presidential campaign that has long since gained momentum, Trump has paid much more attention to domestic American issues than foreign policy. But his rare comments on the Russian-Ukrainian war are understandably disturbing: criticizing the provision of American military aid to Ukraine, promising to "end the war in 24 hours," and calling on Ukraine to "cede" part of its territory.

Trump's associates in the political and media environment are much more direct in their statements on Russian aggression, opposing American aid to Kyiv as such, accusing Ukraine of curtailing democracy and justifying Russian aggression, etc. If such a political platform turns from rhetoric to reality, if Trump wins, the entire Western coalition in support of Ukraine could collapse, losing its key member. After all, in many European capitals, despite the rhetoric of "Europe's strategic autonomy from the United States," they look back at Washington's actions every time.

From Trump to Orban: External challenges Ukraine facing in 2024

US President Joe Biden during his visit to Kyiv (Photo: Vitalii Nosach / RBC-Ukraine)

At the same time, the majority of the Republican Party establishment is now fully pro-Ukrainian, but this factor may lose importance over time. At the moment, while Trump has not yet become the official presidential candidate and the first primaries have not even begun, they can still afford to be independent on important political issues. Once Trump is officially nominated, the field of possibilities will rapidly shrink. The former American president considers politicians who disagree with his opinion not just opponents but personal enemies and tries to destroy them as much as he can, and every Republican who wants to stay in politics will keep this in mind.

During Trump's first term, his impulses were largely restrained by the traditional American establishment, which ensures the continuity of Washington's policy under any government. Now, Trump does not intend to make this mistake, as he sees it, and instantly fill the state apparatus with exclusively loyal characters.

RBC-Ukraine's interlocutors in the Ukrainian political elite do not consider Trump's possible election a disaster and believe that it will be possible to work with Washington then, although it will be much more difficult than now. But in general, one can only hope that, like many populist politicians around the world, once in office, he will not be as radical as he was during the election campaign. Or that his unpredictability will incredibly play in Ukraine's favor.

So far, Ukraine is facing a more substantive challenge in the American direction: finally receiving a multibillion-dollar aid package from the United States. There are more reasons for optimism here. The debate in Congress on the allocation of aid to Ukraine (as well as Israel and Taiwan) has turned to the issue of migration and strengthening the US-Mexico border.

In the United States, especially before elections, voters traditionally prioritize domestic policy issues over foreign policy issues. The explosive growth in the number of migrants is perceived as a problem not only in Republican but also in some Democratic circles. Therefore, there is every hope that a compromise on the border between the White House and Congress will be found in the first weeks of 2024. And then it will not be about providing aid.

The European Union and Orban

The European direction for Ukraine in 2024 is particularly important due to the turbulence in the United States. Two key issues have to be resolved in the first months of the year: the actual launch of EU membership negotiations and the approval of a multi-billion dollar aid package for the coming years.

Both issues are now essentially resting on the position of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. At the EU summit in December, he unexpectedly did not veto the decision to start negotiations with Ukraine (under equally unexpected pressure from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz), but he did block the allocation of funds to Ukraine as part of a broader package of EU budget proposals.

Judging by Orban's public statements, he will not block the start of negotiations on Ukraine's accession to the EU, emphasizing that Hungary will have more than 70 opportunities to veto the process for many years.

From Trump to Orban: External challenges Ukraine facing in 2024

Volodymyr Zelenskyy with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel (Photo: Getty Images)

As for the European money, the decision in principle to allocate it has already been made, it's just a matter of procedure. If Orban does not back down, the rest of the EU members may take a different path. For example, the Financial Times wrote about the European Commission's plans to accumulate 20 billion euros for Ukraine through borrowings guaranteed by several EU countries, which would not require Hungary's veto. But in any case, given Orban's continued stirring up of anti-Ukrainian sentiment, the "Hungarian problem" will be discussed frequently in the Ukrainian media this year.

In June, the European Union will go to the polls: within a few days, all member states will hold elections to the European Parliament. Top diplomat Josep Borrell recently said that he feared the growth of support for right-wing populist parties in these elections.

However, opinion polls so far show that the two largest political groups in the European Parliament, the European People's Party and the Progressive Alliance of Social Democrats, may lose a few seats, but they are confidently maintaining their leading positions with a significant margin of victory. The far-right populists may gain a few extra dozen seats but remain a strong minority.

From a political point of view, the most important thing is that the European Parliament approves the new composition of the European Commission, including its president. So far, it seems that Ursula von der Leyen, who is favorable to Ukraine, has every chance of remaining in her post.

Among the national elections in the EU, the greatest danger for Ukraine is the September elections in Austria, where the right-wing populist Freedom Party has regained its former popularity and is likely to join the new coalition. Its leader, Herbert Kieckl, has been known for his calls against anti-Russian sanctions and military aid to Ukraine. In the worst-case scenario, Viktor Orban will have an ally in Kikl to block Ukraine's European integration and support Kyiv.

At the end of 2024, we should expect a change of power in one of Ukraine's key allies, the United Kingdom, where, after 14 years in opposition, Labor will probably return to power, replacing the Conservatives. However, the UK's policy towards Ukraine is unlikely to change much - at least during his visit to Kyiv in February 2023, Labour leader Keir Starmer assured Volodymyr Zelenskyy of this, and the party is generally quite pro-Ukrainian.

From Trump to Orban: External challenges Ukraine facing in 2024

Probable future UK Prime Minister Keir Starmer (Photo: Getty Images)

Of course, the list of external challenges for Ukraine this year is not limited to various elections in the West.

Israel, after defeating Hamas, may take up the issue of another terrorist organization based in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah, which could lead to further internationalization of the conflict, more active involvement of Iran, as Hezbollah's main sponsor, and other local players. And then the topic of Ukraine will move even further from the second page of many world publications.

Taiwan will hold presidential elections in January, and if the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which is quite tough on mainland communist China, retains power, we can expect China to escalate its tensions in the region.

India will hold parliamentary elections in April, the largest in the world in terms of the number of voters, which could result in the loss of power for the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, which could weaken the country's current cooperation with the United States.

North Korea has also been acting more aggressively lately, and its missile experiments could also divert global attention from Ukraine. Finally, in 2024, Russia itself may continue to expand the circle of its allies who supply it with weapons and help it circumvent Western sanctions.

RBC-Ukraine's interlocutors in the Ukrainian government have two approaches to expectations of the external situation this year. According to the first, all current problems on both the European and American directions will be resolved, albeit with difficulty.

According to the second, the allies will continue to help, but most likely not in sufficient amounts to win (as has been the case since the beginning of the full-scale war).

In any case, the West has already invested so much in supporting Ukraine that it cannot afford to lose the war. For the Joe Biden administration, this is especially true in light of the not-so-distant, painful defeat in Afghanistan.

Another potential risk is a possible attempt by the White House, closer to the election, to somehow "fix the result" achieved in Ukraine by presenting it as a victory over Russian aggressors. This is indicated by numerous comments by American top officials about "50% of the territory regained by Ukraine" - which date back to 2022 and now look anachronistic.

However, contrary to the obsessive narrative of the Western media, there is no talk of any "negotiations" yet - Bankova has long and systematically burned any bridges to a "truce" and is not going to build new ones.

According to one of the agency's informed interlocutors, Ukraine, the United States, and the European Union have a planning horizon of up to December 2024, and beyond that, the territory of complete uncertainty stretches.