December 27, 2023 - 11:00am

Addressing Ukrainian diplomats a few days ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outlined his priorities for 2024. The themes were familiar: strengthening Ukraine’s air defences, gaining more weaponry from allies, and promoting his country’s entry into Nato and the EU. 

However, there are far more significant challenges afflicting Ukraine’s leadership as the war-torn nation enters the new year. Top of the President’s in-tray in January will be the issue of mobilisation. A draft law published on Monday proposed lowering the conscription age from 27 to 25, while last week Defence Minister Rustem Umerov announced that Ukrainian men living abroad will receive an “invitation” to report for military duty, possibly accompanied by unspecified sanctions should they decline. Both moves are likely to be logistically difficult and unpopular, adding to the domestic dissent already seen last month when women took to Maidan Square demanding their husbands’ demobilisation. 

What’s more, at his end-of-year conference on 19 December Zelenskyy said that his military commanders had “proposed to mobilise an additional 450,000 to 500,000 individuals”, including through conscription, for the war effort. While he added that he would require “specifics” and a “comprehensive plan”, Zelenskyy is unlikely to have any choice but to expand conscription. US officials note that Russia already has more troops, ammunition and missiles, with Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council Secretary Oleksii Danilov warning that Russia may move to “total mobilisation” after the March presidential elections. 

Another challenge for Ukraine is the task of constructing a new military strategy after the stalled counteroffensive. The New York Times reports that American and Ukrainian officials will work on this during exercises in Germany next month, but cracks have already emerged. Ukraine wants to go on the offensive, either on land or via the use of long-range strikes, but the US would prefer Kyiv to retain what territory it has and spend 2024 developing its weapon production capability, with the goal of bringing Russia to the negotiating table at the end of the year or in early 2025. 

To make matters even more challenging, Zelenskyy is planning military strategy under severe pressure and amidst splits within the leadership. Moscow is on the offensive near Avdiivka and on Tuesday Ukraine admitted that it had withdrawn its troops from the town of Maryinka in Donetsk. The victory constitutes Russia’s most significant battlefield gain since Bakhmut in May and — according to President Vladimir Putin — means Russian troops are “pushing the enemy’s combat units away from Donetsk” and can now access “a broader operational space”. 

Yet such concerns are paltry compared with the greater, more existential challenge of maintaining Western support. After the US Congress this month failed to approve $60billion of funding for Ukraine, efforts have moved to the Senate where Republican and Democrat negotiators have been trying to hammer out an agreement. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s frontline troops are stressing that a halt to US aid would lead to immediate military and civilian losses. Support from Europe has also been hit by difficulties, with Hungary this month blocking €50 billion of EU aid for Ukraine. 

The situation will only become more perilous as the US presidential election approaches in November. With Donald Trump leading in the polls, it is highly doubtful that the likely Republican nominee would guarantee anywhere near the same level of support for Ukraine as Joe Biden. So while Zelenskyy will enter 2024 with a great many difficulties, they may be nothing compared to the troubles awaiting him thereafter.