Ukraine’s hopes for victory fade in the face of declining Western support and Putin’s relentless war machine

(CNN) — A year ago, a determined President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled directly from the Bakhmut battlefield to the United States to address Congress and meet with President Joe Biden. He was hailed as a hero: Ukraine’s determination to resist Russian aggression enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Washington.

A year later, the outlook is very bleak. The long-awaited Ukrainian offensive in the south has made hardly any progress. Russia appears to have defied international sanctions for now and turned its economy into a war machine.

As its top general admitted in a frank essay last month, the Russian way of waging a war, absorbing terrible losses of men and material but throwing even more into the fight, has weakened the Ukrainian military’s tactical and technological edge. .

The mood in Moscow appears to be grimly determined: the objectives of the “special military operation” will be achieved, and fighting will continue until they are achieved.

As the long front line becomes increasingly quiet, the Kremlin is sensing growing skepticism among Kiev’s Western supporters that Ukraine can regain the 17% of its territory still held by Russian forces. Is occupied.

Putin is enjoying a highly partisan atmosphere in Washington, where many members of the Republican Party question the purpose of sending an additional $61 billion in aid to Ukraine, as requested by the Biden administration, believing it would lead to war. Will achieve very little in the field.

At the end of the year in his first press conference since the conflict began, Putin said: “Ukraine produces almost nothing today, everything comes from the West, but the free things will end one day, and it seems that It’s already coming to an end.”

At the same time, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban blocked a $55 billion EU financial aid package for Ukraine, leading one German politician to say it was like putting Putin himself at the table.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky is hugged by United States President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House on September 21, 2023 in Washington.  (Credit: Kevin Lamarck/Reuters)

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky is embraced by United States President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House on September 21, 2023 in Washington. (Credit: Kevin Lamarck/Reuters)

Zelensky, who has grown tired of his recent confessions, has a tough job as Ukraine’s top salesman as events in the Middle East draw attention away from his country as the epicenter of the No. 1 international crisis.

On the first anniversary of the invasion, he predicted that “2023 will be the year of our victory.” He is unlikely to make a similarly optimistic forecast for next year.

In late December, Ukraine suffered the largest Russian air attack since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. On Friday, Russia fired 158 drones and missiles, including hypersonic Kinjels, at targets across Ukraine, killing at least 18 people and wounding dozens of others. Zelensky said Russia used “almost every type of weapon in its arsenal” in the attacks.

Russia is not without weaknesses, but these are more long-term. The conflict has exacerbated the demographic crisis due to migration and battlefield losses. About 750,000 people left Russia in 2022, and analysts predict even larger numbers will leave in 2023.

Labor shortages are leading to rising wages and hence inflation. Avoiding sanctions and maintaining industrial production comes at a cost, as much of that production is now devoted to compensating for battlefield losses, and the budget deficit increases accordingly.

The long-term forecast for the Russian economy is bleak, and this may be Putin’s most important legacy.

But as economist John Maynard Keynes once said: “In the long run we are all dead.” In the short term, Putin appears impenetrable. Re-election in March is a formality (the Kremlin has already recognized it). Contrast this with the United States, where a busy year of campaigning may be ending as Donald Trump prepares for a second term. This is Kiev’s nightmare and Moscow’s dream.

The deeply partisan atmosphere in Congress has thwarted the Biden administration’s calls for more aid for Kiev. At present the funds allocated for military equipment have almost been exhausted. Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator, said harshly: “We’re going to give up on Ukraine.”

The mantra in Western capitals with regard to support for Ukraine has been “for as long as necessary”. But this month, Biden, along with Zelensky, said the United States would support Ukraine “as long as we can.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the virtual meeting of BRICS countries.  (Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the virtual meeting of BRICS countries. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The battlefield gets complicated

As Ukraine’s global indicators deteriorate, there is little cheer on the war fronts.

The long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive, launched in June, was intended to demonstrate the superiority of NATO’s combined arms strategy, which was installed in newly formed Ukrainian brigades in the fields of Germany. But this was alien to Ukrainian military culture and was not a reward for superiority in the skies.

What was supposed to be a race south to the Black Sea has turned into a quagmire in dense minefields, where Russian drones and aircraft attack Western armored vehicles.

Ukrainian units captured a maximum of 200 square kilometers of territory in six months. The goal of reaching the coast, Crimea, and dividing Russian forces in the south remained a distant dream.

With the fronts frozen, Kiev’s intelligence agencies have turned to more spectacular attacks: the sinking of a Russian landing ship in Crimea this week and even the sabotage of railway lines to the Russian Far East. The breakthrough in the Black Sea has allowed relatively safe passage for merchant ships, even though Moscow abandoned a U.N.-brokered agreement last summer.

However, despite their audacity, these operations will not change the fundamental balance of the conflict.

Zaluzny bluntly stated: “Our current level of technological development has stunned both us and our enemies.” The use of surveillance and attack drones deprives both sides of the element of surprise within the battlefield.

“The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy does, and they see everything we do.”

But Russia’s vast reserves of manpower and material (Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed he could muster 25 million men if necessary) mean they can continue to crush the smaller Ukrainian army, incurring huge costs. But there may be incremental benefits.

This is what happened in Bakhmut last winter; The same could happen in the ruined city of Avdiivka in Donetsk in the coming weeks.

The pool of military recruits in Ukraine has been significantly reduced; The battlefield defeat has deprived the army of thousands of experienced soldiers and mid-ranking officers. “Sooner or later we will realize that we don’t have enough people to fight,” Zaluzny told The Economist in November.

The arrival of F-16 fighters in the spring will undoubtedly help the Ukrainian Air Force to challenge Russian fighters and support its ground forces, but they will not be a solution. Basic training is one thing, flying in Russian air defense is another.

This would also happen if the United States agreed to supply long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) to Ukraine. (Storm Shadow missiles supplied by the United Kingdom helped target the Russian rear.)

In any case, the impasse over financing has blocked US arms supplies and Europe does not have the capacity to fill the gap.

Some leading analysts conclude that the time has come for a reassessment.

Richard Haas and Charles Kupchan write in Foreign Affairs, “Ukraine and the West are on an unstable trajectory, characterized by a glaring mismatch between ends and available means.”

They clearly state that Ukraine’s goal of reclaiming all its territory is “out of reach”. “Where we are, more and more, appears to be an expensive endgame.”

He suggests Ukraine move to a defensive posture in 2024 to prevent damage, which would “consolidate Western support by demonstrating that Kyiv has a viable strategy aimed at achievable goals.”

The Russian army, which has generally proven inept in offensive operations, will have even more difficulty gaining ground.

For others, such a shift would inevitably reward aggression, allowing Russia to pause and regroup, with potentially dangerous consequences for other nearby countries. It would also send the wrong message about the United States’ commitment to other allies such as Taiwan. And, politically, it is not a viable option in Kiev.

Biden declared during Zelensky’s visit that “Putin is betting on the United States not keeping its promises to Ukraine. We have to prove them wrong.”

It reeked of desperation. Haas and Kupchan state that “Ukraine would be better off devoting the resources it receives to its long-term security and prosperity rather than spending them on the battlefield for short-term benefits.”

There are certainly signs of tension in Ukrainian society as the conflict approaches its second anniversary and the economy struggles to grow again after shrinking by a third. The longer several million Ukrainians remain elsewhere in Europe, the less likely they will be to return.

For now, Zelensky and his inner circle show no signs of conceding defeat. Zelensky does not accept ceasefire or talks. “For us, it would mean leaving this wound open for future generations,” he told TIME in November.

Instead, barring an unexpected decline in morale on both sides, the same cities and towns destroyed over the past two years will continue to fight in the years to come. Ukraine will have the means to survive, but not to win.

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