Ukraine enters the countdown to decide the war in its favor

The lack of progress on the battlefield has resulted in pressure from the United States and anxiety in Ukrainian society, a year and a half after the Russian invasion

A man pushes a Ukrainian serviceman's wheelchair during Independence Day celebrations
A man pushes a Ukrainian serviceman's wheelchair past a destroyed Russian tank on display in central Kyiv during Independence Day celebrations on August 24, 2023.Associated Press/LaPresse (APN)
Cristian Segura

A row of charred and unserviceable Russian tanks and artillery pieces went on display this week on Khreschatyk Avenue in the heart of Kyiv. Coinciding with August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day, thousands of citizens came to see these war trophies being paraded. Irina is 46 years old and lives with her 22-year-old son. She took photos last Thursday of a column of Mstsa-S artillery pieces captured from the enemy. The woman, in favor of expelling the Russians from all the occupied territories, had no objection to giving her last name to be quoted in EL PAÍS, until one question caught her off-guard and she answered honestly on condition of anonymity: Would she accept a liberation war that lasted a decade if it meant that her son had to go to the front? “I’d rather the Russians take the Donbas [region in southeast Ukraine] than see my son fighting.”

Thursday marked a year and a half since the start of the Russian war against Ukraine, and time is ticking faster for the invaded country. The lack of results on the battlefield is causing anxiety not only in Ukrainian society, but also among Kyiv’s allies, particularly the United States. The Ukrainian Armed Forces began their highly anticipated offensive last June, for which they have had a supply of weapons from NATO countries. These, according to what General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Ukrainian commander-in-chief, wrote at the end of 2022, would allow the reconquest of territories lost since the start of the invasion.

Expectations in the Ukrainian counteroffensive were very high, but reality points to a less optimistic outcome. Last week the Pentagon leaked classified information to The Washington Post in which it is assumed that Zaluzhnyi’s troops would not achieve any significant objective in 2023. More specifically, it would not recapture the city of Melitopol, in the southeast of the country. Melitopol is located in the province of Zaporizhzhia and liberating it would be decisive in cutting off the Russian military axis that controls the coast of the Azov Sea and the territories to the south, half the province of Kherson, and land access to the Crimean peninsula.

American reviews

In The New York Times this week, senior U.S. military commanders also criticized the Ukrainian advance for being based on a mistaken strategy that prioritizes not having high casualties, something that is inevitable when an army attacks, and in dispersing its forces excessively on multiple fronts instead of concentrating on the Zaporizhzhia front. “Only with a change of tactics and a drastic turn can the timing of the counteroffensive be changed,” a U.S. military official told the newspaper. Neither side publishes casualty numbers, but the Pentagon reported on August 18 that, according to its count, Russia had 120,000 dead soldiers and some 180,000 wounded in the last 18 months; Ukraine, according to U.S. military numbers, suffered 70,000 fatalities and up to 120,000 wounded casualties.

In Washington there is another ticking clock that is also going against Ukrainian interests: the 2024 presidential elections. The favorite for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Donald Trump, has made it clear that if he is elected president, he will cut off military aid to Ukraine.

The cost of military, financial, and humanitarian aid for Ukraine by its allies is enormous: the United States has already provided Kyiv with $113 billion (€104 billion, more than half spent on military materiel) and U.S. President Joe Biden has asked Congress this August to approve a new package of $40 billion (€37 billion). According to the Kiel Institute for the Global Economy, which regularly monitors international support for Ukraine, the total aid received by Kyiv in the first 15 months of the war amounted to $178 billion (€165 billion). To understand the size of this assistance, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union contributed €288 billion ($311 billion) to Greece between 2010 and 2015 to prevent the country from going bankrupt. The United States invested $2.3 trillion (€2.1 trillion) in two decades of occupation in Afghanistan, between 2001 and 2022, an average of $110 billion (€101 billion) per year.

Unsustainable wear and tear

More and more voices warn that the wear and tear of a large-scale conflict like the one in Ukraine is unsustainable in the long term. Symptomatic of this was the secret meeting held last July in New York by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, with veteran U.S. diplomats. The goal is to establish a diplomatic channel that allows negotiations to end the war to be opened in the future, “facing aspects such as the fate of the territories that Ukraine will not be able to liberate,” according to NBC.

The most bitter remarks for Ukraine, reflecting the mounting pressure on Kyiv, were made on 15 August by the head of the NATO Secretary General’s office, Stian Jenssen, during a political forum in Norway, when he contemplated that an option for the country to accede to the Atlantic Alliance would be to cede part of its territory to Russia. Although Jenssen later qualified his words, his speech has marked the political debate in Ukraine ever since.

A girl rides a scooter past Russian vehicles on display in central Kyiv during the Independence Day celebration on August 24, 2023.
A girl rides a scooter past Russian vehicles on display in central Kyiv during the Independence Day celebration on August 24, 2023. CATHAL MCNAUGHTON (EFE)

The mantra repeated by Western foreign ministries is that the Ukrainian Armed Forces must reconquer as much territory as possible in order to start in a better position when the time comes to negotiate an end to the war. This was recalled by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in an interview on August 23 for Le Point: “My wish is that the Ukrainian counteroffensive can bring everyone back to the negotiating table so that they reach a political solution under the most favorable conditions.” Macron added that it should be the Ukrainians who set the conditions of the negotiation. And, for the moment, the Ukrainian conditions are explicit: there will be no concessions. This is stated in the peace plan proposed by Zelenskiy and so stipulated in a resolution approved by the Rada [the Ukrainian parliament] on August 23, in which there was a request to prohibit by law relinquishing any region occupied by Russia in exchange for ending the war.

Solid Russian defenses

The problem is that the counteroffensive has not met the expectations that the Ukrainian military leadership itself created. Precedents called for optimism. Swift counteroffensives in the summer and fall of 2022 liberated the entire Kharkov Oblast and the western half of the Kherson Oblast. But the context compared to a year ago is very different because since then, Russia has erected 800 kilometers (500 miles) of defense structures, triple lines of anti-armor obstacles, minefields, and a network of machine gun nests, bunkers, and artillery trenches. The result is that in two and a half months, the only significant advance has been a corridor around 12 kilometers long on the Zaporizhzhia front. Melitopol is still 65 kilometers (40 miles) from the Ukrainian troops.

The addition of German Leopard tanks and hundreds of NATO armored personnel carriers, as well as new Western self-propelled artillery that are better than the old Soviet-made ones, were used by Ukrainian propaganda to boost their image of invincibility. During the preparations for the counteroffensive, in an interview with EL PAÍS last April, General Sergey Melnik was convinced that the Ukrainian firepower would force Russian troops to flee at some point on the front, opening a decisive crack in the invader’s defenses. None of this has happened so far.

There are other factors that have been key to Russia’s defensive success. The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam last June altered the course of the Dnipro River, which marks the front line in the south, making it an even more complex geographical feature to overcome militarily. This was confirmed by a report that month from the Center for International and Strategic Studies, a United States defense analysis institute: the Ukrainian forces would face more obstacles because, either the width of the river had increased in some sections, or much of what was once navigable space for boats is now quagmire that the Ukrainian military leadership needs time to study how to overcome. The ecological catastrophe of the dam, which the Ukrainian and Western intelligence services take for granted was blown up by the invader, was used by Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, to relocate a large part of his men on the southern front to the east (the Donbas region), Kharkov, and above all, Zaporizhzhia.

Reinforcements from the southern front have also served to relieve the units of the Wagner mercenary group, which, after the coup attempt last June, have been removed from the theatre of war by the Kremlin. Around 32,000 of Wagner’s paramilitaries took part in the invasion, a force that Russia cannot count on for the moment, especially after the void left by the deaths of Wagner’s leadership last Thursday in an apparent air crash in which its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin also died.

In contemporary military theory, air superiority is considered essential for the success of an attacking army. A third decisive fact against Ukrainian interests is that Russia has ten times more planes and helicopters than Ukraine. Both sides’ network of mobile air defense batteries has left the use of aircraft for frontline strikes on the back burner, but Kyiv regrets that slow and difficult negotiations to obtain NATO fighter jets, specifically the F-16 American planes, have weighed down their chances of success. In March, the spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force warned at a press conference that without the F-16s, “the counteroffensive will not be successful.” In August, after eight months of discussions with the Biden Administration, the United States finally authorized the Netherlands and Denmark to deliver 61 F-16 aircraft to Kyiv.

In an interview with the German newspaper Bild on August 20, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba responded to the unease that the stalemate at the front was creating: “What I ask of analysts is that they be more prudent and that their predictions be accurate.” “We need more resources in the long term to get more results in the short term. Be confident, be patient, victory is hard work.”

Irina Vereshchuk, the Ukrainian minister for the Occupied Territories, was more explicit in a statement on August 15, a text that provoked thousands of critical responses on social networks. In the document, Vereshchuk stated: “We have to be honest, the road to victory will be long and hard. We have to prepare for a lasting war. Citizens and authorities, everyone has to adapt to a long and hard war.” The Kyiv Post published an unusual and extensive report with twenty or so testimonies from the capital’s residents who replied to the minister that they refused to accept living in a large-scale war for years. The population’s fatigue is beginning to be a concern for the Ukrainian government, alerted an analysis undertaken by The Economist on August 20. “It may be that after one more year of war, the Ukrainians begin to get tired,” the American expert on Ukraine Paul D’anieri said in an interview last December with this newspaper: “This is how wars usually end, with people who are so tired that they end up accepting things that at first they would not have accepted.

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