Ukraine ends year disappointed by stalemate with Russia, and anxious about aid from allies

Dec 20, 2023, 10:17 PM

Ukrainian servicemen walk through a charred forest at the frontline a few kilometers from Andriivka...

Ukrainian servicemen walk through a charred forest at the frontline a few kilometers from Andriivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

(AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

The year started with high hopes for Ukrainian troops planning a counteroffensive against Russia. It ended with disappointment on the battlefield, an increasingly somber mood among troops and anxiety about the future of Western aid for Ukraine’s war effort.

In between, there was a short-lived rebellion in Russia, a dam collapse in Ukraine, and the spilling of much blood on both sides of the conflict.

Twenty-two months since it invaded, Russia has about one-fifth of Ukraine in its grip, and the roughly 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line has barely budged this year.

A crunch has come away from the battlefield. In Western countries that have championed Ukraine’s struggle against its much bigger adversary, political deliberations over billions in financial aid are increasingly strained.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a waiting game two years into a war that proved to be a costly miscalculation by the Kremlin. He is wagering that the West’s support will gradually crumble, fractured by political divisions, eroded by war fatigue and distracted by other demands, such as China’s menacing of Taiwan and war in the Middle East.

The international political outlook could turn sharply in Putin’s favor after next November’s elections in the United States — by far Ukraine’s biggest military supplier and where some Republican candidates are pushing to wind down support for its war.

Nearly half of the U.S. public believes the country is spending too much on Ukraine, according to polling published in November by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

“The political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic is changing,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. “Transatlantic solidarity has been steady. But I don’t think it will remain steady forever.”

The shifting sentiment could benefit Putin, analysts say, as he seeks at least to keep Ukraine in limbo and eventually compel it to accept a bad deal to end the war. Putin announced in early December that he will run for reelection in March, all but guaranteeing he keeps his repressive grip on Russia for at least another six years.

“It’s been a good year, I would even actually call it a great year” for Putin, says Mathieu Boulegue, a consulting fellow for the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House think tank in London.

Western sanctions are biting but not crippling the Russian economy. Russian forces are still dictating much of what happens on the battlefield, where its defensive lines feature minefields up to 20 kilometers (12 miles) deep that have largely held back Ukraine’s monthslong counteroffensive.

The counteroffensive was launched before Ukraine’s forces were fully ready, a hurried political attempt to demonstrate that Western aid could alter the course of the war, said Marina Miron of the Defense Studies Department of King’s College London.

“The expectations (for the counteroffensive) were unrealistic,” she said. “It turned out to be a failure.”

Putin got a victory he desperately wanted in May in the fight for the bombed-out city of Bakhmut, the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. It was a trophy to show Russians after his army’s winter offensive failed to take other Ukrainian cities and towns along the front line.

A mutiny in June by the Wagner mercenary group was the biggest challenge to Putin’s authority in his more than two decades in power. But it backfired. Putin defused the revolt and kept the allegiance of his armed forces, reasserting his hold on the Kremlin.

Wagner chief and mutiny leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a mysterious plane crash. And any public dissent about the war was quickly and heavy-handedly stamped out by Russian authorities.

Still, Putin has had setbacks. He fell afoul of the International Criminal Court, which in March issued an arrest warrant for him on war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. That made it impossible for him to travel to many countries.

Ukraine has so far clawed back about half the land that the Kremlin’s forces occupied in their full-scale invasion in February 2022, according to the U.S., but it’s going to be hard to win back more.

The big Ukrainian push fell far short of its ambitions, even though Western countries had given Kyiv a variety of weapons and training.

That has raised uncomfortable questions in the West about the best way forward. “We’re in a very awkward moment now,” said Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Russians have been ruthless in their determination to stop the Ukrainians punching through their lines. They were suspected of sabotaging the major Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine, having possessed the means, motive and opportunity to do so. The dam’s collapse flooded a huge area where Ukrainian forces might have may have been able to break through.

For its part, Ukraine has proved able to strike far behind enemy lines, even hitting Moscow with long-range drones. It has bloodied Russia’s nose by hitting with missiles and drones a key bridge in Moscow-annexed Crimea, oil depots and airfields, and the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol.

By showing it can strike in the Black Sea, Ukraine has been able to push Russian warships away from the coast, although not entirely. At one point, Russia turned its sights on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports — a vital conduit to global trade — and its farming infrastructure, destroying enough food to feed more than 1 million people for a year, the U.K. government said.

Yet while Russia has endured huge losses of troops and equipment, the country possesses the scale to soak up those setbacks.

Putin, who foreign officials say has secured large supplies of ammunition from North Korea, has put together a state budget that devotes a record amount to defense as it increases spending by around 25% in 2024-2026. He has also ordered the country’s military to increase the number of troops by nearly 170,000 to more than 1.3 million.

For Ukraine, the challenge is resourcing another offensive operation. Its troops are motivated but exhausted, analysts say.

Zelenskyy has tirelessly lobbied Western leaders to keep help coming, aware they are his country’s lifeline. He has traveled to Washington three times in the past two years.

U.S President Joe Biden traveled to Kyiv last February in a display of Western solidarity. He now wants Congress to grant an additional $50 billion for the war in Ukraine.

Support for Kyiv shows signs of fraying, however. Biden’s proposal is stuck in a divided Senate.

Zelenskyy scored a diplomatic victory late in the year when the European Union granted Ukraine accelerated talks on joining the bloc. But even that triumph was tempered by the knowledge that the process could take years, as could clinching NATO membership.

And the EU’s denial of 50 billion euros ($55 billion) in aid to help keep the battered Ukrainian economy going was frustrating for Kyiv.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni perhaps expressed the predicament most succinctly in November when she inadvertently told a pair of Russian prank callers that “there is a lot of fatigue” on the issue of Ukraine.

“We are near the moment in which everybody understands that we need a way out,” she said.


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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Ukraine ends year disappointed by stalemate with Russia, and anxious about aid from allies