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Western Weapons In Doubt, Ukraine Ponders How Long It Can Hold Out

Ukrainian soldiers fire toward Russian positions from a trench on the front line in the Zaporizhzhya region, where Kyiv's forces have made minimal gains and encountered formidable Russian fortifications. (file photo)
Ukrainian soldiers fire toward Russian positions from a trench on the front line in the Zaporizhzhya region, where Kyiv's forces have made minimal gains and encountered formidable Russian fortifications. (file photo)

Ukraine is slowly losing ground, men, morale, support from the West -- and possibly the war against Russia.

Not since the opening weeks following Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, when its forces seemed poised to capture the Ukrainian capital and force the government to capitulate, has the outlook for Ukraine's military commanders and its political leadership been so gloomy.

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On the battlefield, a six-month counteroffensive that began with high hopes undergirded by Western weaponry and equipment has all but ground to a halt. Russian forces are advancing in some places, albeit with significant losses.

Politically, Ukrainians are beginning to show impatience and frustration with the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, with new polling showing sliding support, while also showing growing support for the country's top military commander. Prominent public figures have started openly criticizing Zelenskiy.

Diplomatically, rhetorical support from Ukraine's Western allies remains strong, but the tap of Western weaponry and supplies is slowing to a trickle. Mired in domestic political infighting, the United States, Kyiv’s biggest weapons supplier, has abandoned efforts to push through an emergency $61 billion package until after the New Year.

"Ukraine remains in a strong position to blunt further Russian offensives. But it faces serious challenges of its own, particularly when it comes to manpower," said Eric Ciaramella, a former White House National Security Council director for Ukraine.

"If the United States and Europe fail to approve any new aid, Ukraine's ability to hold the line will deteriorate steadily," Ciaramella told RFE/RL. "It will be a policy failure of historic proportions if [the West] can't figure out how to stay the course."

'We Are Not Losing This War. Absolutely.'

In Ukraine, the impatience with the trajectory of the war -- and the counteroffensive in particular -- is coupled with impatience for the West's unwillingness to step up its supplies. Ukrainian officials frequently frame their fight as a defense of Europe, as well as a low-cost investment in degrading Russia's armed forces.

But defiant optimism prevails, Oleksandr Musiyenko, a Ukrainian military analyst and head of the Center for Military and Legal Studies in Kyiv, insisted.

"Ukraine is not losing this war. Ukraine is continuing to battle. We are not losing this war. Absolutely," he said.

"Ukrainians are wounded; bitter but not broken," said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House, a London think tank.

An ambitious counteroffensive launched in June ran into a buzz saw of Russian defenses -- minefields, trenches, tank traps, choke points – that have all but immobilized Ukrainian forces. Small gains near the Zaporizhzhya region village of Robotyne have stopped, with Ukrainian forces pinned down and unable to move.

Near the industrial city of Avdiyivka, Russian forces launched their own localized offensive in October, making slow, grinding progress toward encircling the city from the north and south, advancing 1 1/2 to 2 kilometers in some places. Western officials say Russia's losses in and around Avdiyivka, which is just northwest of the regional capital, Donetsk, have been extraordinary: more than 13,000 dead and wounded, and the equivalent of six combat battalions in equipment destroyed.

But even what was initially seen as a bright spot in Ukrainian tactical creativity -- an ambitious crossing across the Dnieper River, to set up a bridgehead on the Russian-occupied eastern bank -- has failed to match expectations.

Ukrainian marine infantry are pinned down in the village of Krynky, unable to break out beyond withering Russian fire or set up a more durable means of crossing that would enable them to bring over heavier weaponry and equipment.

"Ukrainians will face very difficult months ahead as an insufficient number of artillery shells and underdeveloped fortifications will limit their defensive potential," Konrad Muzyka, a Polish-based military analyst, wrote last week. "The loss of terrain, especially around Robotyne (including the village itself), is highly likely."

"The Ukrainian counteroffensive has culminated without strategic victories," said Oscar Jonsson, a Russia military expert and researcher at the Swedish Defense University, in Stockholm. "It fell short of its goals and has run out of steam."

Russia, meanwhile, has tried to turn the momentum in its favor -- with only mixed results so far.

"As the counteroffensive wound down, the Russian forces sought to seize the initiative, and launched substantial offensives to large cost," he said. "But so far, small gains."

The reality is Russia is a bigger country, with a bigger population and a bigger industrial base, not to mention having more resources to pour into its budget. And while there is glaring evidence of past incompetence, Russian commanders have learned from their mistakes.

"Russia is trying to regain the strategic initiative, which it has lost, and [has been] on the defensive since the autumn of 2023," Lutsevych told RFE/RL in an e-mail. "We [have not] seen a decisive battle so far and this war may well be the death of one of the sides by a 'thousand cuts.'"

Ukraine has achieved some successes since the start of the counteroffensive. A series of strikes using cruise missiles and aerial and maritime drones damaged several Russian naval vessels and facilities on the Black Sea. Fleet commanders pulled ships further from shore and away from ports in occupied Crimea, and moved them to more distant ports.

With notable losses of men and equipment -- no official casualty figures have been released -- Ukrainian commanders were forced to wind down offensive operations. Add to that the recognition that Ukrainian troops are running out of ammunition, including some of their most important tools: artillery shells.

"There's a problem with ammunition, especially post-Soviet [shells]. That's 122 mm, 152 mm. And today these problems exist across the entire front line," Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavskiy said in an interview with Reuters this week.

"The volumes that we have today are not sufficient for us today, given our needs. So, we're redistributing them," he was quoted as saying. "We're rethinking plans for objectives that we had set for ourselves and scaling them back because we need to provide for them."

Manpower problems are also weighing heavily on Ukrainian commanders. Ukraine's population is motivated and patriotic, committed to defending the country from an outside invader -- but it's also a fraction of the size of Russia's. That, plus the unrelenting casualties from the front line, has led some officials to suggest mobilization might be needed for Ukraine to conscript more men.

"It is not even conceivable to think that we can do without mobilization," Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, said earlier this week. No amount of recruiting will result in enough troops, he warned.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy talks to reporters at his end-of-year press conference on December 19.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy talks to reporters at his end-of-year press conference on December 19.

At a year-end news conference in Kyiv on December 19, Zelenskiy hinted that was under discussion, saying commanders recommended mobilizing 450,000 to 500,000 men next year.

"This is a very serious number. I said that I need more arguments to support this direction, because it is primarily a people issue," Zelenskiy said.

How Long?

The White House announced its latest weapons and equipment shipment for Ukraine last week: a $200 million package that includes artillery rounds, small-arms ammunition, and other weaponry. In a letter to Congress three days later, the U.S. Defense Department comptroller said the Pentagon would run out of money for weaponry for Ukraine by the end of December unless Congress approved new funding. The letter was first reported by Bloomberg.

On December 19, U.S. senators gave up on negotiations to pass a $61 billion package of new Ukraine aid, along with sweeping reforms to U.S. immigration and border policies. Senate leaders say they’ll return to negotiations after the New Year holidays. Days earlier, the European Union failed to agree on its own 50 billion-euro aid package for Ukraine, after Hungary objected.

At his news conference -- which took place hours before U.S. senators gave up on negotiations until January, Zelenskiy maintained optimism. "I am sure that the United States of America will not betray us and that what we agreed with the United States will be fully implemented," he said.

The lack of concrete long-term commitments to Ukraine is problematic for Kyiv and beneficial for Moscow, allowing Russia to just "hang in there" and wait out the West, said Ciaramella, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"While it reduces Ukrainian morale and dims the prospect of a theory of victory, the Ukrainian side has showed an incredible resolve in the face of overwhelming challenges before. Moreover, the [military] still maintains an overwhelming trust in society," Jonsson said.

Resolve and trust can only go so far, analysts warn.

"If there is a gap in materiel supply in 2024, Ukraine may be forced to retreat," Lutsevych told RFE/RL. "If there is political disunity, friction, paralysis from the West to [supply] resources, the Kremlin will get the upper hand."

That trend -- of frustration, but also defiance -- was reflected in a poll published on December 18 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

The commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhniy (file photo)
The commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhniy (file photo)

Trust in Zelenskiy fell to 62 percent, the poll found, compared with 84 percent a year earlier. Overall trust in the military remained high, at 96 percent, as did strong support for the country's top military officer, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy. The telephone poll of 1,031 Ukrainians was conducted between November 29 and December 9, and had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

Some observers see Zaluzhniy as a possible political challenger to Zelenskiy, particularly after the general gave a blunt assessment of the battlefield, calling it a "stalemate" in comments published by The Economist. Kyiv's powerful mayor, Vitali Klitschko, has accused Zelenskiy of authoritarianism.

"Some are disappointed because of expectations, expectations were to [achieve] more, but what I can see is that the mood is normal," Musiyenko said. "Soldiers and sergeants, they understand what's happening. They understand that they had some problems with support, with weapons, with communications, with strongholds of Russian positions, minefields, but they're not so disappointed [that] they want to just...stop this fighting."

How long Ukraine could hold out if Western weaponry was cut off is unclear.

"By early summer, Ukraine will be hard-pressed to hold back Russian attacks. Eventually, its front will crack, and the Russians will make major territorial gains. Complete collapse might follow,” said Mark Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine officer and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington.

Still, Ukrainian officials have signaled that they were slowing the tempo of offensive operations to fortify defenses, and build new ones.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, a top adviser to Zelenskiy, said earlier this month that commanders were already moving to different tactics -- "effective defense in certain areas, continuation of offensive operations in other areas, special strategic operations on the Crimean Peninsula and in the Black Sea waters, and significantly reformatted missile defense of critical infrastructure."

A cutoff of Western military supplies could potentially push Zelenskiy to open cease-fire negotiations with Russia, a step that would be fraught with political consequences in Ukraine. In any case, Putin and the Kremlin have signaled clearly that they believe they have the upper hand and would want to dictate the terms of any agreement.

At his own year-end press conference last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the goals he laid out when launching the invasion, which amount to the subjugation of Ukraine, remain unchanged.

Some experts predict a dire situation for Ukrainian forces without Western weaponry; the direst warnings suggest Russian troops would push westward, all the way to Ukraine's border with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.

"It's almost a philosophical question," Jonsson said of how long Ukraine could hold out. He pointed to the Taliban, who were defeated by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that began in 2001 but held out for 20 years until the U.S. withdrawal.

"It is not to suggest that it should be Ukraine's strategy," he said. "It is a reminder that a determined but militarily and economically inferior part can endure the capacity of superpowers."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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