Ukraine is heading for defeat

The West’s failure to send weapons to Kyiv is helping Putin win his war.

Just ask a Ukrainian soldier if he still believes the West will stand by Kyiv “for as long as it takes.” That pledge rings hollow when it’s been four weeks since your artillery unit last had a shell to fire, as one serviceman complained from the front lines.

It’s not just that Ukraine’s forces are running out of ammunition. Western delays over sending aid mean the country is dangerously short of something even harder to supply than shells: the fighting spirit required to win.

Morale among troops is grim, ground down by relentless bombardment, a lack of advanced weapons, and losses on the battlefield. In cities hundreds of miles away from the front, the crowds of young men who lined up to join the army in the war’s early months have disappeared. Nowadays, eligible would-be recruits dodge the draft and spend their afternoons in nightclubs instead. Many have left the country altogether.

As I discovered while reporting from Ukraine over the past month, the picture that emerged from dozens of interviews with political leaders, military officers, and ordinary citizens was one of a country slipping towards disaster.

Even as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Ukraine is trying to find a way not to retreat, military officers privately accept that more losses are inevitable this summer. The only question is how bad they will be. Vladimir Putin has arguably never been closer to his goal.

“We know people are flagging and we hear it from regional governors and from the people themselves,” Andriy Yermak, Zelenskyy’s powerful chief of staff, told POLITICO. Yermak and his boss travel together to “some of the most dangerous places” to rally citizens and soldiers for the fight, he said. “We tell people: ‘Your name will be in the history books.’”

If the tide doesn’t turn soon in this third year of Russia’s invasion, it will be the nation of Ukraine as it currently exists that is consigned to the past.

For a war of such era-defining importance, the scale of Western leaders’ actions to help Kyiv repel Russia’s invaders has fallen far short of their soaring rhetoric. That disappointment has left Ukrainians of all ranks — from the soldiers digging trenches to ministers running the country — weary and irritable.

When POLITICO asked Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba if he felt the West had left Ukraine to fight with one hand tied behind its back, his verdict was clear: “Yes, I do,” he said, in an interview in his office, an hour after another Russian mid-morning missile attack.

Zelenskyy has laid out the stakes even more starkly, saying Ukraine “will lose the war” if the U.S. Congress does not step up and supply aid.

Increasingly it looks as if Putin’s bet that he can grind down Ukrainian resistance and Western support might pay off.

Without a major step-change in the supply of advanced Western weapons and cash, Ukraine won’t be able to liberate the territories Putin’s forces now hold. That will leave Putin free to gnaw on the wounded country in the months or years ahead. Even if Russia can’t finish Ukraine off, a partial victory will leave Kyiv’s hopes of joining the EU and NATO stuck in limbo.

The ramifications of such an outcome will be serious for the world. Putin will claim victory at home, and, emboldened by exposing Western weaknesses, he may reinvigorate his wider imperial ambitions abroad. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are especially fearful they are next on his hit list. China, already an increasingly reliable partner for Moscow, will see few reasons to alter its stance.
Putin’s big target is Ukraine’s second largest city

Right now, Ukraine’s most urgent need is for artillery shells — millions of them. Moreover, Ukraine says it needs at least two dozen Patriot air-defense systems to protect troops on the front lines and to defend Kharkiv, the country’s biggest city after Kyiv, which has been under ferocious missile and artillery attack for weeks.

Fears are growing that Russia may target Ukraine’s second city for a ground offensive soon.

“It’s symbolic because they say that Kharkiv was the first capital of Ukraine. It’s a big target,” Zelenskyy said in an interview with POLITICO’s parent company Axel Springer media outlets last week.

Ukraine’s military is braced for more losses in the coming months. Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander in chief of the armed forces, has warned that the situation on Ukraine’s eastern front has “significantly deteriorated in recent days.” As Zelenskyy himself put it elsewhere, “We are trying to find some way not to retreat.”

The fears about the fragility of the front lines are only compounded by an unprecedented barrage of Russian attacks intended to knock out Ukraine’s electricity networks.

In recent meetings with POLITICO, the country’s political leaders acknowledged that public spirits are sagging, and although they all tried to stay upbeat, frustration with the West came through in every conversation.

“Give us the damn Patriots,” snapped Kuleba, Ukraine’s chief diplomat. Sitting for an interview in the foreign ministry, he couldn’t hide his exasperation with the delays, and the strings that come attached to Western weaponry — like not striking Russian oil facilities.

Kuleba, of course, offered his unconditional gratitude for all the support that has come from the Western allies over the past two years. But he warned that Ukraine is trapped in a vicious cycle: The weapons it needs are withheld or delayed; then Western allies complain that Kyiv is on the retreat, making it less likely they’ll send more aid in future. (Since POLITICO’s meeting with Kuleba, Germany has agreed to supply Patriots, but the question still remains whether they will prove sufficient.)

The mood in the senior ranks of the military is even darker than Kuleba’s.

Several senior officers talked to POLITICO only on the understanding they would not be named so they could talk freely. They painted a grim forecast of frontlines potentially collapsing this summer when Russia, with greater weight of numbers and a readiness to accept huge casualties, launches its expected offensive. Perhaps worse, they expressed private fears that Ukraine’s own resolve could be weakened, with morale in the armed forces undermined by a desperate shortage of supplies.

Ukrainian commanders are crying out for more combat soldiers — one estimate from the former top commander, Valeriy Zaluzhny suggested they’d need an extra 500,000 troops.

But Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian parliament are hesitant about ordering a massive fresh call-up. In an interview with POLITICO, Yermak, the powerful Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, offered an important — and to outsiders perhaps surprising — reason for not launching a mass mobilization: such a call-up wouldn’t have the backing of the people. Zelenskyy is still “president of the people,” he said. “For him, that’s very important, and it’s very important that the people do something not just because they’re ordered to do it.”

And there’s the rub. The West has failed to come up with what’s needed, and it in turn is undermining Ukraine’s will to do what it takes.

The country is facing an existential crisis — Putin literally wants to scratch it from the map — and yet there apparently isn’t enough public support for a new draft.
Young Ukrainians are dodging the military draft

Admittedly, Ukraine is no different from its neighboring European countries where recent opinion polls suggest large numbers would refuse to be conscripted even if their nations were under attack. But Ukraine is the country at war. An existential fight like this can’t be won without mobilizing the entire nation.

And yet, as the conflict continues, Ukrainians living in Kyiv and the center and west of the country — away from the front lines — appear in some ways to be ready to put up with war raging in the east, as long as they can get back to their normal lives.

Hence, there is draft-dodging: eligible young recruits find other things to do with their time, packing into hipster bars and techno clubs in the late afternoons.

Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion now serving as Kyiv’s mayor, said he understood why people wanted to get back to normal, arguing that it is healthy. He told POLITICO the desire to resume daily activities was an expression of defiance in the face of Putin’s attempts to wear the people down.

Maybe so. But faced with a relentless enemy, driving home its advantage against a badly equipped army of defenders, such a hands-off attitude seems high risk.

As Ukraine’s ousted chief commander Zaluzhny found to his cost, rational warnings that things may not turn out well can get commentators and analysts in trouble. But suspending critical thinking won’t win this war either.

The West has placed too much faith in sanctions, believing they’d bring Russia to heel. There’s also beenwishful thinking about Russians turning on Putin over casualty figures, or hopes he may be ousted in a Kremlin coup. Instead Russia’s economy has remained resilient and Putin has strengthened his grip on power.

It’s true that before launching the 2022 invasion, the Russian leader may have been misled by his bungling intelligence chiefs into believing a short war would offer a quick win.

But Putin can afford to wait. Last month he awarded himself another six-year term as president. He can settle for a stalemate: Keeping Ukraine stuck between victory and defeat, shut out of both NATO and the EU, would still amount to a win.

And what would a deadlocked conflict do to Ukrainian resilience?

The early burst of patriotic fervor which saw draft centers swamped with volunteers has evaporated. An estimated 650,000 men of fighting age have fled their country, most by smuggling themselves across the border.

Two years ago, the trains heading out of Ukraine were almost exclusively carrying women, children and the elderly to seek refuge. This week, around a third of the passengers on one train carrying this correspondent out of the country were men of fighting age. Somehow they’d managed to get waiver papers to leave.

In Zelenskyy’s presidential office in Bankova Street, his officials insist they are still positive. But that Western aid, especially President Joe Biden’s long-delayed $60 billion package of support, can’t wait much longer.

What would Putin do if Ukraine doesn’t get the Western help it needs to win? “He would completely destroy everything. Everything,” Zelenskyy told Axel Springer media. Ukrainian cities will be reduced to rubble; hundreds of thousands will die, he said.

“People will not run away, most of them, and so he will kill a lot of people. So how it will look like? A lot of blood.”

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