While there is much finger-pointing between Ukraine and the West about tactics and decision-making, Kyiv needs immediate delivery of the ammunition, arms and aircraft promised by several Western European governments.
This week, the president acknowledged the calls for him to seek peace and the increasing commentary that Ukraine is potentially now losing the war.
“Despite the opinions and predictions of individual military commanders and representatives of partner states, the timing of the end of the war depends on many factors, including Ukraine’s resilience,” he said.
“War, victory, defeat, stagnation depend on many decisions, many risks, many areas. But mostly, it all depends on us. If we preserve our resilience, we will end the war sooner. If we keep our spirits up.”
Zelensky emphasised that Ukrainians could not cede their country to the enemy and were willing to pursue victory.
“If we preserve all these goals, everything we have, do everything we can, and much more than each of us is capable of, I am confident that we will be able to bring this victory closer,” he said.
But he openly conceded there were “challenges” regarding the amount of aid, artillery shells, anti-tank guided weapons and artillery systems at his army’s disposal.
Needing to boost its forces as the northern winter sets in, Kyiv on Thursday announced that Ukrainian refugees in Europe would be called up to bolster their country’s army. Men aged 25 to 60 would receive a summons to report to Ukrainian army recruitment centres and would face unspecified sanctions if they failed to volunteer.
Zelensky told journalists this week that 450,000-500,000 new soldiers were needed but achieving this was a “sensitive issue”. Figures from EU statistics agency Eurostat in November found that some 768,000 Ukrainian men aged 18-64 had left the country for the EU since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Defence Minister Rustem Umerov said the government wanted “fairness for everyone”.
“It’s about our own country. We are sending them an invitation,” he said. “We are still discussing what should happen if they don’t come voluntarily.”
It comes at a time when polls suggest Ukrainians are losing trust in Zelensky over his handling of Russia’s invasion. A television comic and actor, he was swept to power in 2019 with a mandate from 73 per cent of voters – rich and poor, urban and rural dwellers, Ukrainian and Russian speakers. Bringing peace to eastern Ukraine his number-one election promise, he was viewed with suspicion in Kyiv and by the establishment – even described as dangerously too sympathetic to Russia – with a platform that was both vague and heavily populist.
Internal Ukrainian polling cited last month by The Economist said that Zelensky’s trust ratings were at 32 per cent. The most trusted figure in Ukraine by far is General Valery Zaluzhny, the head of the armed forces, who has a rating of 70 per cent. Kyrylo Budanov, the spy chief, is on 45 per cent.
A presidential election was due in March, but elections were barred under the martial law introduced when Russia invaded. Kyiv has argued that the vote would not be fair because so many soldiers are at the front and millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee the country.
It’s fuelled unprecedented criticism of the country’s wartime leader, with Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, saying Zelensky has become increasingly autocratic. The pair have been at odds since last winter when the president accused him of failing to adequately maintain Kyiv’s bomb shelters.
But his comments last week to Swiss media outlet 20 Minuten were the biggest indication so far of a growing rift among Ukraine’s leadership following its unsuccessful counteroffensive against occupying Russian troops.
“People wonder why we weren’t better prepared for this war, why Zelensky denied until the end that it would come to this,” Klitschko said. “People see who’s effective and who’s not. And there were, and still are, a lot of expectations. Zelensky is paying for mistakes he has made.”
Oleksii Arestovych, a former presidential adviser, has also emerged as one of Zelensky’s biggest critics. He has said he wants to be president and has suggested that Kyiv needs to negotiate with Russia to end the war, something that Zelensky has ruled out.
With cash for Ukraine running out, White House officials have grown increasingly concerned and frustrated. US President Joe Biden’s tone has become notably bleaker: if Ukraine was abandoned and Russia prevailed, Putin could go on to attack a NATO ally and draw the US into war, he said last week.
“We’ll have something that we don’t seek and that we don’t have today: American troops fighting Russian troops.”
Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott made a similar point in a speech in London this week, having last week challenged Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson to ensure Congress support a further $US60 billion ($88.3 billion) military aid package for Ukraine.
“If America and its allies won’t further help the Ukrainians, who are fighting for everyone’s freedom, not just their own, the question must arise: how much stomach is there for any sustained resistance to a nuclear-armed dictator, with a messianic sense of mission, in Europe, or indeed in Asia, convinced that the decadent West is in terminal decline?” he told the Centre for Policy Studies.
Kremlin watchers point out that Putin pays attention to the perceived and real stature of his enemies.
He said on Tuesday that Russia would be prepared to talk to Ukraine, the US and Europe about the future of Ukraine if they wanted to, but that Moscow would defend its national interests. He has repeatedly said he would be prepared to discuss peace, though Western officials say he is waiting for the US presidential election in November before making a genuine effort.
“In Ukraine, those who are aggressive towards Russia, and in Europe and in the United States – do they want to negotiate? Let them. But we will do it based on our national interests,” Putin told a meeting of the defence leadership in Moscow.
“We will not give up what is ours,” Putin said, adding that Russia did not intend to fight with Europe.
As long as Putin sees Ukraine and its allies as shrinking in size, he has no interest in negotiating for peace or pulling back on his war aim – which is, ultimately, the destruction of an independent Ukraine and the undoing of a post-war Europe remade and protected by America.
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