Ukrainian optimism fades at start of another winter

Rumours of tensions at the top, exhaustion after two years of fighting and frustration with allies dampen the mood in Kyiv.

Rumours of tensions at the top, exhaustion after two years of fighting and frustration with allies dampen the mood in Kyiv, notes ‘The Guardian’.

There is a subtle yet unmistakable sense of gloom in Kyiv at the moment, and not only because of the dark afternoons and plunging mercury of an eastern European November. A number of internal and external factors have combined to create perhaps the most downbeat mood about the prospects for a swift and decisive Ukrainian victory over Russia since the first weeks of the full-scale invasion.

“At the end of last year and beginning of this one, there was such euphoria. Now we see the other extreme, the down, and I guess we will see some ups and downs for some time to come,” said Bartosz Cichocki, who last month finished a four-year posting as Poland’s ambassador in Kyiv.

The much-anticipated summer counteroffensive has been thwarted by impenetrable Russian minefields and fortifications. There are rumours of tensions in Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s team, and of a rift between the president and his commander-in-chief, which were reinforced late on Sunday when Zelenskiy fired the head of Ukraine’s military medical forces and called for operational changes in the army.

For the first time since the early stages of the war, some voices have quietly pondered the possibility of ceasefire negotiations, while accepting they would be risky and could benefit Russia. The optimism of six months ago that the defeat of Russia and the return of Donbas and Crimea could be just around the corner has begun to fade. Surveys show that the majority of Ukrainians oppose negotiations with Russia, especially if they would involve acknowledging lost territory.

At the same time, the exhaustion of those who have been at the front since the start of the conflict, the difficulty in mobilising new recruits and the failure of this summer’s counteroffensive to take back territory have led to some cautious voices suggesting that a change of tack is required.

The Hamas attacks on Israel and Israeli assault on Gaza in response have proved tricky for Ukraine in three ways. Firstly, the war in the Middle East has meant that for perhaps the first time since February 2022, Ukraine has not been the main foreign policy issue on most western leaders’ minds for a sustained period of time.

Secondly, it has meant a decrease in ammunition supplies to Ukraine, according to Zelenskiy, which has exacerbated an already crucial problem for the Ukrainian military.

Finally, there is the fallout from Zelenskiy’s decision to line up behind America’s hard pro-Israeli position on the Gaza conflict. He has described Hamas and Russia as “the same evil”. This has undermined a push by Ukraine to broaden alliances in the Middle East and elsewhere outside the west.

With just a year to go until the US presidential election, the potential return of Donald Trump, who frequently claims he would be able to do a quick deal to end the war, is an alarming prospect for many in Kyiv.

Even without Trump in office, Republicans can frustrate the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy. Congress has been unable to pass a new bill on aid to Ukraine since September, with a chunk of Republicans opposed, meaning military shipments to Kyiv have been reduced. Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, travelled to Washington last week to meet Democrats and Republicans in the hope of underlining the importance of continued weapons deliveries.

Zelenskiy eventually ruled out a vote next spring but, elections or not, there are now caveats to wartime unity. Opposition politicians say that when the war is over, questions about Zelenskiy’s preparations in the run-up to the invasion will be revisited.

Cichocki, the Polish former ambassador, said it was clear that in recent months there had been an uptick in political jockeying. “Politics is back in Ukraine,” he said. “The original consolidation of one unified force fighting evil, it’s different now.”

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