Volodymyr Zelenskyy faces a perilous year ahead

Addressing Ukrainian diplomats a few days ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outlined his priorities for 2024.

As the US election approaches, Ukraine’s President is battling domestic unrest, notes British ‘UnHerd’.

Addressing Ukrainian diplomats a few days ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outlined his priorities for 2024. The themes were familiar: strengthening Ukraine’s air defences, gaining more weaponry from allies, and promoting his country’s entry into Nato and the EU.

However, there are far more significant challenges afflicting Ukraine’s leadership as the war-torn nation enters the new year. Top of the President’s in-tray in January will be the issue of mobilisation. A published draft law proposed lowering the conscription age from 27 to 25, while last week Defence Minister Rustem Umerov announced that Ukrainian men living abroad will receive an “invitation” to report for military duty, possibly accompanied by unspecified sanctions should they decline. Both moves are likely to be logistically difficult and unpopular, adding to the domestic dissent already seen last month when women took to Maidan Square demanding their husbands’ demobilisation.

What’s more, at his end-of-year conference on 19 December Zelenskyy said that his military commanders had “proposed to mobilise an additional 450,000 to 500,000 individuals”, including through conscription, for the war effort. While he added that he would require “specifics” and a “comprehensive plan”, Zelenskyy is unlikely to have any choice but to expand conscription. US officials note that Russia already has more troops, ammunition and missiles, with Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council Secretary Oleksii Danilov warning that Russia may move to “total mobilisation” after the March presidential elections.

Another challenge for Ukraine is the task of constructing a new military strategy after the stalled counteroffensive. The New York Times reports that American and Ukrainian officials will work on this during exercises in Germany next month, but cracks have already emerged. Ukraine wants to go on the offensive, either on land or via the use of long-range strikes, but the US would prefer Kyiv to retain what territory it has and spend 2024 developing its weapon production capability, with the goal of bringing Russia to the negotiating table at the end of the year or in early 2025.

To make matters even more challenging, Zelenskyy is planning military strategy under severe pressure and amidst splits within the leadership. Moscow is on the offensive near Avdiivka and on Tuesday Ukraine admitted that it had withdrawn its troops from the town of Maryinka in Donetsk. The victory constitutes Russia’s most significant battlefield gain since Bakhmut in May and — according to President Vladimir Putin — means Russian troops are “pushing the enemy’s combat units away from Donetsk” and can now access “a broader operational space”.

Yet such concerns are paltry compared with the greater, more existential challenge of maintaining Western support. After the US Congress this month failed to approve $60billion of funding for Ukraine, efforts have moved to the Senate where Republican and Democrat negotiators have been trying to hammer out an agreement. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s frontline troops are stressing that a halt to US aid would lead to immediate military and civilian losses. Support from Europe has also been hit by difficulties, with Hungary this month blocking €50 billion of EU aid for Ukraine.

The situation will only become more perilous as the US presidential election approaches in November. With Donald Trump leading in the polls, it is highly doubtful that the likely Republican nominee would guarantee anywhere near the same level of support for Ukraine as Joe Biden. So while Zelenskyy will enter 2024 with a great many difficulties, they may be nothing compared to the troubles awaiting him thereafter.

There is an emerging consensus in the Biden administration that Ukraine is barely hanging on in its war with Russia and that some sort of negotiated settlement will be needed. While this is portrayed as the “long held” policy of President Biden, the truth is it is just the reverse: it has been the Biden administration that has blocked all attempts to broker a peace deal with Russia, writes Stephen Bryen, a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense.

Biden and company have embraced Zelensky for the same reason: Zelensky, who more than a year ago was open to a deal with the Russians, fell into line with Biden’s national security team and even got the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, to pass a law making it unlawful for him to deal with the Russians while the war was going on.

The United States and its NATO allies have poured massive amounts of military hardware and ammunition into Ukraine, have provided the backbone for Ukrainian strategic intelligence, trained Ukrainian troops, and have put advisers in the field, some of whom have been killed in action. If the reports are true about the Russian Iskander strike on Kherson on December 27th, four UK Patriot operators were killed along with 60 other soldiers and police when Russian rockets slammed into the Kherson train depot.

On the battlefield the Ukrainian army is facing defeats. Setbacks are seen nearly everywhere along the line of contact. The Russians have forced the Ukrainians out of Marinka, a strategic Donbas village, and are clearing the villages around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Bradley Square in Zaphorize, and elsewhere. Valery Zaluzhny, overall commander of Ukraine’s military, expects that the town of Avdiivka will fall in the next few months. In fact the Ukrainians either will have to pull out sooner or end up on a suicide mission trying to hold out against devastating attacks.

On the political front cracks are getting wider. Yulia Timoshenko who served as Ukraine’s Prime Minister two times and is now a serving member in Ukraine’s Parliament under the banner of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) political party. She is a supporter of Ukraine’s membership in the EU and NATO. Timoshenko says that the country is at a dead end and is facing defeat.

Politicians who say such things in Ukraine most often are arrested or exiled, or in the case of former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are stopped at the border by Ukraine’s secret service. Even worse happens if they cross Zelensky. Treason charges have recently been brought against politician Oleksandr Dubinsky, and he is not alone.

Ukraine is facing a huge manpower problem as it suffers more and more battlefield casualties. A war of words broke out between Zaluzhny and Zelensky on exactly who ordered a forced recruitment of another 500,000 soldiers. Zaluzhny says he never proposed any number: Zelensky says the armed forces asked him for an additional 500,000 men. In fact, the number is irrelevant.

What is important is that to sign up new soldiers, Ukraine has to use impressment tactics: grabbing men from the street or from apartments, from cars, from clubs, at border crossings and any other place they can be found. The draft age is now between 18 and 60, and a Christmas video of Ukrainian troops gathered together for holiday meals show mainly middle aged and older men, very few young people. As Zaluzhny and others have noted, the older soldiers cannot carry out all the tasks required because they lack the stamina of younger soldiers. Worse still, many of the soldiers do not want to serve.

The forced recruitment of soldiers has negative political implications for Ukraine’s leadership (which is why Zelensky was trying to blame it on Zaluzhny). It also has implications outside of Ukraine, because many draft age men from Ukraine now are in Europe. Ukraine wants them forcibly returned to Ukraine. Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets said Estonia could “hand over” able-bodied Ukrainian men. Other European countries are also considering similar actions.

Ukraine says there will be harsh penalties for draft dodgers with fines and prison sentences up to 8 years. Other than bad health there are no other exemptions available to eligible recruits. As a practical matter this means teachers, scientists, doctors, engineers and all others can be grabbed. As the noose tightens and dragoon measures to grab them step up, support for Zelensky will inevitably drop precipitously, especially in key cities such as Kiev, Odesa and Kharkiv.

Even with the new mobilization, it will take months to train mostly unwilling recruits and put them on the battlefield. By then, Ukraine will have lost even more ground to the Russians.

Russian leaders are well aware that if the United States becomes desperate and fears Ukraine’s collapse, Washington may seek NATO’s actual entry into the war, using abundant air power and other resources to shore up the Ukrainian regime. As a result, Russian planning is careful to try and contain the war to Ukrainian territory, and to incrementally push the Ukrainians back, hoping for a negotiated  deal, and avoiding a direct clash with NATO troops.

Even in the context of the above constraints, the Ukrainians anyway are being pushed back and the Ukraine army could collapse at any point in the near future.  Russia is not likely to accept a cease fire deal without a political settlement, as Putin would lose his standing at home. Zelensky won’t make any political agreement with Russia.

Washington will be watching the situation unfold in the coming days and weeks, and will be worried that the entire landscape of the war could turn deadly negative for Washington and NATO. Since Washington’s under the table efforts to try arranging a ceasefire have not borne any fruit, the only choices are either to enter the war (which means a war in Europe) or to make a deal. If Washington really wants a political deal, Zelensky can’t negotiate it. He will have to go.

Washington may decide the only way out is a coup d’état in Ukraine, replacing Zelensky either with a political or military leader willing to sit down with the Russians, notes Stephen Bryen.

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