Ukraine’s hopes for victory over Russia are slipping away

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It’s hard to ignore the sense of desperation in Ukraine’s corridors of power. Nearing two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, authorities in Kyiv maintain their long-standing entreaty to partners in the West: Deliver us more arms, more aid, more political commitments.

President Volodymyr Zelensky toured Western capitals at the end of last year, pleading for support amid growing international fatigue with the conflict and paralysis in U.S. Congress over new supplemental funding for Kyiv. Around the same time, his top general, Valery Zaluzhny, bemoaned the “stalemate” that had set into place after the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive in 2023 failed to make strategic headway against Russia’s deep defensive lines.

U.S. officials and their Western counterparts, as my colleagues reported over the weekend, anticipate a lean year ahead, where Ukraine’s increasingly exhausted forces focus more on consolidating their defense than chipping away at Russia’s land-grabs. The Kremlin controls roughly a fifth of Ukraine’s internationally-recognized territory — including Crimea, which it illegally annexed in 2014, and a broad sweep of Ukraine’s southeast. The U.S. view of the course of the conflict undercuts Zelensky’s stated ambition of driving Russia out by this October.

Last week, Pentagon officials came empty-handed to a monthly 50-nation coordinating meeting for Ukraine, with future U.S. money for arms and aid snared by domestic politics. On the front lines, reports indicate stocks of ammunition and artillery shells are running low for many Ukrainian units.

“We get asked what’s our plan, but we need to understand what resources we’re going to have,” Ukrainian lawmaker Roman Kostenko told my colleagues. “Right now, everything points to the possibility that we will have less than last year, when we tried to do a counteroffensive and it didn’t work out. … If we will have even less, then it’s clear what the plan will be. It will be defense.”

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Looming far away from the battlefield is the political drama in Washington. House Republicans have already stymied the latest tranche of funding that President Biden is trying to allocate for Kyiv. Analysts believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is holding out for a potential return to power of former president Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential candidate for the November election. Trump may scale back support for Ukraine and take a friendlier view of the Kremlin’s security concerns in Eastern Europe.

As my colleagues reported, the Biden administration and European allies are working on a longer-term, multilateral plan aimed at warding against this scenario and future-proofing support for Ukraine. That includes pledges of economic and security assistance that stretch into the next decade, and may pave the way for Ukraine to get integrated into Western blocs like the European Union and NATO. Biden is set to unveil the U.S. plank of this strategy in the spring.

“The policy holds risks, including political ones, if Ukrainians begin to blame their government for stagnant front lines,” my colleagues wrote. “Likewise, in Western capitals, officials are keenly aware that their citizens’ patience with funding Ukraine’s war is not infinite. Amid the planning, Washington also seems to be readying the argument that, even if Ukraine is not going to regain all of its territory in the near term, it needs significant ongoing assistance to be able to defend itself and become an integral part of the West.”

But, in the near term, both the shortfalls on Ukraine’s front lines and divisions in Washington may cement the fate of the war. “While the first half of 2024 may bring few changes in control of Ukrainian territory, the materiel, personnel training, and casualties that each side accrues in the next few months will determine the long-term trajectory of the conflict,” wrote Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. “The West in fact faces a crucial choice right now: support Ukraine so that its leaders can defend their territory and prepare for a 2025 offensive or cede an irrecoverable advantage to Russia.”

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Russia projects confidence as it pursues alliances to undermine West

The West may have already squandered its best chance to enable Ukraine to fully liberate its territory. In his new book, “Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence,” Wall Street Journal international correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov outlines how Western governments slow-rolled military support to Ukraine out of fear of triggering a possible nuclear-armed escalation with Russia. The United States and its allies have sent Ukraine an unprecedented flow of aid, but critics say the overly careful calibration of that support undermined the Ukrainian war effort.

“The United States and its partners held back from supplying Ukraine with Western-made capabilities at a time when they would have had the biggest effect, and prohibited Kyiv from using Western weapons to strike military targets on Russian soil,” Trofimov wrote, in an adapted excerpt from his book published in The Washington Post. “By the time many of these Western systems did arrive, in the second year of the war, Russia had built up defenses, mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops and switched its industries to wartime footing. The best window of opportunity for a clear and quick Ukrainian victory had disappeared.”

Other experts aren’t so sure, and contend that the Biden administration had a responsibility to avoid a spiraling confrontation with Russia. “More aid, sooner, would have been better — but there’s no guarantee it would have brought a decisive Ukrainian victory,” wrote Bloomberg Opinion columnist Hal Brands. “The best guarantee of that outcome would have been threatening direct military intervention, a strategy that virtually no one wanted to pursue because the risks were so obvious and, potentially, so severe. Indeed, it would have required Biden to more aggressively cross Russia’s red lines at the very moment when uncertainty about Putin’s response was at its peak.”

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Instead, Ukrainians and their boosters lament what could have been after Ukrainian forces surprised virtually everyone in repulsing Russia’s initial offensive on Kyiv and defiantly standing their ground in the early months of the war. “He opened his mouth like a python and thought that we’re just another bunny,” Zelensky told Trofimov in a 2022 interview, referring to Putin. “But we’re not a bunny and it turned out that he can’t swallow us — and is actually at risk of getting torn apart himself.”

Russia, though, has also stood its ground, withstood international sanctions and is preparing for fresh offensives in Ukraine, on top of its incessant, indiscriminate missile barrages into Ukrainian cities. Kyiv knows its ability to resist hinges on foreign backing. “We wouldn’t survive without U.S. support, it’s a real fact,” Zelensky said in a television interview this month.

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