Ukraine’s Deepening Fog of War

The forecasts are anything but optimistic: The best Ukraine can hope for in 2024, many Western officials and analysts say, is to simply hold the line.

Only a year ago, Ukraine was brimming with confidence. It had defied expectations, staving off Russia’s attempt to take over the country. Western nations, buoyed by Ukraine’s success, promised aid to help Ukrainians break through Russian lines.

But the flow of much-needed weapons from allies into the country was unpredictable, and slow. Ukraine’s own domestic arms production was mired in bureaucracy, top military officials have said. And the command structure of the army was not changing quickly enough to manage a force that had expanded from 200,000 troops to nearly a million in a matter of months.

Those weaknesses, and some strategic battlefield missteps, stymied Ukraine’s widely telegraphed counteroffensive, which resulted in only marginal territorial gains. At the same time, Russia was fortifying its defensive lines, converting its economy to war production, conscripting hundreds of thousands of fighters and adjusting its strategy for renewed offensives this winter.

Now, as the war enters its third year, leaders in Kyiv are trying to find a new path forward amid ferocious Russian assaults, while facing a series of daunting unknowns.

The most urgent of these is out of Ukraine’s control: Will the United States Congress come through with billions more in military and economic aid? Without that, Western officials and military analysts have said, Ukraine’s war effort would be at grave risk.

But other issues are within Ukraine’s power to address. Can its civilian leaders muster the will to enact a potentially unpopular mobilization plan to replenish its depleted forces? Can the military command and the civilian government mend the rifts that have divided them and that led to the recent firing of Ukraine’s top general?

“Of course, uncertainty always affects all processes,” Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said in an interview. “We can talk for a very long time now about how the war has changed, because it is completely different than it was in February and March 2022. But the main thing that should be there is certainty.”

For now, Ukraine has to move forward without that certainty. Even as he presses the case for more Western support, President Volodymyr Zelensky is starting to take steps to improve some of the systemic problems under his control.

For instance, Kyiv has added several command headquarters to oversee brigades more efficiently. And while the new top general, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, is a product of the Soviet military system, Mr. Zelensky has installed a younger generation of generals under him who he hopes will bring more innovation to the battlefield.

The minister of defense, Rustem Umerov, has vowed to accelerate the development of ammunition production in Ukraine. He has also introduced a new procurement process to replace a post-Soviet system that was slower and more susceptible to corruption; one goal is to ensure the system integrates more seamlessly with those of other nations.

Another initiative is the Future Force Project, which brings together experts from different departments of the government, with the assistance of NATO partners. Its mission is to better organize the Ukrainian military for the needs of fighting a large-scale war, seeking to improve things like communication and coordination between branches.

It is based on best practices in Western militaries and already has the verbal blessing of the president, military officials said.

Despite these expected changes, military analysts and Western officials have voiced sobering assessments of Ukraine’s chances against a Russian Army with superior troop numbers and ammunition stockpiles, and a clear willingness to sacrifice thousands of soldiers to achieve even small gains.

As Ukraine confronts these imbalances, it also faces the once unthinkable prospect of waging a long war without American military backing.

With U.S. support held up for months by a faction of increasingly isolationist Republicans in Congress, severe shortages of ammunition have contributed to Ukrainian losses — like the brutal and ultimately unsuccessful fight to hold on to Avdiivka — which in turn has led to Ukraine suffering heavier casualties, further straining its already depleted forces.

Ukrainian military commanders will need to find ways to slow that vicious cycle while the political leaders engage in yet another desperate diplomatic push to try to fill the void left by the United States.

Mr. Zelensky must also repair the relationship between the civilian government and the military. The tensions simmered for months amid disagreements over halting mobilization efforts and military priorities competing with the political need to show allies progress.

Military officials were concerned last year that the government wanted a road map for victory without telling them the amount of men, ammunition and reserves they would have to execute any plan, according to Gen. Viktor Nazarov, an adviser to the former commanding general in Ukraine’s army, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny.

“This is what, unfortunately, our political leadership did not understand or did not want to understand when they demanded strategic plans from the military without strategic reserves and resources,” General Nazarov said in an interview.

General Zaluzhny leveled many of these same criticisms at the government before his dismissal. In an essay for CNN, for example, he contended that regulatory and production issues had hampered the defense industry, leading to “production bottlenecks — in ammunition, for instance — which further deepen Ukraine’s dependence on its allies for supplies.”

Both men were dismissed in Mr. Zelensky’s military shake-up early this month. But Mr. Zelensky named General Zaluzhny a “Hero of Ukraine” and shared a public embrace in an effort to demonstrate unity. And General Nazarov said the disagreements should not obscure the fact that the military and civilian government wanted the same thing: victory. Without that, he said, there is no military and there is no government.

Officials in the president’s office declined requests for interviews.

Despite the public tensions between the civilian administration and the military command, Mr. Zelensky may have some room to maneuver as he tries to patch up the relationship.

Though his rating in opinion polls has slipped slightly, he still enjoys broad public support. Almost 70 percent of Ukrainians believe he should remain in office for however long the country is under martial law, and that elections should be postponed until it is lifted, according to a survey released this week by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

Mr. Zelensky and the military leadership are in lock step in professing that they are not interested in any cease-fire that would be struck on terms favorable to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

The Ukrainian leader has said time and again that Russia needs to relinquish any territory it has captured. He has also emphasized that any pause in fighting would not lead to the end of the war. It would simply give Russia time to rearm.

Kyiv’s position is “not only about the territory, but also about the security,” Mr. Zelensky told Fox News on Thursday. The world, he said, should know by now that Mr. Putin simply cannot be trusted.

At the moment, General Syrsky has conceded, the initiative has shifted to the Russians and Ukraine must focus on strategic defense — maximizing Russian losses while fighting smartly to preserve its own fighting force.

General Syrsky has also spoken about the need to increase domestic arms production as well as developing and exploiting new technologies. But, like his predecessor, he will have to make strategic plans without knowing fully what resources his army will have at its disposal.

Simply put, he needs more soldiers.

That challenge is in Kyiv’s control, but the government has yet to reveal a plan to deal with it.

A bill that would overhaul the mobilization process — and potentially add up to 500,000 conscripts — is making its way through the Ukrainian Parliament. But lawmakers nervous about the political ramifications have already added some 1,300 amendments to the proposed law and it is not clear when it will be ready for a vote.

Beyond the thorny politics of the issue, Mr. Zelensky must demonstrate to the public the dire need for new troops without undermining morale, causing social unrest or damaging the already battered economy.

As the world assesses Ukraine’s prospects and the Kremlin pushes a narrative meant to convince onlookers that it cannot be beaten, Mr. Zelensky must work equally hard to show that Ukraine can win.

On Saturday, the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Mr. Zelensky visited the shuttered airport at Hostomel outside Kyiv, where Ukrainians soldiers fought back Russian paratroopers in a key early battle that helped save the capital.

“Any normal person wants the war to end,” Mr. Zelensky said in a video recording. “But none of us will allow our country to end.”

“That is why we always add ‘on our terms’ to the words about ending the war,” he said. “That is why the word ‘independent’ will always stand next to the word ‘Ukraine’ in future history. Let’s fight for it. And we will win.”

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