Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 23 February 2024

 No end in sight for war-weary Ukrainians ‘fighting a monster’

Kyiv still wants victory but fears its allies are less committed, write Marc Bennetts and Kateryna Malofieieva
Yelena Burainchenko suffered facial injuries during shelling in Kharkiv last year

It has been two years since Ukrainians were able to go to sleep at night safe in the knowledge that a Russian cruise missile would not come crashing through their roofs. Two years since President Putin, ruled by his own dark obsessions, launched a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, created millions of refugees and plunged the West into its biggest security crisis since the defeat of Nazi Germany — and there is no end in sight.

As Ukraine marks the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion today, the Kremlin’s forces are on the offensive across much of the 620-mile front line. Last week Putin’s army took control of Avdiivka, an industrial town in the eastern Donetsk region that was a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Its fall, which could open the way for Russia to seize further territory, came after political rows in Europe and the United States over additional aid for Ukraine that left Kyiv’s forces with dwindling ammunition supplies. Russia is thought to have at least five times as many shells as Ukraine across the front line. “The situation is extremely difficult in several parts of the front — exactly where the Russian troops have concentrated the maximum reserves. They are taking advantage of delays in assistance to Ukraine,” President Zelensky said this week.


Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, had no hesitation when asked if he still believed that Kyiv’s forces could drive out Russia’s invading army. “There are three components that Ukraine requires — weapons, weapons, and more weapons,” he said. In some of the angriest comments made by a senior Ukrainian official about the failure of its allies to provide Kyiv with sufficient firepower, Danilov suggested that not everyone in the West wanted Ukraine to win the war. “If they did, they would supply us with modern weapons in a timely manner,” he said. His spoke shortly before the German parliament voted down a proposal to send powerful Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine.

“I lost my nephew in this war. My godson had part of his leg torn off,” he said. “So many people have lost their children, their parents, or their wives or husbands. And the West closes its eyes to this, it does not want to respond adequately to this. They are not killing you, after all.”

The fall of Avdiivka could have been prevented had Ukraine received the F-16 fighter jets that it had long sought before Washington finally approved their deployment last August, Danilov said. It is still unclear exactly when they will arrive in Ukraine. As Russia was poised to seize Avdiivka, its warplanes pounded Ukrainian troops with waves of powerful KAB guided aerial bombs, causing massive destruction. “If we had had the F-16s, they couldn’t have done this,” he said. “We could have chased them out of our territory.”

For Ukrainians, the war against Russia began not two years ago but in 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Crimea and sent troops into their eastern Donbas region. In Kyiv, officials believe that the West’s muted reaction to Putin’s aggression led to his decision to launch a full-scale invasion in 2022.

“If, back then, the West had taken more decisive steps, then it’s likely that we would not have today’s conflict,” General Viktor Muzhenko, who was the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces from 2014 to 2019, said.

Muzhenko also said that if Russia managed to defeat Ukraine, the Kremlin would probably exploit the country’s resources, including its population, to push on further into Europe. “It will use Ukraine to increase its capabilities,” he said. A number of western officials have warned that Russia could attack a Nato state if it emerges victorious in Ukraine.

Yet Danilov said that the West was still too wary of provoking Russia. “If you are afraid of a dog, it will definitely bite you,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. Russia’s aims don’t only concern our country. If the West has no desire to fight Russia on the territory of the European Union, on Nato territory, then it has to resolve this issue here together with us.”


Across Ukraine, the word peremoga — victory — is emblazoned on billboards, car bumper stickers and television screens, and uttered thousands of times a day by politicians, military leaders and citizens. According to a recent poll, 85 per cent of Ukrainians still believe victory is possible. However, it is increasingly unclear what that would look like. Would it mean expelling Russian troops from all of the territories under the Kremlin’s control since 2014, including Crimea? Or regaining control over the towns and cities seized by Putin’s forces since 2022? Or withstanding Putin’s onslaught until instability or political change in Russia itself brings an end to its invasion?

“Whether or not I believe in victory is a tough question. Because I haven’t yet defined for myself what victory would be for me,” Ivan Skuratovskiy, a 33- year-old Ukrainian army captain who has been fighting Russian forces since 2014, said. “But when everything is over, after many more people have died, I will not be ashamed. I gave all my youth to the trenches, and I will keep going until the end.”

Although it is now on the back foot, Ukraine has already pulled off a series of spectacular victories, from driving Russia out of the city of Kherson and the Kharkiv region to the destruction of a significant chunk of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. “Victory is such a vast concept right now,” Muzhenko said. “But the destruction of Russian military groups on the territory of Ukraine with a gradual move towards our [internationally recognised] borders is entirely possible. But for that, the quality of our weapons has to surpass those of our enemy’s.”


Since day one of the war, Putin and other Russian officials have threatened to use nuclear weapons against western countries over their support for Ukraine. Last week Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s national security council, said that Moscow would unleash its entire nuclear arsenal on Berlin, Kyiv, London and Washington, if Russia was facing defeat.

Russian state television recently broadcast footage of Putin on board a modernised Tu-160M nuclear-capable strategic bomber. Even if the war in Ukraine ends without the use of nuclear missiles, a Russian victory would make their future use inevitable, Oleksandr Danylyuk, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London said. Ukraine’s defeat by Russia would prove to non-nuclear countries that the only way to protect themselves against nuclear-armed neighbours was to acquire their own arsenals, Danylyuk said. “Given the increasing number of countries possessing nuclear arsenals, their practical use in a conflict [would be] only a matter of time. Breaking the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons would create a new reality.”


Although outnumbered and outgunned, Ukraine has used combat drones to take the fight to Russia. Last year two drones exploded over the Kremlin, showing Putin that Ukraine had the ability to strike at the very heart of Moscow. Ukrainian drones have hit military facilities up to 300 miles inside Russia. It has also carried out drone attacks on energy facilities in recent weeks, aimed at hurting Moscow’s ability to send fuel to frontline troops. Since the start of the year alone, Ukrainian strikes are estimated to have damaged six oil refineries.

Kyiv is also planning to produce thousands of long-range drones that can reach as far as Moscow and St Petersburg, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, told Reuters. Zelensky has also set Ukraine the task of producing one million shorter range drones, which could help Kyiv’s forces compensate to some extent for its shortage of artillery shells. “Technology can really save us,” Fedorov said.


If the Kremlin’s bombs have twisted Ukraine’s landscapes into grotesque, barely recognisable shapes, then Putin’s ruthless war on dissent at home has also transformed Russia, enfolding it in a darkness that has not been witnessed since Joseph Stalin’s bloody reign.

The death of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, in prison last week extinguished any lingering hopes that democratic change could be possible. “As long as Putin is in power, the war will not stop. There may be a decrease in the fighting, there may even be truces. But Russia will not abandon its intention to put an end to Ukraine in its current form,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, said.

“Putin expects that Kyiv will capitulate. But if he dies tomorrow, then for a significant part of the Russian elite it will simply be enough to get a chunk of [Ukrainian] land. They don’t have the same ambitions and they are not under the illusion that Kyiv will surrender.”

Its people may be suffering, but after the atrocities that the Russian army has committed in Putin’s name the vast majority of Ukrainians will not countenance the idea of admitting defeat to Moscow. “We are fighting a monster, a huge monster,” Serhii Piven, a Ukrainian lieutenant-colonel who has been decorated for bravery, said. “David will eventually defeat Goliath. But this year will be very, very hard.”

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