In more ways than one, Ukraine is facing a crunch that could topple the Zelensky government.
Ukraine’s situation has worsened since the failure of the much advertised Ukrainian “counter” offensive. Focused mainly on the Zaphorize area, but also including renewed emphasis on trying to return to Bakhmut, the entire enterprise stalled. Ukraine suffered huge casualties and equipment losses with almost nothing to show for it. Even the fighting in Bradley square, aimed at breaching the Surovikin defenses, failed.
It is now getting worse as the Russians begin their own offensive, some of it focused on Avdiivka, on the Krasny Liman area, and Kupyansk. Virtually every report indicates important Russian tactical successes despite Ukraine throwing in reinforcements. The Russian operations appear to be an effort to create effective borders for Donetsk and Luhansk while possibly preparing for even deeper thrusts elsewhere.
The western and Ukrainian press claim that the Russians are taking heavy losses in these operations. But it would seem that it is the Ukrainians who are rushing in reinforcements, especially around Avdiivka, suggesting the Ukrainian army is being hard pressed by the Russians.
Ukraine has also suffered heavy losses in its air force. While the reports coming from Russia are not confirmed, it seems the Russians in October were able to destroy 20 Mig-29’s, 8 Su-25’s, 1 Su-24, and 2 L-39’s. (The L-39 is a trainer and light attack aircraft produced by the Czech Republic’s Aero Vodochody.)
The Mig-29 is a fourth generation jet interceptor which flies faster and turns better than the US F-16 and the F/A-18A. First introduced in 1983, the Soviet Union provided them to a number of Eastern European countries then in the Warsaw Pact. Some of these have been handed over to Ukraine.
According to Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s Defense Minister speaking on October 25th, “We have received systems that have shot down 24 aircraft over the past five days.” Shoigu did not say what the “systems” were or where they were operating.
It isn’t clear how many Mig-29’s remain in Ukraine’s inventory, but probably only a handful.
The Russians also destroyed at least three, perhaps more, Leopard tanks. The 14 US supplied M-1 Abrams tanks so far have not been seen in combat and could be a strategic reserve for Ukraine’s army. Ukraine has admitted that the Abrams, like the Leopard’s, are vulnerable to Russian killer drones such as the improved Lancet, and also can be destroyed by artillery and mines.
The second crunch coming for Ukraine is all about money. In the US House of Representatives, the Republicans are separating aid for Israel from aid for Ukraine and intend to take legislative action on money for Israel ($14 billion) perhaps in the first week of November. They will take up Ukraine assistance separately, but it isn’t clear what a Ukraine package will look like. although the amount of money, $61.4 billion, will be subjected to heavy scrutiny and the funds reduced.
A significant part of the administration’s aid to Ukraine pays salaries for Ukrainian government employees, operating funds and even pensions. The Biden administration proposed $16.3 billion to prop up Zelensky’s government, which is $2.3 billion more than all the proposed aid for Israel. Even if the war in Ukraine ended today, it will be years before the Ukrainian economy can generate enough revenue to cover government operating costs. That means that the US treasury will need to give Ukraine billions every year just to stay in business, for as long as the next decade. (Of course if the Russians somehow take over, they will have to pay.)
These government operating funds are also easy targets for corruption. Congress will probably reduce funds for government operating costs and attach conditions on the aid requiring accountability for the money sent there. There are suggestions that some of the corruption involves American companies and political partners with connections to leading Democratic party officials.
It remains to be seen how tough the conditions are and how much survives of this $16.3 billion in the budget.
Congress may also want an exit strategy for Ukraine. Up until now, no exit strategy has been proposed, but given the state of the US economy and the rising loss of confidence that Ukraine can prevail against Russia, it is likely demands for an exit strategy could be built into the money bill for Ukraine.
Zelensky is already reportedly having problems with his generals. There are two parts to this problem. The first was the long delay in launching the counter-offensive, angering Pentagon and White House officials who wanted it done as a show of strength against the Russians and as a way to secure NATO support going forward. The US, UK and NATO prepared elaborate battlefield scenarios and simulations, helped train the Ukrainian forces, equipped at least three brigades with Western equipment throughout, yet the Ukrainian army leaders feared the assaults might not be successful and that they lacked essential weapons. Finally, the offensive got started last June and failed by September, confirming the worst fears of Ukraine’s military leaders (and draining the country of thousands of combat-trained soldiers.)
Now, again, Zelensky has made demands of Ukraine’s army, this time over his favorite hobby horse, Bakhmut while also insisting on the need to defend Avdiivka. Again the top leadership saw these two objectives as traps that would consume increasingly scarce equipment manpower and equipment. The fighting continues in both places, although the Russians have taken control of a strategic slag pile in Avdiivka which gives them unobstructed fire control over the city and a direct path to the massive coke plant that dominates the city’s skyline. In Bakhmut the Ukrainians made some initial gains to the south of the city (in the north they were stopped outright), but now the Russians are getting ready to push them back. In general the prognosis is twofold: the Russians will continue to successfully push back Ukrainian forces and the Ukrainians will continue to lose manpower essential for its strategic reserve.
Zelensky obviously knows he could be replaced and fears that a deal might be made between the Russian and Ukrainian military. That may explain why Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service (SBU) attempted to kill Oleg Tsaryov, a former Ukrainian legislator who US intelligence said was being groomed to replace Zelensky last year when Russian forces attempted a takeover of Kiev. Tsaryov was shot twice and was found unconscious in Yalta. Ukraine says he is a traitor and he is on a list of other traitors. There have been a number of assassinations carried out by Ukraine’s SBU targeting Zelensky opponents.
The timing of the shooting of Tsaryov, an obviously high value target, suggests that Zelensky in anxious to liquidate potential challengers. Inside Ukraine he is also clamping down, arresting opponents such as Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian billionaire and banker, on charges of fraud.
If the military situation continues to deteriorate and the US Congress walks back at least some of Ukraine’s money, Zelensky’s tenure may have reached an end point. Zelensky could be on the rocks.