Ukraine war is undergoing mutation

Can American money make a difference to Ukraine’s depleted manpower? But, no American money means no war.

4 mins read
Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhny attends a meeting with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv on April 24, 2022. [Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service]

The Ukraine President Vladimir Zelensky’s video conference with the US senators on Tuesday is expected to be a turning point in the Ukraine war for three reasons. First, the Biden Administration has not written him off completely, and, more important, is not playing favourites in the game of thrones in Kiev. Second, Biden Administration hasn’t given up hopes that all is lost in the war. Third, most important, the US is signalling to Europeans that it is not thinking of cutting loose and exiting Eurasia, a la Afghanistan.

There is no question that the classified briefing he will give the lawmakers in Washington is a do-or-die attempt by the Biden Administration to persuade them that any cut-off in aid will have far-reaching consequences. The senate voting can also be fateful for Biden’s dwindling chances of securing a second term in the 2024 election. 

Zelensky’s own political future will be crucially affected by the decision taken by the US senate tomorrow apropos the Administration’s $60 bn in additional aid for Ukraine. To be sure, the White House is straining every nerve.

Shalanda Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a letter Monday to congressional leaders: “I want to be clear: without congressional action, by the end of the year we will run out of resources to procure more weapons and equipment for Ukraine and to provide equipment from US military stocks. There is no magical pot of funding available to meet this moment. We are out of money – and nearly out of time.” 

Young held out a stark warning that the loss of US financial support would “kneecap Ukraine on the battlefield, not only putting at risk the gains Ukraine has made, but increasing the likelihood of Russian military victories”. 

She held out the grim prognosis that a Russian victory could cause the war to spill over into a broader regional conflict involving the US’ European allies. That may seem an exaggeration, as Russia has shown no signs of waging a continental war, but if Ukraine collapses, there is going to be a scramble by its western neighbours who have territorial claims on the country — the burdens of history.   

Equally, the fate of the Biden candidacy will be sealed by the vicissitudes of the Gaza war rather than Ukraine war but that said, bad tidings from the war front can possibly augment the case for a new leadership in the White House. Simply put, everything adds up in Biden’s contestation with Donald Trump. 

Can American money make a difference to Ukraine’s depleted manpower? But, no American money means no war. The European Union carries hardly any credibility as a replacement. Ten days from now, European leaders are holding a summit meeting (December 14-15) where “continued EU support for Ukraine and its people” is listed as the top agenda item

The big question at the forthcoming summit is whether Hungary’s hostility will boil over as EU leaders deliberate on a historic decision to bring Ukraine into the group as well as to formalise a key budget deal to throw a €50 billion lifeline to Kiev. Prime Minister Viktor Orban is demanding that the whole process should be put on ice until leaders agree to a wholesale review of EU support for Kiev.

The point is, in principle, if this is not a transactional tactic on his part, Orban can hold the bloc hostage as it is supposed to act unanimously on big strategic decisions. To compound matters, Orban is striking when Ukraine fatigue is going up in public opinion in many EU countries. There are straws in the wind, too — the winner of the recent Dutch election Geert Wilders is vehemently anti-EU. Looking ahead, with a couple of more far-right leaders in Europe surging and a potential return of Trump, the EU’s mien on Ukraine is up for grabs. 

Much harder to predict is the state of play in Kiev. Ukraine is notionally heading for polls in March 2024, as mandated by the constitution. But in early November, the US Department of State spokesman said that the Ukrainian constitution allowed the country to cancel elections. Subsequently, the Ukrainian parliament agreed that elections should be put off for as long as martial law remains in effect, plus for an additional six months after it is lifted. 

Behind the scenes, though, a  simmering power struggle between Zelensky and his top military commander Gen. Valery Zaluzhny has burst into public view. Zelensky’s popularity has recently fallen below 65 percent and reports keep appearing that many army commanders do not see eye-to-eye with the tactics framed by President Zelensky.

Zaluzhny’s assertion in an interview with the Economist magazine recently that the war is deadlocked drew a public rebuke from Zelensky who has been clipping the charismatic general’s wings — the latest being the replacement of one of Zluzhny’s deputies, the head of special operations forces Gen. Viktor Khorenko.

According to the New York Times, “Speculation about tension between the president and the military’s commanding general over strategy and command appointments had been swirling in Kyiv for more than a year … US military officers who have worked with General Khorenko were surprised by the news of his ouster and described a close and effective working relationship with him, according to American military officials… The firing appeared to undercut General Zaluzhny’s authority.” (here)

And all this, interestingly, coincides with a sensational piece by the well-known journalist Seymour Hersh in the weekend that “everyone in Europe is talking about” secret peace talks going on between Zaluzhny and Gen. Valery Gerasimov who runs the war for the Kremlin. Tass news agency reported on Hersh’s disclosure, although the story bears the hallmark of an information war that is probably intended to complicate life for Zaluzhny.  

Meanwhile, a riveting long read in the Washington Post on Monday in the nature of a post-mortem on the catastrophic failure of Ukraine’s much-vaunted “counteroffensive” against Russian forces, which has implied that Zaluzhny’s rejection of the Western military doctrine proposing a concentrated push toward a singular objective of reaching the Azov Sea coastline and his preference instead to make the formidable length of the 600-mile front a problem for Russia, ultimately diminished the firepower of Ukraine’s military at any single point of attack and diluted its fighting power, while the Russian defences that followed textbook Soviet standards held firm. 

How the WaPo narrative dovetails into the power struggle in Kiev remains to be seen. As things stand, the advantage goes to Zelensky.  

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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