Volodomir Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, is at war –with his generals. He has admonished the head of the Ukrainian armed services, Valery Zaluzhny, who last week told the Economist “Just like in the First World War, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate. There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”
Even the New York Times, an administration mouthpiece on Ukraine, has written about the clash between Zelensky and his generals.
Zelensky has insisted the Ukraine will win the war against Russia and drive the Russians out of the country. The massive, now failed offensive, mostly concentrated in the Zaphorize area, failed with heavy losses on the Ukrainian side. The renewed battle for Bakhmut, launched by Zelensky over the objections of his generals, also has not succeeded and has cost many lives and much equipment. Meanwhile, Zelensky insisted on defending Avdiivka, a small city dominated by a huge coke plant. Coke is used for blast furnaces in steel making. The Ukrainians are steadily losing ground in and around the city. The Ukrainians had to transfer one of their best brigades, the 54th Mechanized, to Kupyansk, replacing it with a far less capable and trained territorial brigade tasked with holding Avdiivka.
Kupyansk is a critical strategic railway hub. If Ukraine loses it, it will have great difficulty transferring supplies to its forces around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. This suggests that a big battle may soon focus on Kharkiv.
Zaluzhny’s image of World War 1, and his focus on how it was a stalemate where both sides dug deep trenches and saturated each other with artillery, is half an image of what happened in that war. The other half of the story is that Germany lost the war because it could not sustain the fighting, lacking enough military supplies and even food for its troops. Once the US joined the allied forces the balance was tipped.
Zelensky’s problem is that he can’t win foreign support for Ukraine by advertising a stalemate. Zaluzhny’s statements, which also included unrealistic demands for weapons and technology, some of which simply do not exist, also caused problems for Zelensky who obviously wanted more supplies and aircraft, but continued to argue that with these supplies Ukraine would be able to push Russia out of Ukraine.
A good example is airpower. Ukraine wants 100 to 150 F-16s. Realistically it has no where to put them and few qualified pilots to fly them, even if they were available. Two disassembled F-16s were trucked into Ukraine in early November. Now there are 5 F-16s in Ukraine, but they have to be put back together. The two handfuls of F-16s soon to be transferred to Ukraine are not likely to make a difference. To begin with, these are old models of the F-16s that won’t be easy to maintain and can’t match top of the line Russian aircraft. Worst yet, any offensive use of the transferred F-16s need to be able to operate in a dense Russian air defense battlefield environment. Russia has recently reinforced its tactical deployed units with new, mobile air defense systems. The prospect for European old F-16s competing successfully is not good. (Take note: The US has to be careful about using mercenary pilots or thinly disguised Europeans flying jets in Ukraine. This trick could backfire.)
Zelensky is also trying to get the US Congress to give Ukraine billions more in support, including money to pay government workers and military salaries, including retirement money. That annual bill alone is $16.3 billion. The total request for Ukraine is a whopping $61.4 billion, of which more than $45 billion is for military supplies. Compare the total sum to the cost of 5 or 6 aircraft carriers. Ukraine will use that money supposedly in one year (but likely with even more requests later in the year). Aircraft carriers stay in the fleet for 50 years.
Biden had the bright idea of combining popular Israeli aid for the war against Hamas with Ukrainian aid, less popular and unlikely to spark considerable scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Zelensky saw this as a great opportunity for him to visit Israel “to show solidarity” and to make sure everyone understood that Israel and Ukraine were joined at the hip. Zelensky was after photo ops with Netanyahu and with Israel’s president Isaac Hertzog. Zelensky figured Israel would forget the harsh criticism of Netanyahu and Israel . Last year, Zelensky said Israel was to blame for the Russia-Iran alliance! He demanded arms from Israel, especially Israel’s Iron Dome.
Israel was against transferring its top technology to Ukraine fearing it would be compromised and fall into Russia’s hands. Israel also did not want to cause even more difficulty with Russia and lose any leverage it may have had in its dealings with the Russians.
It appears a Zelensky visit, probably engineered by the State Department and White House, was not cleared with the Israeli side. Washington, as it tends to do, thinks if it says “jump” the answer always is “how high.” Netanyahu said it was not time for a visit.
Washington remounted the effort and twisted the Israeli government’s arm. But the visit appears to have been scuttled when news of the initiative leaked to an Israeli TV channel. From an Israeli perspective, tying aid to Israel to Ukraine aid is not a good idea, especially when there already is a fight in the Senate over the matter. Zelensky appears to have backed off, blaming the whole thing on the Russians. On November 6 he said ““It is obvious the war in [West Asia], this conflict takes away the focus. I think it is one of the goals of the Russian Federation […] It’s a fact. We see the outcomes.” Even if the visit now takes place, it won’t have the propaganda value Washington and Ukraine wanted.
There are numerous behind the scenes efforts to bring about negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. While Washington is pushing for more aid, it is also exploring ways to work out some peace process with Russia. Zelensky, of course, opposes talks with Russia. “I don’t have any relations with Russians. And they know my position. That is the position of my country; that is the position of our people. We don’t want to make any dialogue with terrorists, I am not ready to speak with the terrorists because their word is nothing, nothing. We can’t trust terrorists because terrorists always come back.”
A key problem is Russia’s perception of the war in Ukraine and its Special Military Operation. Russia believes that the Ukrainian struggle is a fight between NATO and Russia. Thus a negotiation would necessarily need to include not only Ukraine but, on a separate track, also NATO (which, bottom line, means Washington). While the Russians certainly do want to settle the territorial issue (and by extension protection of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine), the Russians also want NATO out of Ukraine.
War with the Generals
Zelensky probably has lost support with his top generals, but is that enough to force changes in Ukraine’s leadership? It is hard to answer the question. A lot depends on the results on the battlefield. In a few weeks Avdiivka may be taken by the Russians and Ukrainian forces pushed back. Changes elsewhere could be negative for Ukraine’s army which is desperately short on manpower.
The other part of the equation is the support of Ukraine’s military and internal intelligence operations. The Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR MO) is Ukraine’s military intelligence operation, headed by General Kyrylo Budanov. Non-military intelligence is known as the SSU and is the successor to the Russian KGB. It is headed by Vasyl Malyuk. If there is a real threat to Zelensky it could come from Budanov and any alliance between him and the Ukrainian generals could force Zelensky either to agree to talks with Russia or even replace him.
It is clear that the current trend of events is negative to Zelensky and negative to Ukraine. Soldiers in the field already know it. Will Zelensky swerve or will he wait for the inevitable?