There is an emerging consensus in the Biden administration that Ukraine is barely hanging on in its war with Russia and that some sort of negotiated settlement will be needed. While this is portrayed as the “long held” policy of President Biden, the truth is it is just the reverse: it has been the Biden administration that has blocked all attempts to broker a peace deal with Russia. Biden and company have embraced Zelensky for the same reason: Zelensky, who more than a year ago was open to a deal with the Russians, fell into line with Biden’s national security team and even got the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, to pass a law making it unlawful for him to deal with the Russians while the war was going on.
The United States and its NATO allies have poured massive amounts of military hardware and ammunition into Ukraine, have provided the backbone for Ukrainian strategic intelligence, trained Ukrainian troops, and have put advisers in the field, some of whom have been killed in action. If the reports are true about the Russian Iskander strike on Kherson on December 27th, four UK Patriot operators were killed along with 60 other soldiers and police when Russian rockets slammed into the Kherson train depot.
On the battlefield the Ukrainian army is facing defeats. Setbacks are seen nearly everywhere along the line of contact. The Russians have forced the Ukrainians out of Marinka, a strategic Donbas village, and are clearing the villages around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Bradley Square in Zaphorize, and elsewhere. Valery Zaluzhny, overall commander of Ukraine’s military, expects that the town of Avdiivka will fall in the next few months. In fact the Ukrainians either will have to pull out sooner or end up on a suicide mission trying to hold out against devastating attacks.
On the political front cracks are getting wider. Yulia Timoshenko who served as Ukraine’s Prime Minister two times and is now a serving member in Ukraine’s Parliament under the banner of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) political party. She is a supporter of Ukraine’s membership in the EU and NATO. Timoshenko says that the country is at a dead end and is facing defeat. Politicians who say such things in Ukraine most often are arrested or exiled, or in the case of former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are stopped at the border by Ukraine’s secret service. Even worse happens if they cross Zelensky. Treason charges have recently been brought against politician Oleksandr Dubinsky, and he is not alone.
Ukraine is facing a huge manpower problem as it suffers more and more battlefield casualties. A war of words broke out this week between Zaluzhny and Zelensky on exactly who ordered a forced recruitment of another 500,000 soldiers. Zaluzhny says he never proposed any number: Zelensky says the armed forces asked him for an additional 500,000 men. In fact, the number is irrelevant. What is important is that to sign up new soldiers, Ukraine has to use impressment tactics: grabbing men from the street or from apartments, from cars, from clubs, at border crossings and any other place they can be found. The draft age is now between 18 and 60, and a Christmas video of Ukrainian troops gathered together for holiday meals show mainly middle aged and older men, very few young people. As Zaluzhny and others have noted, the older soldiers cannot carry out all the tasks required because they lack the stamina of younger soldiers. Worse still, many of the soldiers do not want to serve.
The forced recruitment of soldiers has negative political implications for Ukraine’s leadership (which is why Zelensky was trying to blame it on Zaluzhny). It also has implications outside of Ukraine, because many draft age men from Ukraine now are in Europe. Ukraine wants them forcibly returned to Ukraine. Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets said Estonia could “hand over” able-bodied Ukrainian men. Other European countries are also considering similar actions.
Ukraine says there will be harsh penalties for draft dodgers with fines and prison sentences up to 8 years.
Other than bad health there are no other exemptions available to eligible recruits. As a practical matter this means teachers, scientists, doctors, engineers and all others can be grabbed. As the noose tightens and dragoon measures to grab them step up, support for Zelensky will inevitably drop precipitously, especially in key cities such as Kiev, Odesa and Kharkiv.
Even with the new mobilization, it will take months to train mostly unwilling recruits and put them on the battlefield. By then, Ukraine will have lost even more ground to the Russians.
Russia also needs to soon make important military and political decisions. These may come after the Russian elections in mid-March. Putin, who again is seeking reelection, is facing discontent at home over the war. He has resisted additional call ups of troops, arguing that there are enough volunteers to fulfil current requirements. So far Putin has not decided on any large-scale Russian offensive to exploit the Ukrainian army’s growing inability to stop Russian attacks. Russian military operations have been aimed at straightening and strengthening its territorial holdings in Ukraine. It has not tried recently to expand beyond that task or to relaunch attacks aimed at actually defeating Ukraine’s army and forcing political change in Kiev.
The reasons for that are threefold. Firstly, Russia knows that going on a massive offensive would be costly in terms of casualties and lost equipment. Secondly, Putin does not want to risk domestic unrest that could harm his political hold on the country. Thirdly, Russia wants to keep sufficient forces to protect Russia from a broader NATO war.
Russian leaders are well aware that if the United States becomes desperate and fears Ukraine’s collapse, Washington may seek NATO’s actual entry into the war, using abundant air power and other resources to shore up the Ukrainian regime. As a result, Russian planning is careful to try and contain the war to Ukrainian territory, and to incrementally push the Ukrainians back, hoping for a negotiated deal, and avoiding a direct clash with NATO troops.
Even in the context of the above constraints, the Ukrainians anyway are being pushed back and the Ukraine army could collapse at any point in the near future. Russia is not likely to accept a cease fire deal without a political settlement, as Putin would lose his standing at home. Zelensky won’t make any political agreement with Russia.
Washington will be watching the situation unfold in the coming days and weeks, and will be worried that the entire landscape of the war could turn deadly negative for Washington and NATO. Since Washington’s under the table efforts to try arranging a ceasefire have not borne any fruit, the only choices are either to enter the war (which means a war in Europe) or to make a deal. If Washington really wants a political deal, Zelensky can’t negotiate it. He will have to go.
Washington may decide the only way out is a coup d’état in Ukraine, replacing Zelensky either with a political or military leader willing to sit down with the Russians.