Is it the beginning of the end of the war in Ukraine? Poor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy must be very worried after a string of disasters in recent weeks.
As we have reported, Ukraine fatigue was already visible about six months ago, but the prospect of the counter-offensive held the worst at bay. But the failure of the offensive to make any progress – even after the top Nato generals told Kyiv to throw everything into a frontal assault in the south, at a huge cost in human lives – seems to have taken the top off the can.
Three reports in the last few days have crystallised the changing mood: the NBC report that some Western officials have broached the topic of calling for a ceasefire; Simon Shuster’s cover piece for Time that paints a picture of an increasingly frustrated Zelenskiy and growing divisions in the Ukrainian leadership; and an interview plus an essay from Ukraine’s top general saying the war is at a stalemate.
On the last, we have been reporting that the war has been at a stalemate since last November. It just seems that everyone is now admitting to it now it’s clear the counter-offensive will come to nothing. In the last three months the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) has won back about 16 km.
It has also been clear that since Ramstein last year the West was never going to provide Ukraine with enough weapons to win, only enough to survive. The nearly year-long delay in providing even the powerful weapons promised, such as the Leopards, was more than enough time for Russia to build extremely robust defences. You don’t see the same sort of foot dragging when it comes to supplying Israel – or hint of conditionality on the use of those weapons, whereas the US has been very reluctant to supply Ukraine with F16s, as it is terrified Zelenskiy will use them to fly sorties into Russia proper.
Zelenskiy's instinct was to do a peace deal last April and he was right. Now he has boxed himself into a corner and if he did approach the Kremlin for talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already made it clear that he would be talking to the hand. Time was already on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side since Russia went on the defensive after losing Kherson, and watching the West throw Ukraine under the bus in slow motion over the next year – as that is what will happen – will be a huge win for him.
Now there will be a big mess. People such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has emerged as a leading Russia-hawk, will continue to get money and arms for Ukraine, but both will be even less than now, leaving Zelenskiy unable to win. The US will continue to provide enough aid as it needs to try to save face, but same problem…
For the West to get out of this dead end, it seems to me it will reach for some creative diplomacy and let someone like China or Turkey intervene to cut a deal that will inevitably include Ukraine conceding large amounts of land so that the West can avoid direct blame for these compromises.
What should worry the West is that there could be some sort of nasty backlash. Zelenskiy has to stand for re-election as soon as the fighting stops and if he wants to stay in office (that’s up in the air) then an obvious line is “we were betrayed”. If that becomes widespread then you lay the groundwork for Russophiles to win seats and Ukraine might be eventually lost to the West completely. I'm not sure how likely this is, but it is a danger. The bottom line is Ukrainians will be left with a deep-rooted bitterness towards both Russia and the West, and will neither be members of Nato or the EU.