MOSCOW BLOG: Black mood descending as Ukraine problems increase

MOSCOW BLOG: Black mood descending as Ukraine problems increase
Ukraine’s mounting military problems, lack of money and then the death of opposition figure Navalny have blacked the mood and seen optimism over Ukraine’s ability to defeat Russia evaporate. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 22, 2024

After a four-month offensive, Russian troops captured the fortress town of Avdiivka on February 19. The settlement had formed a key bulwark of Ukraine’s defence line in the Donbas for nearly a decade, having been the scene of heavy fighting in the initial conflict in 2014-15. Is Kupiansk their next target?

The fall of Avdiivka has been a real blow to the Western allies and its hopes for a Ukrainian victory, as it hands the initiative to the Russian forces. The mood was made worse by opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s death on February 16 that has crush the dream that Russia could have a brighter future any time soon.

Ukraine’s obvious and growing problems cast a pall over the recent Munich Security Conference and led to some serious gloating by the Kremlin.

Navalny’s death was a heavy blow to the hard core group of Russians that would like to see the regime changes and democracy resorted, despite his widow’s promise to step up and take his place.

The historian and top independent commentator Sergey Radchenko plainted and clear and bleak picture in an essay for The Spectator this week, arguing that “the vast, tired, apathetic, silent majority” in Russia, Navalny’s death “will barely register”.

“The change that Navalny promised died with him,” says Radchenko, and “those in the West who want to reason with the dictator [Vladimir Putin]” delude themselves into believing that “Russia will somehow sort itself out, one day returning to normalcy”. But Putin “is genuinely popular with the meek, slavish populace”, who “enabled tyranny because they never cared”.

With Navalny’s death, “Russia has symbolically turned the corner” and nobody should deal with Moscow today with the expectation that Navalny’s “beautiful Russia of the future” is on the horizon. It isn’t, says Radchenko.

Twelve months ago, delegates at the Munich Security Conference radiated optimism about the prospects for Ukraine, as the West vowed to back Kyiv in its war with Russia for “as long as it takes”. This year, that optimism has flipped into unremitting gloom and US President Joe Biden downgraded that promise to “as long as we can,”  in December.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova drove the knife in yesterday, gloating that things are going very badly for the West and Ukraine.

"On February 16-18, the 60th Munich Security Conference was held, which was reduced to discussing the situation in Ukraine with a focus on how to forestall the complete collapse of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. We noted the dispirited atmosphere that permeated the meeting. There is no trace of the former optimism among the Western [cheerleaders for Ukraine]," the diplomat noted.

She followed up by noting that the “security deals” that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed with the UK, France and Germany, are no such things.

“Kyiv’s agreements with Berlin, London and Paris are being called "security guarantees", but there is not a single word about any kind of guarantees in any of these three documents,” Zakharova correctly pointed out.

"In Ukraine, they are calling these agreements ‘security guarantees’, although no ‘guarantees’ were mentioned in any of the three documents. They just describe the measures that are already being taken. No one is promising Kyiv anything more than that," she added.

And it’s becoming increasingly obvious that everyone is becoming increasingly worried by the increasingly likely chance that former US president Donald Trump will win the presidential election in November. Even Daily Show host Jon Steward has come out of retirement to campaign against him.

The US has already ran out of money for Ukraine in January and the mooted $60bn of aid on the table now is no closer to being approved. Biden himself blamed the fall of Avdiivka on the Republican’s decision to block Ukraine’s funding and cut them off from help in its hour of need.

Former Moscow US ambassador Michael McFaul summed the mood up well in comments to the FT in Munich. He said there was a “real sense of frustration” among his Ukrainian friends.

“We keep hearing ‘as long as it takes’. But where is the action? Where are the Taurus missiles? Where are Russia’s frozen assets? Why aren’t they being transferred to Ukraine? The free world says the right thing, but we’re not living up to the moment,” he said. “And the moment is dire.”

Despite the problems, Ukraine is likely to muddle through this year. The EU remains committed and recently passed a four-year €50bn support package that will keep the government functioning. There is also still several billion euros in the Ukraine Peace Facility, a fund dedicated to military support.

Despite Zakharova’s trolling of the recent security arrangements, as part of its promises, Germany promised €7bn in military aid and France another €3bn. Other EU members will also pitch in to help; Denmark this week promised to give Ukraine its entire stockpile of artillery shells to help it hold off Russian attacks. At the same time Ukraine is producing more armaments of its own, drones in particular, that go someway towards compensating for the lack of artillery shells.

But the strategy has been turned on its head. In the summer the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) was on the offensive, probing Russia’s defences for weak points. It didn’t find any. Now as the winter draws to an end, the AFU is on the defensive as Russia presses its advantage.

The previous plan was to hit Russian forces with a hammer blow to put Kyiv “into a position of strength for when the eventual negotiations start.” That plan has to be abandoned now and the best the AFU can do is hang on, as there is a promise that the EU has ramped up its arms production, which will come online in 2025. But in this brutal war, waiting another year is a very long time indeed.