Ukraine war fatigue is growing

Ukraine war fatigue is growing
Ukraine's counter-offensive has been going on for several months, but with little progress and a mounting death toll, fatigue amongst Ukraine's allies is growing as the conflict looks increasingly unwinnable. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin August 20, 2023

Fatigue with the war in Ukraine is growing louder as the war in Ukraine drags on with no end in sight.

Western elites are still committed to supporting Kyiv until the bitter end. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on August 18 that Nato will support Ukraine “until it wins”. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a Russia hawk, has repeatedly said that the EU will do “whatever it takes” to  support Ukraine, and she has been instrumental in pushing through numerous large financial support packages. And US President Joe Biden repeated at the weekend that the US will “never give up” its support for Ukraine.

However, both the public and some Western politicians are becoming increasingly uncertain of the wisdom of continuing what is beginning to look more like another “forever war” and pouring more billions into the insatiable Ukrainian military blackhole.

And a possible ceasefire deal that includes Ukraine conceding some territory to Russia is clearly being discussed amongst Nato allies. Stian Jenssen, chief of staff to Nato Secretary General Stoltenberg, put the cat amongst the pigeons last week by suggesting that Ukraine could consider ceding part of its territory to Russia in exchange for Nato membership, a statement he quickly walked back after an outcry from Kyiv.

A number of negative reports have recently appeared in the Western mainstream press. The New York Times (NYT) reported on August 18 the total number of dead and injured in the war has topped 500,000, according to US intelligence services – more than the Vietnam and Afghan wars combined. The number of war deaths is usually a taboo subject as Kyiv has made the casualty figures a state secret.

US General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been publicly sceptical on the chances of Ukraine winning the war and repeated his scepticism again last week.

“I had said a couple of months ago that this offensive was going to be long, it’s going to be bloody it’s going to be slow,” he told The Post. “And that’s exactly what it is: long, bloody and slow, and it’s a very, very difficult fight.”

Milley said that there might be a diplomatic solution that would completely expel Russia from Ukraine, but implied that he didn’t believe there was a military solution.

Since the war, Ukraine has received a record $66.2bn in aid from the US, but some in Congress are becoming tired of the endless appropriations. Biden asked Congress for another $20bn in aid for Ukraine last week but the call was met with resistance and Republicans in the House have voiced opposition to additional money for Ukraine, reported the Washington Post.

“The bleak outlook [for the counter-offensive], briefed to some Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, has already prompted a blame game inside closed-door meetings. Some Republicans are now baulking at President Biden’s request for an additional $20.6bn in Ukraine aid given the offensive’s modest result,” the Washington Post reports.

Enthusiasm amongst the general public is also fading. A recent CNN poll found the majority Americans are against continuing to fund Ukraine, although the majority of Democrats are for it, while the majority of Republicans are against it. Overall, 55% say the US Congress should not authorise additional funding to support Ukraine vs. 45% who say Congress should.

In Germany, where support for Ukraine has been strong amongst the population, the right-wing AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party has become the second largest party in the country and has a strong anti-war platform.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on August 17 acknowledged the slow pace of Ukraine’s counteroffensive but said Kyiv would not stop fighting until all its land is retaken. “We don’t care how long it takes,” he told the news agency Agence France-Presse.

More people and politicians are coming round to the idea that the war is unwinnable and are starting to ask why the West should keep funding it. As the next US presidential elections heaves into sight, the war in Ukraine is already becoming a political issue in the campaign – one that the Kremlin will watch closely.

Counteroffensive going slowly

Part of the problem is the much vaunted Ukrainian counter-offensive has failed to provide the spectacular successes that were achived with the Kharkiv assault last September.

Having provided Kyiv with significant new and powerful weapons following the Ramstein meeting in February last year, including a commitment to send modern Leopard 2 tanks and long-range missiles, the West was hoping for another hammer blow that would smash through Russian lines and pave the way for ceasefire talks.

However, that has failed to happen. According to reports, the UK and the US were advising Kyiv to commit a large amount of reserves to a frontal assault and accept the high casualty rate that entails.

“Joint war games conducted by the US, British and Ukrainian militaries anticipated such losses but envisioned Kyiv accepting the casualties as the cost of piercing through Russia’s main defensive line,” according to US and Western officials talking to the Washington Post.

“But Ukraine chose to stem the losses on the battlefield and switch to a tactic of relying on smaller units to push forward across different areas of the front. That resulted in Ukraine making incremental gains in different pockets over the summer,” the paper reports, adding that the outlook for the counteroffensive is “bleak”, according to Western official’s assessment.

Well aware that a big counter-attack was on its way, Russia did not waste those eight months, while Kyiv tried to assemble sufficient Western materiel and train troops in their use, Russia built very extensive defences including hundreds of kilometres of minefields. Those minefields have proven impossible to cross and have up to five or six mines per square metre in some places, according to reports. The Ukrainian advance has been slowed to a crawl as a result.

Hopes were still alive in the first month of the counter-offensive of a big push after probing the Russian lines and “shaping” Russia’s defences with feinted attacks on the line in one place to weaken it in another. But if this was the strategy it has failed to create an obvious weakness.

Ukraine’s commanders are also now coming in for criticism for committing too many resources for the assault around Bakhmut, the epicentre of the war for the last eight months, which has reduced resources in the south where Ukraine was hoping to cut through the Russian-held land bridge that connects the Crimea to the Russian mainland along the coast.

In the south the town of Melitopol is key as two major highways and a rail line meet at the town, which  are used to supply Russian troops from Crimea in the land bridge. But despite some progress, the AFU  are still no way near taking the town, The Washington Post reports.

“That means Kyiv won’t fulfil its principal objective of severing Russia’s land bridge to Crimea in this year’s push,” an intelligence report said, cited by the Washington Post. That is because Russia has shown “brutal proficiency in defending occupied territory through a phalanx of minefields and trenches”, the report said.

And that is after all the AFU reserves, including the elite 82nd Air Assault brigade, a Western-trained and entirely Western-armed unit, have now all been committed to the fight with no visible effect.

The prospects of even more, even more powerful weapons, remains controversial. The “fighter jet coalition” of Ukraine’s supporters like Poland, have been pushing for the US to send F-16s to Ukraine, but a mere eight pilots (recently reduced to six) are still waiting for a six-month training programme to begin. Ukrainian military analyst Valery Romanenko said that even a squadron of 24 planes will not have a material impact on the outcome of the war.

After months of procrastinating, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been promised 42 US-made F-16 jet fighters by the Dutch government during an unannounced visit to the Netherlands on August 20. Denmark has promised to send 19 of its F-16 fighters as well, six of them before Christmas. 

Washington gave Denmark and the Netherlands official “assurances” that the United States will “expedite approval” of the transfer requests for F-16s to go to Ukraine, but only when the pilots have completed their training. That is not expected to happen for at least six months. There is still a strong possibility that Washington will delay granting the re-export permission after the pilot training is completed.  

“F-16s can be used both for air defence and in traditional engagements with enemy aircraft,” Romanenko said in an interview. “It is not at all clear to us how we can win without any aviation at all or without long-range weapons. This is just nonsense… It’s all political,” he added, speaking of the delays to the programme.

Peace deals

Bankova has said repeatedly that it will not cede land nor even start peace talks until Russian forces have been entirely expelled from Ukrainian territory. Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of the Ukrainian people are of the same opinion. That leaves the diplomatic process in a stalemate.

A deal that included territorial concessions, in that Zelenskiy suggested that he was prepared to kick the Crimea and Donbas issues down the road, was nearly done last April, as bne IntelliNews reported, but since then the positions of the two sides has moved so far apart as to be irreconcilable.

While it is widely assumed that the Western powers can bring the conflict to a halt at a whim, simply by cutting off supplies of weapons and ammo, the White House has painted itself into a corner by repeatedly saying that the decision to start talks lies with Kyiv alone, which is also responsible for the tactics used in the war.

As for the Kremlin, it has indicated that it is open to talks, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it explicitly clear that Russia will not even discuss the return of the four regions it annexed last September, which include the Donbas, as they are now considered to be Russian sovereign territory. By extension, returning the Crimea is also off the table, as that has been considered Russian since 2014.

For the Nato allies, the war goal so far has been clearly “don’t let Ukraine lose.” However, “Ukraine must win the war” is not a Western war goal, irrespective of what Stoltenberg, a hawk in the war, may say. At the end of the day, Nato is a military alliance and it is the member countries that have the final say; the Nato  body, headed by Stoltenberg, has no formal power to set any political agenda.

As bne IntelliNews has observed elsewhere, without sufficient guns and ammo, Ukraine has no hope of defeating Russia on the battlefield. And as Nato’s number one war goal is “don’t start WWIII by provoking Russia too far,” it is highly unlikely the allies will change their policy and arm Ukraine to win, rather than just not lose.

A frozen conflict is the most likely outcome from the war in Ukraine, not a Russian defeat. Indeed, the White House has said on multiple occasions that its plan is to deliver a crushing military blow so that Ukraine is “in the best possible position when it eventually goes to the negotiating table”.

In parallel to the military campaign has been the economic war being waged against Russia in the form of the extreme sanctions regime. But as bne IntelliNews has extensively reported that campaign is also failing. While sanctions have certainly hobbled the Russian economy and caused considerable pain, the Fiscal Fortress that Putin has built has proven to be remarkably robust. For example, Russia’s economy is expected to grow by 2-2.5% this year, while Germany and the UK go into recession and the rest of the EU puts in anaemic growth. Sanctions will permanently reduce Russia’s growth potential so that it stagnates over the long-term, but in the short-term it has more than enough in reserves to continue the war for at least two more years before the Ministry of Finance has to begin to think about more radical measures like raising taxes.

Ceasefire talks can only begin when the Western allies concede this war is unwinnable. Kyiv has clearly taken the line that the war must be won, at any cost, and will keep doggedly fighting until that happens, even if it never happens.

Several peace plans have already been put on the table: the Chinese 12-point peace plan that was released on the anniversary of the start of the war; South African president Cyril Ramaphosa offered another plan during a trip to Kyiv in June; and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) said that Ukraine’s sovereign integrity must be respected in any peace deal during an Arab-led peace summit in Jeddah in August that broke up without result. A third peace summit is scheduled for last this year and may be included in the upcoming BRICS summit this month.

However, with the counteroffensive still under way and several months of summer and autumn left, it seems unlikely that any serious talks will start soon. Zelenskiy has politely rejected all these plans out of hand, saying Kyiv has its own 10-point peace plan and is sticking to that, which starts with all the Russians must leave the country before anything else can happen.

But as winter settles in and the killed in action roll call mounts, unless the counteroffensive has delivery something more substantial in the way of progress than it has so far, it seems likely that the calls for an end to the war may grow louder. No one, not even the Russians, will relish the idea of another year of death and destruction, with no hope for an end to the conflict in sight.

However, with the US presidential elections looming and with a return of Donald Trump a possibility, it may be Putin will wait to see what happens in the US presidential elections. 

“Problem with starting talks now is that Putin has no incentive to compromise. As [former US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul] points out, there is zero reason for the Kremlin to make any kind of deal until they know the results of the next US Presidential election. So another 15 months of stalemate, minimum,” journalist Owen Matthews said in a tweet.

Unsightly as a frozen conflict is, they litter the world and once established they can exist for decades: Korea’s DMZ, Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus, the Berlin wall, Palestine and  Kashmir to name a few. Another one in Eastern Ukraine would be the second frozen conflict in Europe since the end of WWII, but would probably be soon forgotten, although the sanctions on Russia would become permanent.