As its counteroffensive fizzles, Ukraine battles itself, Russia and a shift in the world’s attention

Ukraine is battling more than the Russian army.

After more than 21 months of grueling war, it’s now grasping for the world’s attention in the shadows of the conflict in the Middle East. And with its much-vaunted counteroffensive fizzling into the snow, with little to show for months of planning and billions in allied military support, Kyiv is also beset by growing internal wrangling.

Staring down a long and difficult winter, Ukraine is fighting on multiple fronts.

“There is severe fatigue from the war,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst.

“Many Ukrainians are disappointed that a quick victory was not achieved,” he told NBC News. “But the vast majority of Ukrainians are united in the need to continue resisting Russian aggression.”

The counteroffensive

After successful campaigns to retake territory in eastern and southern Ukraine just over a year ago, Kyiv and its Western allies spent much of the first part of 2023 gearing up for a major counteroffensive.

It was touted by military observers as a potentially decisive campaign to return occupied Ukrainian territories that might even threaten the Kremlin’s hold on the prized Crimean Peninsula, which has been under Russian control since 2014. But since the counteroffensive was launched in June, Ukraine has made only modest gains against heavily fortified Russian defense lines, leaving the war largely deadlocked as the fighting season nears an end.

“We are in what’s called positional warfare, as opposed to maneuver warfare,” said Frank Ledwidge, a former British military intelligence officer and senior lecturer in war studies at England’s University of Portsmouth. “Basically, we are in the First World War situation, where you have two entrenched armies, neither of which is going to be able to break the other.”

Fighting is likely to grind to an even more definitive halt as bitter weather sets in, with a deadly winter storm wreaking havoc in the region last week.

Ukraine’s power grid also remains vulnerable — and Moscow signaled it will likely once again target the country’s energy infrastructure after launching the biggest drone attack on Kyiv since the war began.

Two focal points have emerged in recent weeks.

In the east, there is an ongoing battle for the small town of Avdiivka, which the Kremlin appears intent on capturing at a heavy cost as it pushes to expand its partial control over the industrial Donbas region.

On Friday, Ukraine said the Russians were trying to encircle the town, but its soldiers were “standing their ground.” In a sign of the intensifying battles that have Ukraine on the back foot in the region, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for faster construction of fortifications in key sectors under pressure from Russian forces, particularly in eastern Ukraine, after he toured the front lines.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has attempted to establish a foothold on the left bank of the Dnieper River in the southern Kherson region, occupied by Russia since the first days of the war.

Russian forces retreated to that side of the river after Ukraine seized back the city of Kherson last year.

The region’s Russian proxy governor said the landing operation has been met with “fiery hell,” but Kyiv has said its troops are maintaining their positions. On Wednesday, Zelenskyy visited troops in the region and received an update on their progress on the left bank, his office said, without elaborating.

Ukrainian Servicemen Bakhmut (Genya Savilov / AFP - Getty Images)
Ukrainian Servicemen Bakhmut (Genya Savilov / AFP - Getty Images)
Ukrainian servicemen on the Dnipro River (Mstyslav Chernov / AP)
Ukrainian servicemen on the Dnipro River (Mstyslav Chernov / AP)

Analysts say this latest apparent attempt to breathe life into Ukraine’s counteroffensive would only be likely to make a difference if Ukrainians manage to establish a bridgehead — a secure way across the river that could allow them to bring over armor and other support. “A Ukraine success could alter what’s now widely seen as a stalemate,” said Rajan Menon, an analyst with Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.

The war has reached a deadlock for several reasons, Menon said, including ambivalence and a lack of urgency from Kyiv’s allies, which meant some crucial supplies arrived too late for the counteroffensive to be effective.

But a lack of appropriate air cover has been the biggest stumbling block, Menon added, with Ukraine’s air force vastly outnumbered and overpowered by Russia’s.

“You can’t do it on flat terrain without your troops being covered from the air,” he said.

Sviatoslav Yurash, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament and a serving soldier, said that the counteroffensive is still achieving one important aim — exhausting Russia militarily.

He points to Ukraine’s success in effectively breaking Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea with attacks on its navy in southern Russia and occupied Crimea this summer.

“We understand the war won’t be easy or fast,” Yurash said at a coffee shop in the heart of the capital, Kyiv. “But we have shown the world that even the scary Russian war machine can be stopped and we can force it to suffer horrible losses.” (Both Russia and Ukraine claim high personnel losses on the other side, but have not reported their own casualties).

The latest Dnieper offensive was a surprise for the Russians, Yurash said, showcasing that Ukraine has not run out of “tricks and ideas” about how to defeat the Kremlin.

‘Everyone talks more about Israel’

Through much of its war, Ukraine has been pushing its Western allies for expanded and accelerated supplies of military assistance, without which Kyiv’s fight against Russia would long be over.

But that aid — beset for months by concerns of growing war fatigue in Europe and political wrangling in Washington — now faces a more existential threat: another conflict to command global attention.

“The Gaza war comes at a terrible time for Ukraine,” Menon said. “It sucked a lot of the political oxygen out of the room. There’s a competition for resources no matter how you slice it.”

The United States provides both Israel and Ukraine with military aid, and the breakout of a new war has raised fears about whether artillery shells and air defense missiles, once intended for Kyiv and already in short supply, would be diverted to Israel. Aid for both countries faces an uncertain path in the deeply divided Congress, and Ukraine was already facing a shortfall on what it was promised by the European Union.

In an apparent effort to signal that Ukraine was still a priority for Washinton, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a surprise visit to Kyiv last month, saying Ukraine’s fight is “a marathon — not a sprint” and announcing $100 million in new military aid.

Lloyd Austin travels to Ukraine (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service / AFP - Getty Images)
Lloyd Austin travels to Ukraine (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service / AFP - Getty Images)

But Ukrainian officials are under no illusions.

“Tactically, the shift in attention from Ukraine to Israel made our situation somewhat more difficult, since our war ceased to be the single hottest point on the planet,” Yehor Chernev, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament and deputy chairman of its national security, defense and intelligence committee, told NBC News.

“Everyone talks more about Israel, and that is where the priority aid from the U.S. goes,” he said.

In a briefing with reporters last month, Zelenskyy acknowledged the shift in the world’s attention to the Middle East, and said Ukraine has no room for error in losing its place on the international agenda, which could prove “lethal” for the country. “We must not allow people to forget about the war here,” Zelenskyy told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. “Attention equals help,” he said.

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Internal tensions

Adding to Ukraine’s troubles, Zelenskyy appears to be at odds with his top general, Valeriy Zaluzhny.

In an essay published by The Economist last month, Zaluzhny gave voice to a sense shared by many in Ukraine and the West — the war is at a stalemate, the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces said, and “there will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”

Zelenskyy rushed to reject his general’s absolutism, denying that the war had reached such a definitive impasse.

This public airing of grievances has raised concerns at home and abroad about the unity of Ukraine’s leadership.

Zelenskyy brushed off a conflict with Zaluzhny in the meeting with reporters last month, saying that wartime means “common interests” and no room for “personal politics” that play into Russia’s interests.

But Zelenskyy allies have publicly chided Zaluzhny for his leadership of the war, with one lawmaker launching a scathing tirade on social media accusing him of not having a solid plan for how to win and demanding his resignation.

Ukraine Winter in Kyiv (Roman Pilipey / AFP - Getty Images)
Ukraine Winter in Kyiv (Roman Pilipey / AFP - Getty Images)

The president is also facing criticism in some circles for signaling that he opposes holding next year’s scheduled presidential election amid the war, and Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said last week that the country was moving toward authoritarianism.

“At some point we will no longer be any different from Russia,” Klitschko told German news outlet Der Spiegel.

So removing Zaluzhny would likely create tremendous blowback for Zelenskyy.

“Zaluzhny is the second most popular person in Ukraine, and the presidential team sees him as a potential competitor,” Fesenko, the Ukrainian analyst, said. “And now, it seems, they want to blame Zaluzhny for the problems at the front. However, given Zaluzhny’s popularity both in the army and in society, his dismissal or resignation could have very ambiguous consequences, including weakening the position of Zelenskyy himself.”

The general’s “realistic diagnosis” of the situation on the front lines caused a spectrum of emotions in Ukraine, according to Fesenko. Zelenskyy’s office issued rare public criticism, he added, because the comments were taken “too dramatically” in the West and this could create problems for Ukraine.

And they had the effect of a “cold shower” for many in Ukraine, Fesenko said.

“It helped many Ukrainians get rid of inflated and inadequate expectations about the imminent end of the war,” he said.

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