While the eyes of the world are affixed on the Middle East and the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, another high-stakes conflict is still going on in Eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine.
Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, last week told The Economist his country has reached a stalemate about five months after it started a counteroffensive in the south against Moscow’s forces, in an apparent downbeat assessment of Ukraine’s ability to score significant progress against Russia.
“Just like in the first world war we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” Zaluzhnyi said.
“There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,” he continued.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rejected that suggestion in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, while recognizing the challenges ahead.
“The situation is difficult,” he said through a translator. “I don’t think that this is a stalemate.”
Zelenskyy said that while early on in the war, many expected his country to be crushed by Russia, Ukraine has continued fighting for nearly two years.
“They thought that they would checkmate us, but this didn’t happen,” he added.
In his interview with The Economist, Zaluzhnyi argued that within four months, Ukrainian forces should have managed to reach Crimea and fight there, but that hasn’t happened. Zaluzhnyi cited the ability of modern weapons to pick up a high concentration of troops ― meaning that both Ukraine and Russia can identify each other’s movements ― as one of the reasons for the so-called impasse.
“In order for us to break this deadlock we need something new, like the gunpowder which the Chinese invented and which we are still using to kill each other,” he said.
Joanna Szostek, an associate fellow at Chatham House and associate professor at the University of Glasgow, sought to explain the perceived differences in messaging, while noting that both Zaluzhnyi and Zelenskyy are still in agreement over the need for Ukraine to keep fighting.
Zaluzhnyi’s “motivation seems to be almost presenting a list of what Ukraine needs to change the direction of the war, and to get back to a position where regaining territory is possible,” Szostek told HuffPost.
“Zelenskyy, I think is perhaps more concerned about keeping up morale ... and sort of keeping a more positive sort of spin on things,” Szostek continued, adding that Zelenskyy is reportedly leaning towards holding presidential elections in March, which could help explain his position.
Liana Fix, a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations, told HuffPost that talk of a stalemate in the battlefield could raise questions in the U.S. Congress, particularly from Republicans who oppose more support for Kyiv. Fix added that the admission of an absence of a major breakthrough could also raise concerns about the West’s strategy and the endgame in Ukraine at quite a “bad timing” as Zelenskyy eagerly awaits more aid from Washington.
Congress Has Yet To Approve More Aid For Ukraine
Asked if Ukraine is planning on shifting its war strategy to try to gain the “upper hand” in the fight, Zelenskyy said his military is coming up with several different plans, but that they need more weapons.
But the U.S., one of the country’s biggest backers — and more specifically, Congress — has so far been unable to agree on a package.
While President Joe Biden made a joint request for over $100 billion to provide more U.S. support to Ukraine, Israel and other allies, House Republicans appear to have a different course of action in mind.
Newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has called on the Senate to pass a standalone bill which covers support just for Israel. He said he plans to now bring a Ukraine aid package to the floor which, however, will also have to include funds for tighter border measures in the U.S. — a GOP priority.
Johnson in recent weeks has appeared to voice more support for the war-torn country.
“We can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine, because I don’t believe it would stop there, and it would probably encourage and empower China to perhaps make a move on Taiwan,” he said late last month.
The Israel-Hamas War Could Divert Attention Away From Kyiv
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova told CBS’s “Face the Nation” Russia has also been supporting Hamas as well as Iran, which is thought to have ties to the militant group, as it fights Israel. Markarova called on both U.S. officials and the wider world to not lose sight of the importance of both conflicts.
“We just have to understand that this war on terror have to be won everywhere, and that we cannot afford to lose focus in one place or another,” Markarova said. “That’s why in order to be able to stop not only Russia, but other terroristic regimes, we also have to win in Ukraine.”
Zelenskyy told Time magazine last week that Putin is enjoying the fact that the world is focused on Israel.
“Of course we lose out from the events in the Middle East,” he said. “People are dying, and the world’s help is needed there to save lives, to save humanity.”
As the war drags on, it is becoming clear that support among the U.S. public for continued aid for Ukraine is also coming down.
While Ukraine was hopeful of making gains through its counteroffensive, Zelenskyy has previously admitted the operation has been “slower than desired.”
The Ukrainian president has attributed the lack of a big breakthrough to the fact that his country’s forces delayed their operation due to a lack of munitions, allowing Russia to better prepare to respond to it.
What Are The Chances Of Peace Talks Happening?
Over the weekend, NBC News reported that U.S. and European officials have started talking to the Ukrainian government about the potential terms of a peace deal, including about the concessions Kyiv could have to make, according to two sources.
During his interview on “Meet the Press,” while Zelenskyy did not directly weigh into whether he has engaged in such talks, he said Russia has not shown to be trustworthy, and that no potential peace negotiations between the two sides can take place until Russian forces are off Ukrainian territory.
“I’m not ready to speak with the terrorists because their word is nothing. Nothing,” Zelenskyy said. “We can’t trust terrorists because terrorists always come back.”
Fix told HuffPost now would be the wrong time to push Ukraine to the negotiating table because pessimism about Kyiv’s counteroffensive could mean it would be engaging in talks from a weak position.
Moscow appears to be pleased with the current state of the conflict, Fix noted.
“For Russia, the equation has changed,” she said. “I mean, at the beginning, when they were on the offensive, they had to show successes. But now it is efficient for Russia to hold the line.”