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Ukraine is in worse shape than you think

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Russian attacks on Ukraine

A Ukrainian man walks past a destroyed Russian tank in a damaged field as Russian attacks continue in Chernihiv Oblast, Ukraine, May 12, 2022. Credit – Dogukan Keskinkilic-Anadolu Agency

It has been said that, given the magnitude of Ukrainian troops expected to be overwhelmed at the start of the Russian invasion, not losing the war is in itself a form of victory for Ukraine. The difference between expectations and the surprising resilience of the Ukrainian military makes it possible to misinterpret the current situation in favor of Ukraine. But not winning is still not winning. Ukraine is in a much worse state than is generally believed and needs, and will continue to need, a staggering amount of help and support to really win.

We love an underdog. We love a spunky little guy who beats the odds. It fuels hope for our ordinary selves and allows us to feel that we are on the morally higher side. This is why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky so successfully appealed to the world. His defiance against all odds gave us someone to support against a bully. While encouraging the rambling and outclassed Ukrainians, we could also soothe some of our shame at having left them – to whom we had made promises of protection, “security guarantees” – to die alone in the snow and mud.

Unfortunately, Zelensky’s leadership and the influx of international military and humanitarian aid he elicited did not prevent a shocking level of destruction to Ukrainian cities, economy and society. The fact that kyiv did not fall and Russian troops retreated to the east masks the fact that Ukraine is in worse shape than portrayed in the media.

It should be recalled that Ukraine has been fighting a Russian invasion since 2014. Between 2014 and February 2022, almost 10,000 people were killed in the simmering war in Donbass, but little or no military progress was made. Now Ukraine is fighting with that same army in an expanded theater against a larger opposing force. It is a testament to the sheer valor of its troops that Ukraine has succeeded since February 24 not only in holding its line but in forcing the Russians to withdraw from kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernigiv and surrounding areas.

Nevertheless, Russia now controls much more Ukrainian territory than before February 24. Putin’s army holds Kherson, all that is left of Mariupol, all the intermediate territory, and now not only Luhansk and Donetsk, but all of Donbass Oblast. For example, while Ukrainian authorities controlled around 60% of Luhansk before the recent Russian invasion, Russian forces now control over 80% of the region. They also have about 70% of the Zaporizhye region. Cumulatively, this represents an increase in territory occupied by Russia of around 7%, including Crimea, before February, more than double that current figure. Seen in this light, not losing is much more like losing than winning.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry does not release combat casualty figures to maintain morale, but experts estimate it has lost at least 25,000 troops – up to 11,000 dead and 18,000 wounded – since the invasion of February 24. More than two and a half months into the war, Ukraine’s casualties amount to at least 10% of its now undoubtedly depleted army of less than 250,000 men. This is, however, much, much less than Russia’s losses, estimated at over 35,000, and backed up by a stunning loss of weapons and equipment, such as tanks and warships.

Read more: In the world of Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukraine’s relative success is due in part to the weapons donated by at least 31 Western governments. The UK has sent anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, air defense systems and other weapons; Slovakia the S-300 air defense system; US drones, howitzers, missiles and anti-armour systems; and this is just a sample. These weapons allowed Ukraine to maximize its advantage on the ground, leverage the greater resolve of its troops, and exploit Russia’s military weaknesses and apparent lack of adequate planning and preparation. Without these donations, kyiv might have already fallen.

While Ukraine is brimming with weapons and other military supplies and equipment, Defense Ministry officials and volunteer fighters both quietly admit they don’t have the capacity to absorb so much aid. Much of the equipment and weaponry requires new training to use. Even when it is available, it takes time. Likewise, the influx of 16,000 or more foreign volunteer fighters would seem like a decisive windfall, but in fact almost none of them had military experience or training. According to Ministry of Defense personnel and some volunteer foreign special forces soldiers on the ground, they proved to be little more than extra mouths to feed in most cases.

Economically, Ukraine survives, but only that. Sanctions on Russia that are expected to result in a contraction of less than 7% of GDP compare rather unfavorably with the 45-50% collapse of GDP that Ukraine is facing. At least 25% of businesses are closed, although the number of those that have stopped completely has fallen from 32% in March to 17% in May. But a blockade of the Black Sea of ​​Ukrainian ports – Mariupol, Odessa, Kherson and others – by the Russian Navy prevents both the import of fuels to supply the agricultural sector, as well as the export of cereals and other products Ukrainians. The inability to export costs the Ukrainian economy $170 million a day. Meanwhile, Russia is targeting Ukrainian fuel storages, grain silos and farm equipment warehouses, damaging supply chains already in tatters. The electricity sector is facing a payment default because so few Ukrainian citizens and businesses are able to pay their electricity bills.

Not only is May a critical agricultural month, but it’s also when Naftogaz usually starts buying natural gas for storage during the cold Ukrainian winter. The state-owned energy giant was already in bad shape before the invasion, with the CEO asking the Ukrainian government for a $4.6 billion bailout in September 2021. Now with very tight gas markets and no funds, it’s unclear how the country can prepare for winter, when temperatures can dip below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Adding to the prospect of a tragic 2022-2023 winter, most of Ukraine’s coal mines are in the Donbass, where the Russian offensive continues.

The White House would consider canceling Ukrainian sovereign debt, which would undoubtedly help Bankova (the Ukrainian equivalent of the White House). So will, among other efforts, the 15 billion euros of debt securities that the European Commission plans to issue to cover the next few months of Ukraine. However, this will not bring back the more than six million, mostly women and children, who have fled Ukraine. If the men were allowed to leave, their numbers would almost certainly double.

Recent reports that 25,000 to 30,000 people return daily to Ukraine from abroad are encouraging, but Ukraine faced a brain drain problem before the invasion. The poorest country in Europe, many citizens were already trying to leave. Before the war, Ukrainians were the third largest immigrant population in the EU, behind Morocco and Turkey. Today, the International Labor Agency estimates that 4.8 million jobs have been lost in Ukraine, and that they will increase to 7 million if the war continues. And after several months of war, the children will have settled into new schools abroad, the mothers will integrate into their new worlds, and both will be waiting for their husbands and fathers to join them. Some will return to Ukraine, of course, but many will prioritize family comfort and children’s opportunities over the appeals of patriotism.

More disturbingly, many Ukrainians still in their country have begun to wonder how it will rebuild. The war has torn the social fabric. A mother from Poltava said she no longer trusted the neighbors she had lived with for 40 years, people she considered family before the invasion. A young volunteer, a former civil society activist, described the hunt for saboteurs and how he began to see Russian sympathizers everywhere. Native Ukrainian speakers of Russian, who make up at least a third of the population, are uncomfortable or even afraid to use their native language. Trust was shattered, even as nationalism was motivated. No matter how quickly Russia is pushed back, rebuilding communities will be a challenge.

The US government decided in May to symbolically bring some of its diplomatic staff back to Kyiv, partially reversing its swift and defeatist withdrawal when it assumed Kyiv would fall within days. President Biden has even finally appointed a US ambassador to Ukraine after more than three years of no leadership. The message that these gestures and those of the EU send is important. But despite our desire to see Ukraine’s survival surpassed as a story of David defeating Goliath, and to rejoice that we gave the slingshot, the country is seriously, dangerously weakened.

Ukraine needs more than symbols and more than weapons. Not losing is not winning, and it will take a long and deep commitment from the Western world to help Ukraine win and then heal.

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