Zelenskiy and Putin Signal Desire to Break War Deadlock in New Year | Ukraine
Russia’s war against Ukraine is entering its second calendar year at a delicate time. It is six weeks after the liberation of Kherson and there has been little movement on the front lines since. There is no sign yet of a full and renewed counter-offensive by the Ukrainians, unaided by the weather which has been above freezing, leaving muddy ground unsuitable for military maneuver.
“The situation is just stuck,” Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov told the BBC last week, which if an accurate assessment is not helpful in Kyiv, which badly needs to maintain its momentum. as spring approaches. But political leaders in both countries have clearly signaled a willingness to try to break the impasse with new goals for the new year.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s New Year’s speech emphasized, predictably enough, a long-term goal of victory in the war. Twice, notably, he referred to the liberation of Melitopol, the most obvious target city, the capture of which would cut off the land bridge without which Crimea cannot be easily resupplied. Zelenskiy said Ukrainian grandchildren could one day “eat watermelon” in recently liberated Kherson “and cherry in Melitopol.”
This is perhaps all too obvious, of course, and Ukraine has repeatedly shown its readiness to show tactical flexibility, probe Russia’s lines of weakness and seek a breakthrough. But the other areas where Ukraine has exerted pressure, near the Kreminna and towards Svatove in northern Lugansk, are simply not as strategically important; while in the Donbass region around Bakhmut, Ukraine remains on the defensive, absorbing Russian bombardment as its forces advance on and around the front line.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin said Russia’s war goal, or special military operation as he insists on calling it, was to protect “our people in our historic territories in the new regions of the Russian Federation” – a reference to the four oblasts which Moscow unilaterally annexed in September – implying that it was still necessary to try to capture them all, which would explain why attacks on Bakhmut continued throughout the fall and winter.
Whatever Putin says, slow to minimal progress in Bakhmut is one of many indications that Russia lacks offensive combat power. In a Ukrainian television interview highlighted by the Institute for the Study of War, Budanov said that Russia had gone from 60,000 shells per day (the high end suggested by Ukraine’s top military commander in August) to ” 19,000 to 20,000,” explaining why Russia is so keen on seeking weapons from Iran and North Korea.
Much of Moscow’s military effort has translated into a cruel and relentless bombardment of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, leading to ever-longer blackouts in key cities. But here, too, there are very tentative signs that Russia is faltering: it fired around 20 cruise missiles at Ukraine on New Year’s Eve – serious of course, but nothing like the 80 to 100 that it fired on October and November days, although only a few days earlier in December 69 missiles had been fired at Ukrainian targets.
Ukraine’s air defenses, the focus of Western supply efforts, appear to be improving, especially against slower-flying Shahed drones. On Sunday, the air force claimed to have shot down all 32 drones launched since midnight, and in Kyiv only one car was damaged overnight.
The situation remains perilous and difficult to predict, but Moscow’s assault on Ukraine’s energy grid has not weakened Ukrainian resolve.
Russia, as Putin’s speech makes clear, is preparing for a long war. About half of the 300,000 people mobilized last year have not yet been deployed to the front line, and Ukraine warns that a new mobilization could take place within days. Even if Russian ammunition stocks dwindle, Ukraine may find it harder to gain ground in future counterattacks, if its adversary deploys its forces effectively.