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Analysis | Ukraine continues to hope in 2024 | War in Ukraine

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was visiting Estonia on January 11, 2024.

  • François Brousseau (View profile)François Brousseau

On Thursday, January 11, visiting Tallinn, the capital of friendly Estonia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that “the situation on the front is very complicated.” “We lack weapons. If we had enough defense systems, we could destroy their air force. »

But without aid deliveries currently blocked in Brussels and Washington, he adds, it is impossible to survive.

While the war in Ukraine will pass the two-year mark, where are we at the start of 2024? The kyiv government is suffering after the failure of its counterattack in the summer and fall of 2023.

This attempt was met with the thickness of Russian defenses – trenches, minefields, dragon teeth, etc. – in the occupied Donbass, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, which have largely become scorched lands.

The Ukrainian president toured the Baltic countries this week, collecting new promises of aid. Consolation prize after blockages and delays in Washington and Brussels, where the main donors and equipment are located.

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The question is beginning to appear in some headlines: Would a demotivated, discouraged Ukraine, short of men and ammunition, not be losing the war? With at the same time, the feeling – justified or not – of the uselessness of all this resistance to Russia, despite massive Western aid which would not have borne fruit.

Defeat? It is too early for such a statement. And then, it all depends on the definition of victory and defeat. If, as Zelensky himself has repeated several times, the goal is a complete reconquest of the territory seized by Russia since 2014 (including Crimea and all of Donbass), then indeed, we are far from the mark. Which does not mean that the goal is definitely out of reach – by other means.

After the spectacular reconquests, in three successive episodes in 2022, which had reduced the fraction occupied by Russia from 25% to 17% of the country, we did not repeat the feat in 2023, and this figure of 17% n has hardly changed for over a year.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (File photo)

But if we instead celebrate the simple fact of having prevented the total conquest of Ukraine – Vladimir Putin's initial goal, a dream that he is undoubtedly still pursuing – then we can diagnose a kind of defeat for Moscow: Ukraine still exists, the aggression even gave a new meaning to what the Ukrainian nation is, etc.

But on the eve of this second anniversary, the argument does not convince everyone. There are questions, frustrations and great fatigue in kyiv.

This desire to give up, however, only concerns a minority. The completely hypothetical idea of ​​an amputated Ukraine, which would be rebuilt with 83% of its territory, comes up against moral objections: This is unacceptable, we would thus be confirming Russian aggression, four Ukrainians still think five. But also to strategic objections: It won't work, anyway, they will always come back.

The 50 billion euros from Brussels and the 60 billion dollars from Washington, blocked in December, for political reasons (Republican horse-trading in Washington; Hungarian veto in Brussels), are still on the table. This money would at least allow kyiv to see ahead for the coming year.

Such sums, which would more or less maintain the level of aid of the first two years, would not resolve all the strategic problems: ammunition production, supply chains, etc. Or that of popular mobilization, which is starting to diminish among Ukrainians, struck by fatigue and weariness. The fighting fervor is no longer quite the same as that, extraordinary and spontaneous, of a year and a half ago.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his American counterpart Joe Biden held a meeting last December. (Archive photo)

But at least this money would allow Kiev to hold and develop other strategies in 2024 – notably by air and sea.

It is still very possible that these amounts will be released later this winter. The disbursement of this money, by Washington and Brussels, is blocked or delayed, but not canceled.

Certainly, on both sides of the Atlantic, we hear that aid to Ukraine should be reduced, or even stopped. But at the start of 2024, this point of view remains in the minority.

In 2025 or 2026, that could change, especially if Donald Trump returns to power in Washington and reverses alliances. But in 2024, between now and March, you can bet there will be new announcements. The European Union, for example, is preparing to circumvent Hungary's veto, which was shocking last December.

In the meantime, even if it is much more modest, Zelensky received a good consolation prize this January 11 in Tallinn. The tiny Estonia (1.3 million inhabitants) has just announced aid over several years, to the tune of 1.2 billion euros. Solidarity against the Russian bear! The Baltic countries know their Russians and they do not hesitate for a second to maintain their support for kyiv. But with limited means.

There is also the problem of a possible decline in fighting fervor in Ukraine. In recent days, in the Kiev parliament – ​​because there is still an active parliament in Ukraine, even if the elections have been postponed – new conscription rules have been debated.

The government has tabled a bill that plans to lower the age of mobilization from 27 to 25, simplify enlistment procedures, introduce new sanctions for draft dodgers, and limit military service to 3 years – service which is unlimited at the moment.

On January 11, deputies refused the first version of the project, saying that it would be necessary to better fight against corruption and the politicization of recruitment, while privileges are apparently frequent, in a context where many young people, in Kiev or in Lviv, do not want to go to the front, at the other end of the country.

The Ukrainian army has today 850,000 men. The number of deaths is estimated – an official state secret, but foreign intelligence services make assessments – between 70,000 and 100,000. All this for results which, today, seem disappointing, in the face of a Russia four times as many populated.

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There are no longer as many Ukrainian citizens joining the military as at the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022.

A Russia where the authorities have no qualms about brutally recruiting and sending tens of thousands of young people aged 18 or 19 to their deaths and where deaths at the front are almost double those in Ukraine.

Given the apparent freezing of the land fronts – Donbass, Zaporizhia, Kherson – is a ceasefire possible?

First, on the freezing of the fronts… Yes, there is freezing, since it hardly moves anymore, but a freezing with furious fighting and a human cost terrible, daily, continuous. A situation that can recall the horrors of the First World War – even if there were no drones then!

But above all, the hope of the Ukrainians, and what Kiev is hoping for at least an extension of one year, is that the maritime and air war could take on more importance in 2024, and perhaps prove decisive .

The F-16s delivered to Ukraine have not yet really entered into action. Furthermore, unbeknownst to the general public who absently follows this war, important developments are happening in the Black Sea: the Russian boats have been practically all driven out of their base in Sevastopol, in Crimea.

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Satellite image showing smoke coming from the Russian fleet HQ in Crimea after an attack by the Ukrainian army. (Archive photo)

Some were destroyed by Ukrainian drones and missiles, such as the Novocherkassk, a large amphibious warship seriously hit on December 26. Most were completely evacuated to the other end of the Black Sea (to Novorossiysk, or even to Georgia, in the frozen part of this country, torn from Tbilisi in 2008).

Some scenarios outlined for 2024 include, for example, a possible direct attack on Crimea, by sea and air. The Ukrainian army could attempt this move, without first having broken the strip of land occupied by Russia at the entrance to the peninsula (this strategy, as we know, having failed in 2023).

On January 11 in Tallinn, Zelensky argued that a ceasefire would lead neither to dialogue nor peace, that it would only be a respite allowing the Russians to rebuild and then attack again: There is no will have no break for the benefit of Russia.

And then, on Putin's side… Quote from the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine in an interview with < em>ElPaís on January 7, which states: Putin does not want peace, and he does not want frozen conflict. In other words, he still wants to conquer Ukraine. All of Ukraine.

Quote from the Russian president himself, a few days ago: I am not against peace, but on my terms. In mid-December, during his famous press conference (annual, but canceled in 2022), a variation of the previous quote:No peace in Ukraine until Russia reaches its objectives.

No, this war is not over. Even relegated to second place since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, it will return to haunt the conscience of the world in 2024.

  • François Brousseau (View profile)François BrousseauFollow

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