President Volodymyr Zelensky’s dismissal of the Ukrainian army chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, is a colossal political gamble for Zelensky and seems to indicate an increasing mood of desperation in Kyiv. The background to this move lies in the failure of last year’s Ukrainian offensive, and the attempts both to shift blame and to draw up a new strategy that could promise Ukraine future victory.
The Ukrainian defeat last year led to a rather discreditable blame game in Washington, with the U.S. military, and some Ukrainians, suggesting that if Zaluzhny had taken their (supposed) advice and concentrated his forces to attack on a narrow front (rather than attacking in several places simultaneously), the Ukrainians could have broken through.
This is a rather odd argument, because it was just such attacks on narrow fronts that the Russian army tried several times immediately following the invasion, and that led to repeated disasters. It ignores the fact that just as U.S. satellite intelligence allowed the Ukrainians to identify local Russian concentrations and to concentrate in turn, so Russian satellite intelligence does the same when it is the Ukrainians attacking.
The truth is that by the summer of 2023 the Ukrainian army simply did not have the superiority in manpower and firepower that would have allowed it to break through heavily fortified lines manned by a numerous and well-armed enemy. To have succeeded against these odds would have been a quite exceptionally unusual event in military history. Nor is there any significant prospect that the Ukrainians will be able to succeed in the future; for even if they receive new Western weaponry over the next year, Russia will be using the year still further to fortify its defensive lines
Zelensky’s dismissal of Zaluzhny also reflects the fact that the general has long been seen as Zelensky’s most dangerous future political rival, given his prestige in the army and popularity among the Ukrainian people. We do not know how Zaluzhny will react to his dismissal. Perhaps he has made some deal with Zelensky.
The risks for the president are however obvious. Although Zaluzhny’s replacement, General Oleksandr Syrsky, also enjoys considerable prestige as the defender of Kyiv at the start of the war, he has been blamed by many Ukrainian soldiers for bowing to political pressure and throwing away Ukrainian lives in what was seen as an unnecessary and doomed attempt to hold the town of Bakhmut last year. There is also considerable resentment among the soldiers due to their impression that not only Zaluzhny, but the military in general are being scapegoated for last year’s failure.
Zelensky is not helped by the fact that after the Ukrainian defeat, he publicly rebuked and contradicted Zaluzhny for stating that the war had reached a stalemate and that Ukraine would now have to go onto the defensive — only then to accept Zaluzhny’s position when military reality (and advice from Washington) became overwhelming.
It is also not clear that General Syrsky’s appointment will change, or improve another critical factor that brought the tension between Zelensky and Zaluzhny to a head: conscription. A striking lesson of this war is that victory depends on a combination of the most recent weaponry with large numbers of fighting soldiers. In 2022, Russian defeats were largely due to the fact that they invaded with too few troops. The spectacular Ukrainian success in Kharkiv in September 2022 owed much to the fact that on that front they considerably outnumbered the Russians.
Today, however, Ukraine is running out of men. Russia has more than four times Ukraine’s population, and is conscripting more of them, as well as radically improving its tactics and weaponry. The Ukrainian army has been drained by huge casualties and growing unwillingness of the population to serve. The average age of Ukrainian soldiers is now 43 — far too old for full military effectiveness.
As a result, in recent months General Zaluzhny became more and more insistent on the need greatly to extend and toughen conscription. This was backed by the soldiers, and became entwined with their growing anger at corruption in Kyiv and the evasion of service by the sons of the elites. However, moves to tighten conscription and increase penalties for evasion of service met strong resistance in the population and among politicians.
As a result of this resistance, and perhaps of the unwillingness of the deputies to see their own children conscripted, the initial version of a law strengthening conscription was defeated in the Ukrainian parliament in January. Zelensky has reintroduced a softened version, but it is not clear that this will be nearly enough to compensate for Russia’s far greater population and resources.
Ukraine’s military prospects have also been drastically threatened by the refusal to date of Republicans in the U.S. Congress to agree to new aid to Ukraine. Without this, Ukraine will simply not have the weapons it needs to continue the fight. The European Union has agreed to a 50 billion euro aid package which will be critical to supporting the Ukrainian economy; but European officials have candidly admitted that Europe is in no position to replace U.S. military aid. Ukraine is therefore facing a double threat: of weapons without soldiers and soldiers without weapons. Should this continue, it is unlikely that Ukraine will even be able to sustain a defensive war of attrition against Russia.
Furthermore, even if the U.S. Congress reaches a compromise on aid to Ukraine, this issue will not go away for long. The struggle in the U.S. Congress — and particularly the role of former President Trump and his supporters in blocking a compromise — of course reflects political maneuvering as part of the U.S. presidential election campaign. However, the Republican stance also reflects a genuine feeling that extends across much of Europe and helps power the rise of the populist Right there: that the real threat to the security and stability of Western societies comes from domestic dysfunction driven in part by illegal migration; and that what happens in Ukraine is irrelevant to these issues.
Whatever one may think of the solutions being offered, it would be wrong and dangerous for advocates of support to Ukraine to dismiss these concerns. For if the war continues indefinitely, it will not be enough for Congress and the European Union to reach agreements providing aid to Ukraine for the coming year. They will have to do so next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. No Western government can seriously and honestly guarantee this.
Moreover, for Ukraine to stand on the defensive — even if it does so successfully — implies something that Western analysts and many Ukrainians are beginning to recognize, though few have as yet been willing to state this publicly: that if Ukraine remains indefinitely on the defensive, then the areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia will remain in Russian hands — not legally, of course, but de facto.
As I found while visiting Ukraine, even before the failure of last year’s offensive, a sizeable minority of Ukrainians were prepared in private to say that Ukraine should compromise with Russia and accept the loss of these territories, if the alternative was years of war and hundreds of thousands more deaths with no realistic prospect that these sacrifices would bring success. According to opinion polls, the defeat of the Ukrainian offensive has led to a significant increase in this sentiment.
The Ukrainian government and much of the establishment has however nailed itself to the principle that the only acceptable outcome is complete Russian withdrawal. Changing this position will be exceptionally painful and difficult; and one way of understanding the present political turmoil in Kyiv is that all the different figures and groups are trying to position themselves so as to throw the blame for eventual compromise with Russia on someone else.
The danger for Ukraine is that given the fraying of U.S. aid, the growing military odds in favor of Russia and the tensions reflected by Zaluzhny’s dismissal, if Kyiv waits too long to seek a compromise it may have nothing left to bargain with — not just because of developments on the battlefield, but because of the collapse of political unity within Ukraine.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
A Ukrainian army soldier and a firefighter handshake in front of the graffiti depicting General Valery Zaluzhny, head of Ukraine’s armed forces in the center of Huliaipole. (Photo by Andriy Andriyenko / SOPA Images/Sipa USA) via Reuters
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.