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Samuel Ramani: Two years in, the War in Ukraine is locked in a stalemate

Commentary

Two years into Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a stalemate has now crystallized on the frontlines. Ukraine’s much-vaunted summer counter-offensive yielded a minor victory in Robotyne and minimal gains around the Dnipro River, Zaporizhzhia, and Bakhmut’s outskirts. 

But Russia’s attritional offensive in Donetsk has yielded victories in Bakhmut and Avdiivka, at the cost of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers. These minor achievements are a far cry from Ukraine’s rapid-fire victories in Kharkiv and Kherson during the second half of 2022 and Russia’s substantial territorial gains during the early stages of the war. 

Despite this quagmire, both Ukraine and Russia remain publicly confident of their prospects of total victory. In his December 2023 Foreign Affairs article entitled “There is a Path to Victory in Ukraine: The Delusions and Dangers of Defeatist Voices in the West,” Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba emphatically dismantled the pessimistic assertion that Russia’s resources advantage would eventually guarantee its victory. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has expressed optimism about Ukraine’s prospects of securing “fire control” over Crimea’s skies. Meanwhile, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, candidly admitted in November that, “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough” in the near term, infuriating Zelensky and presaging his eventual ousting.  

Russian officials and media outlets have reinforced their neo-imperialist rhetoric and raised the specter of Ukraine’s erasure as a state. In December 2023, Putin declared peace will be achieved when Russia achieves its goals of the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine, which are euphemisms for regime change and Russian occupation. Meanwhile, Dmitry Medvedev, the hawkish deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, recently declared that Russian forces would occupy Odesa and eventually seize the “Russian city” of Kyiv. After Russia’s triumph in Avdiivka, Russian commentator Alexei Naumov argued that the current moment is Russia’s best since the invasion began, as Ukraine is running out of aid money and troops that can be mobilized. 

The near-term trajectory of the War in Ukraine is unlikely to vindicate either of these predictions. Ukraine’s incremental gains at the Dnipro River’s eastern bank in November 2023, which aimed to create a straight-line path from Kherson to Crimea and divert Russian forces from their fortified positions in Zaporizhzhia, are unlikely to be followed by further breakthroughs. The stagnation of Ukraine’s ground forces means that its inexorable degradation of Russia’s Black Sea fleet is likely to be more costly to Russia’s morale and status rather than to its hold on occupied territories. The August 2023 assassination of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and the relatively smooth integration of Wagner’s Ukraine contingent into the Russian military will also limit Kyiv’s ability to capitalize on discord within Russia’s ranks. If anything, the dismissal of the extremely popular Zaluzhny for the much-maligned Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi could mean Ukraine has an even bigger disunity problem. 

Russia’s prospects for decisive territorial gains in the near term are just as illusory. Despite overwhelming manpower and war materiel advantages, Russia has been unable to convert its victories in Donetsk’s smaller battlegrounds, such as Bakhmut and Avdiivka, into successful assaults on its larger cities Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. Russia is initiating a multi-axis offensive in the Kharkiv-Luhansk area, which is the first campaign of its kind since early 2022. However, the rigidity of its military doctrine and tactical shortcomings are obstacles. 

Ukraine’s impending procurement of pledged F-16s will further challenge Russia’s air superiority. Kyiv’s planned production of thousands of long-range drones that can target military installations deep in Russian territory could lead to further war materiel losses. While Prigozhin’s death and the silencing of ultranationalist firebrands could obscure Russian military setbacks from the public, Putin is actually unlikely to be able to report any major victories either. 

While the spring and summer offensive cycles are unlikely to lead to either side gaining the advantage, there is a compelling case to be made that the War in Ukraine is at a real inflection point. Russia’s isolated military allies Iran and North Korea and economic partnerships in the Global South look more resilient than Ukraine’s partnerships with Western countries. To complement its past deliveries of drones and loitering munitions, Iran recently exported hundreds of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles to Russia. North Korea has supplied Russia with one million artillery shells, which equaled the target number that the European Union (EU) missed for Ukraine. China’s trade with Russia reached a record $240 billion in 2023, as the yuan replaced the U.S. dollar in Russia’s commercial transactions. 

By contrast, Ukraine’s access to war materiel from its Western partners is falling short. As the Republican-led Congress ambiguously links aid to Ukraine to U.S. border security, the U.S. has been forced to resort to assistance transfers to third countries, such as Ecuador and Greece, to help Ukraine. The U.S. has also leaned heavily on the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. This allows for much smaller munitions drawdowns than what a congressional aid package would afford. The Czech Republic’s plan to amass 800,000 artillery shells for Ukraine, which includes participation from Canada, will provide only a temporary respite to the Ukrainian military’s munitions shortages. 

Ukraine has signed a series of bilateral security guarantee agreements with NATO countries. These pacts will help it survive the next decade of Russian expansionism. But they do little to ameliorate pressing supply shortages on the frontlines, which have been publicly exposed by Ukrainian military commanders and soldiers who are stoically resisting Russian advances. Sanctions are formidable weapons, but they alone have not stopped Russia’s ability to replenish its precision missile stockpiles or procure dual-use goods from countries like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Serbia, and Kazakhstan. 

Russia’s axis of illiberal allies has outlasted Ukraine’s coalition of liberal democracies. And this trend shows few signs of reversing itself. 

On the Right, skepticism of Ukraine is on the rise, and it is manifesting itself in various forms of passive and active obstructionism. Speaker Mike Johnson’s decision to send the House into recess while the Ukraine aid debate remains unresolved will further strain Kyiv’s supply chains. Conspiracies about Ukraine’s alleged misuse of U.S. military aid have been dismissed by senior Republicans, such as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul, but remain regular talking points amongst aid-skeptical MAGA Republicans. 

Ukrainian army tanks exercise as soldiers check the readiness of equipment for combat deployment at a military base in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, Wednesday, Apr. 5, 2023. Kateryna Klochko/The Canadian Press.

Canadian conservatives are alarmingly showing signs of emulating this trend. A recent poll showed that 43 percent of Conservative Party voters in the 2021 election believe  Canada is doing too much to aid Ukraine, which is an increase from 19 percent in May 2022. The Conservative Party’s resistance to a Canada-Ukraine free trade agreement over its mention of “carbon pricing” is merely the tip of the iceberg in a broader spike in Ukraine skepticism. But, Britain’s Conservative government which is leading a coalition with Latvia on drone distributions to Ukraine, and right-wing Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who recently encouraged her Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban to soften his opposition to aiding Ukraine, present more encouraging examples. But this goodwill is not sufficient to keep Ukraine’s resistance afloat. 

While the commitment gap towards Ukraine is most pronounced on the right, it is not confined to conservative movements. Across the political spectrum, Ukraine defeatism is starting to creep in. President Joe Biden’s pledge to support Ukraine as “long as we can” during Zelensky’s December 2023 visit to Washington was not one of his trademark gaffes. In recent months, U.S. and European officials have broached the prospect of peace negotiations with Russia. These negotiations would force Ukraine into territorial concessions. It plays right into Russia’s strategy for victory in Ukraine in 2026, which consists of grinding down Western resolve to the point that currently occupied territories plus Kharkiv and Odesa become negotiable. The failure of the U.S. Congress to pass an aid package to Ukraine after the murder of opposition leader Alexei Navalny will only add to Russia’s confidence. 

The expansion of Ukraine defeatism amongst the Canadian public is just as striking as the rise of Ukraine skepticism in Canada’s Conservative Party. A February 2024 poll showed that 30 percent of Canadians believe Ukraine should pursue a deal with Russia that cedes territory, while just 40 percent of Canadians are convinced that Ukraine should keep fighting. The modest but encouraging uptick in Canadian public support for military assistance deliveries to Ukraine is chimeric in the broader political context. 

While the War in Ukraine remains locked in a stalemate, the rise of Ukraine skepticism and Ukraine defeatism in the West presents an alarming challenge to Kyiv’s long-term ability to resist Russian aggression. The inefficacy of Russia’s military doctrine has bought time for the liberal international order. But two years after Russian tanks appeared on the outskirts of Kyiv, it is clear this reprieve is not indefinite.

‘It is in Canada’s interest that Ukraine prevails’: The best comments from Hub readers this week

Commentary

Interesting discussions were had in Hub Forum this week, where readers commented on Trudeau’s reaction to the Bell Media layoffs, the impact of Canada’s low birth rate on the economy, and the reform needed for Canadian media content. They also discussed why supporting Ukraine is more important than ever.

The goal of Hub Forum is to bring the impressive knowledge and experience of The Hub community to the fore and to foster open dialogue and the competition of differing ideas in a respectful and productive manner. Here are some of the most interesting comments from this past week.

Sign up for our daily Hub Forum email newsletter today.

Corporate Canada gets caught in the crosshairs

Monday, February 19, 2024

“The apparent problem with this government (and definitely too many Canadian voters) is failure to understand that government doesn’t generate wealth. It seems these days that, like vaccines, capitalism is a victim of its own success.

Government largely provides services. These are primarily wealth redistribution, not wealth creation. What services, and to what level, is the eternal debate.”

— Gord Edwards

“The more that the current government is threatened with defeat, the greater the potential of this emotional lashing out.”

— Eric Kahlke

The plummeting birth rate is everyone’s problem

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

“Marriage and family will need support to survive. With all the pressures of a fast-changing world, the days of ‘go it alone’ are not sufficient to meet the needs of change. Publicly funded programs such as universal daycare, health care, dental care, pharmacare, and free education from prekindergarten to post-secondary are all necessary to promote good family health and growth.”

— A. Chezzi

“How can couples afford to have children in these financial times? Both work to meet the rising rent or maybe even save for their own house. Food prices are the highest I have seen in my life.”

— Paul Nesbitt

“At a whole population level, a policy nudge or two (i.e. incentives) might be enough to move the birthrate higher.

Something tells me (evolutionary drive) that given a better environment (more resources, safer, more stable) the big-brained human animal, living in the northern part of the North American geographical region known as Canada, will feel secure enough to have more children.”

— Paul Attics

“It is no surprise that people with significant financial stability and wealth are having more children; they have a safety net that the populous does not.”

— Rod H

Canada’s CanCon regime must be reformed

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

“The cultural argument for Cancon was long ago consumed by the economic interests of creative industry stakeholders and other CRTC co-dependents. The most important thing is not telling Canadian stories or even whether anyone watches. It’s money—the entire system is an industrial subsidy.

— Peter Menzies

“I think it is great that we have a film industry in Canada that uses Canadian talent, but I absolutely think we could make shows that are proud to be Canadian.”

— Alice

“We should work towards amplifying regional storytellers and content creators like Letterkenny Tales and The PEI Encyclopedia as they tell authentic Canadian stories and deliver them in an enjoyable format.”

— Zac Waldman

“Perhaps it is time to end subsidies. We don’t live in a three-channel universe anymore. And, while the average American may have insular viewing habits, I’d say there is a taste for novelty and different cultures in many countries. With rare exceptions in my experience ‘Canadian TV’ has meant ‘change the channel’. There is another way: make good content. But they would need to be good stories where the writers’ definition of Canadian culture is the backdrop, not the purpose.”

— Gord Edwards

“Defining what makes us Canadian is a long-standing issue. With such a diverse, multilingual nation with vast geography, it’s not easy. What it means to be Canadian in Charlottetown is very different from Montreal, etc.”

— Cathy

A motorist drives on a service road along the closed Trans-Canada Highway as floodwaters fill the ditches beside the highway in Abbotsford, B.C., on Wednesday, December 1, 2021. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.
Actually, minister, Canada needs more roads

Thursday, February 22, 2024

“We obviously need to move goods, internally and for export markets. Currently, roads are the primary way this is done (at least by value). Even if the government were to try to shift this transport mode balance, it would take a decade to begin to change the mix. Until then, if were to happen at all, we need to invest in roads to meet the need.

Perhaps [Minister Guilbeault] was thinking more about city roads, and the incentives for commuter/commercial sprawl and badly laid out urban areas when roads are expanded in/out of cities?”

— Paul Attics

“I’m not sure we will necessarily spur the economy with new road construction, but we will certainly strangle economic growth if we fail to build adequate roads.”

— Brian Tiessen

Ukraine needs our support now more than ever

Friday, February 23, 2024

“I agree we should be supporting Ukraine against this aggression. Once it is clear that the West does not support maintaining international boundaries the future is bleak. Canada needs to step up and at least meet the 2 percent of GDP to defence spending threshohold.”

— Jo wearing

“It is up to leaders to lead. Our federal leaders should be regularly speaking with one voice on the baseline need of this conflict:

  • It is just that Ukraine defeats the illegal and brutal aggression;
  • money spent now will be much less than the money required should Russia win;
  • it is in Canada’s interest that Ukraine prevails.

The parties can debate specifics of course, but they should not politicize any aspect of our support.”

— Paul Attics