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Exhausted and disappointed with allies, Ukraine’s president and military chief warn of long attritional war

Analysis by Tim Lister

(CNN) — Two articles published this week give a stark assessment of Ukraine’s prospects in its war with Russia. One – by the commander in chief of the Ukrainian military – admits the battlefield has reached a stalemate and a long attritional war benefiting Moscow beckons. The other portrays Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as exhausted by the constant effort to cajole and persuade allies to keep the faith.

Ukraine’s military chief, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, says in a long essay and interview with the Economist that “just like in the First World War we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate.”

He acknowledges: “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,” but instead an equilibrium of devastating losses and destruction.

At the same time, in an interview with TIME’s Simon Shuster, Zelensky says that “Nobody believes in our victory like I do. Nobody.” But he adds that instilling those beliefs in Ukraine’s allies “takes all your power, your energy.”

Shuster, who has long had access to the president’s inner circle, portrays Zelensky as tired and sometimes irritable, and anxious that allied commitment is waning.

“Exhaustion with the war rolls along like a wave. You see it in the United States, in Europe,” Zelensky is quoted as saying.

But Zelensky is fixated with victory and won’t countenance a truce or negotiations. “For us it would mean leaving this wound open for future generations,” he tells TIME.

Five months after Ukraine launched its much-anticipated counteroffensive, Zelensky’s fears and Zaluzhny’s assessment come as the world’s focus shifts to the Middle East and the risk that Israel’s war with Hamas might spill over into a broader regional conflict.

Zelensky himself acknowledges to TIME: “Of course we lose out from the events in the Middle East. People are dying, and the world’s help is needed there to save lives…”

Stalemate on the front

Ukrainian forces have taken just a sliver of land since the summer; Russia still occupies nearly one-fifth of the country. In some areas, such as around Avdviika and Vuhledar in Donetsk, and near Kupyansk in Kharkiv, the Ukrainians are on the defensive, as Russia pours munitions and men into the battle.

Zaluzhny tells the Economist that the Kremlin is oblivious to the huge losses sustained by the Russian army – well over 100,000 men according to many estimates. In the last few days, Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov says Russia has lost 4,000 men around Avdviika alone. Open-source imagery suggests the Russians may have lost up to 200 tanks and other vehicles in that battle.

Zaluzhny seems almost puzzled that the arsenal supplied to Ukraine by its Western allies, and the mobilization of several more brigades, has made so little difference. Changing commanders and moving divisions have had no impact, he says.

“Four months should have been enough time for us to have reached Crimea, to have fought in Crimea, to return from Crimea and to have gone back in and out again,” he adds.

Instead, deep and well-entrenched Russian defenses have been impossible to penetrate. Even where dense minefields are penetrated, often at great cost, the Russians restore them through remote mine-laying.

Ukraine’s inferiority in the air has stymied advances on the ground, and Zaluzhny warns that at the end of 2023, Russia may deploy new attack squadrons.

The commander in chief says that at one point he turned to an old Soviet analysis of the First World War, entitled “Breaching Fortified Defense Lines.” The similarities with today were striking, he notes.

“I realized that is exactly where we are because just like then, the level of our technological development today has put both us and our enemies in a stupor.”

The use of drones and other reconnaissance technology is at the heart of the stalemate. Zaluzhny talks about the carnage unfolding around Avdviika as Russia throws dozens of tanks into taking a few hundred meters.

“The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy is doing, and they see everything we are doing.”

At the same time he acknowledges that the Russian military has learnt and adapted. It has improved logistics chains, factories are churning out new hardware and its electronic warfare capabilities have blunted Ukraine’s edge in precision munitions.

Zaluzhny candidly admits that Russia “will maintain an advantage in armaments, equipment, rockets, and ammunition for some time.”

Kyiv’s wish list

Ukraine’s military chief says it will take a qualitative leap to break the remorseless war of attrition that has set in – just as winter begins to bite. That brutal recognition can only wear down Ukrainian morale, and not just on the battlefield. Ukrainian civilians will face another cold, dark winter if Russia renews its targeting of energy infrastructure.

In his essay Zaluzhny lists five major requirements for progress – none of them quick fixes and all of them demanding renewed commitment from allies. They include gaining air superiority to support ground operations; breaching Russian mine barriers; increasing the effectiveness of counterbattery combat (targeting Russian artillery, for example); creating and training the necessary reserves; and building up electronic warfare capabilities.

He says that Ukraine must deliver massive strikes “in a single combat formation,” using decoys and combat drones to overload the Russian air defense systems.

“We also need electronic warfare systems, which are key to winning the drone warfare,” he notes, adding that the Russians have about 60 different systems.

“This war cannot be won with the weapons of the past generation and outdated methods,” Zaluzhny told the Economist. “Sooner or later we are going to find that we simply don’t have enough people to fight.”

“We have limited capabilities to train reserves on our own territory, since the enemy has the ability to launch missile and air strikes on training centers and training grounds.”

The Kremlin, by contrast, seems grimly satisfied by the stalemate in the belief that ultimately its larger military machine will break Ukrainian morale.

Responding to Zaluzhny’s comments, spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Thursday that “Russia consistently continues to conduct the special military operation. All goals that are set must be achieved.”

Moscow is also likely relishing shifting sentiment in the US, in both Congress and among the public.

According to a new Gallup poll, 41 percent of Americans say the US is doing too much to help Ukraine, up from 29% just five months ago. That figure rises to 55% among Republicans, according to the poll, as the 2024 election looms.

The paralysis on Capitol Hill has also interrupted the flow of military aid to Ukraine. The Biden administration’s efforts to link a year’s worth of aid ($24 billion) to other funding priorities, such as aid to Israel, have run into strong headwinds among Republicans in Congress.

Several Republican senators have now said that Zaluzhny’s remarks call into question Ukraine’s strategy in the war. One who has opposed further aid to Ukraine, Sen. J.D. Vance, said Thursday: “This was always going to end with Russia controlling some Ukrainian territory and a negotiated settlement.”

Speaking of his latest visit to Washington in September, Zelensky tells TIME that some members of Congress “asked me straight up: ‘If we don’t give you the aid, what happens?’ What happens is we will lose.”

Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have consistently warned that the volume and type of aid coming from Western allies – as well as what they see as damaging delays in its arrival – has enabled Ukraine to stay in the fight but not to prevail.

Shuster quotes an aide to the Ukrainian president as saying Zelensky feels “betrayed by his Western allies. They have left him without the means to win the war, only the means to survive it.”

Only now are US-made ATACMs (a longer-range tactical missile) being brought to bear against targets far behind the front lines. F-16 fighter jets will not be deployed until next spring at the earliest.

To many Ukrainian officials, this restricted pipeline has allowed Russia to stabilize a situation which a year ago threatened to unravel, in the aftermath of the sudden Ukrainian advance through Kharkiv and the Russian withdrawal from much of Kherson.

If the Russians have an Achilles heel, Zaluzhny believes, it is Crimea. That is partly because it is the jewel in President Vladimir Putin’s crown, and partly because the peninsula is an important channel for resupplying Russian troops as well as the home of its Black Sea fleet.

Over the past few months, the Ukrainian military has stepped up missile, drone and sabotage attacks against Russia’s defense infrastructure in Crimea, as well as Putin’s prized bridge to Russia. Zaluzhny says that for the first time an ATACM was used against a target in Crimea this week. But its land forces remain many miles from the peninsula.

For now, Zaluzhny’s greatest fear is prolonged trench warfare against an enemy with three times the number of men under arms.

“The biggest risk of an attritional trench war is that it can drag on for years and wear down the Ukrainian state,” he says.

Zaluzhny describes Russia as “a feudal state where the cheapest resource is human life. And for us… the most expensive thing we have is our people.”

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