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Western officials warn Ukrainian forces face a difficult winter as Russia plans new strikes on infrastructure

By Jim Sciutto, CNN

Washington (CNN) — Ukrainian forces are facing a “tough” winter and a difficult year ahead, as Western intelligence assessments do not expect significant movement on the frontlines in the coming months, two Western officials and a senior US military official told CNN.

In the nearer term, Western intelligence agencies expect Russia to expand its bombardment of civilian infrastructure, including electrical facilities, in an attempt to inflict further suffering on the civilian population during the cold winter months.

Progress on the battlefield has been slow in recent weeks, with Ukrainian forces’ forward movement limited to just one mile in some areas and a handful of miles in others. Western intelligence assessments indicate the frontlines are unlikely to change much in the coming months.

One continuing factor hampering the Ukrainian counteroffensive is the lack of air power to support operations on the ground. F-16 fighter aircraft promised by NATO are not expected to arrive soon enough, or in significant enough numbers, to alter the battlefield dynamic for some time and some estimates expect it will take well into next year before that firepower could have an effect.

Looking into 2024, NATO allies fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin may attempt a broader offensive following his expected victory in his country’s presidential elections in March.

Playing to Ukraine’s advantage, however, is the fact that any Russian offensive is expected to meet stiff Ukrainian resistance. “On the other hand,” a senior Western official told CNN, “Ukraine will have the defender’s advantage, and they are very tough at that”.

With its long-anticipated counteroffensive on the ground in the south and east largely stymied by Russian defenses, Western officials note that the Ukrainian military has made significant progress in other areas. Ukrainian attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet via long-range missiles, including the United Kingdom-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missile, and sea drones have moved the Black Sea Fleet back dozens of miles, opening up shipping lanes enabling transport of grain and other products crucial to Ukraine’s economy.

However, Western intelligence assessments warn that battlefield movement could stagnate until well into 2024, bringing the war closer to the “frozen conflict” that many Russia observers fear plays to Putin’s advantage.

The Russian president is also believed to be factoring in the 2024 US presidential election into his war planning. CNN reported in August that the US does not yet have explicit intelligence about Putin’s mindset, or whether he is purposefully dragging out the war in hopes of a Donald Trump or Republican presidential victory. But next year’s election remains a key factor that top Western national security, intelligence and diplomatic officials believe will influence Putin’s decisions in Ukraine, making it even less likely the war is resolved before the end of next year.

One US official who spoke to CNN at the time said they have “no doubt” that Putin is “trying to hold out” until the 2024 election. Another source familiar with the intelligence said “it’s sort of the elephant in the room” for the US, Ukraine and Europe.

The tough assessment comes as the White House is sending warnings over the US’ ability to support the Ukrainians without more assistance being approved by Congress.

Amid ongoing negotiations on the Hill over possible avenues to provide funding for Ukraine and Israel along with changes to border policy, the White House warned Thursday that the “runway is getting shorter” and that they will have difficulty supporting Ukraine if more funding isn’t approved by the end of the year.

“Again, as I said before, many times, the runway is getting shorter. And we think we got ‘til, you know, about the end of the year before it gets really, really hard to continue to support Ukraine. And the end of the year is coming soon,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

He also said: “We didn’t pull those figures out of thin air. We need that funding.”

CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Natasha Bertrand, Jennifer Hansler, Kevin Liptak and Sam Fossum contributed to this report.

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