Opinions #02/24

Opinions #02 / 24
War on Ice

The rhetoric of the season did not disappoint. Over time, “General Frost” returned to prove himself in the history of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Scenarios with ice-covered mud and temperatures well below freezing, when everything becomes ossified, are both suitable.

“Trench warfare, very little movement along the front line.” A minimalist description, consistent with the definition of a “stalemate” that Ukrainian generals condemned and angered Zelensky when the autumn was still warm.

Thus, all that remained was to wait for spring, a thaw, and, as soon as the mud dried, the resumption of hostilities. Which a year ago had only one profile: counter-offensive. The same one that Kyiv promised, seeking to regain all territories under Russian control: most of Donbass and Crimea. The counter-offensive then met Russian resistance, and months passed with no events, or nearly so.

American journalists focused on this “nearly” part. Firstly, by carefully recording in Kyiv the true sentiments surrounding the political elite led by President Zelensky. Then by studying the beliefs and fears of the military hierarchy. And finally, by heading to the battlefield.

The picture of the situation that emerges as a result of investigations, particularly by Time and the New York Times, is eloquent and surprising in its own way. Having broken through the thick veil of Ukrainian propaganda, the American press discovered that Zelensky had lost most of his charisma; that his generals struggle to follow him and are, in turn, criticized by the president; that corruption all the while continues to consume resources intended for soldiers; that the counter-offensive not only failed to achieve its goals, but also turned into a defensive strategy.

The “stalemate,” which just a few weeks ago was an unacceptable aspect of the conflict, is now viewed almost as a relief. Because, in fact, the situation at the front is dynamic, and the initiative is slowly, month after month, passing to the Russians.

In October, ISW – the American Institute for the Study of War – already recorded that since the beginning of the year, instead of advancing, Kyiv troops have lost several hundred square kilometers of territory. Interactive maps published by various newspapers have revealed what the ISW itself ruled out some time ago. Now it is the turn of British intelligence, which provides objective data on a daily basis and has been giving wishful thinking, now points out the slow advance of Moscow troops.

The same analysts, who predicted a breakthrough of the Russian defense line on several fronts, are now predicting a Russian “counter-offensive” that could reach Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, Kharkov…

In fact, the evolving dynamics on the battlefield were well known to American military leaders. Since last spring, they have been warning about excessive expectations around the Ukrainian “counter-offensive.” Duly ignored, or worse yet, corrected by White House-leaning political officials, they now find themselves in a state of unwitting Cassandra.

The same fate awaits the Ukrainian chiefs of staff, to whom Zelensky now attributes the need for an emergency mobilization of 400-500 thousand people to revive the battered army. This could have been guessed a year ago, when the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, mentioned the figure of one hundred thousand deaths, which constituted a state secret. For months, American military sources have spoken of one hundred and fifty thousand Ukrainian soldiers out of action and a growing number of men evading the draft.

American journalistic investigations have documented brutal actions of Kyiv authorities, who are now beginning to forcefully recruit people intercepted on the street or even admitted to hospitals with confirmed pathologies.

This is why Zelensky lost more than twenty percent of his votes compared to a year earlier. This may be why he “indefinitely” postponed the presidential elections, scheduled for the next few months. And perhaps it is for this set of reasons that American analysts, represented in Washington, such as Charles Kupchan, Richard Haass, Serge Schmemann, have been proposing for several months to redefine the conditions of “success,” ignoring the reconquest of territories now under Moscow’s control.

Senior correspondant

Alessandro Cassieri