Russia was ridiculed at the beginning of the war. Two years on, he has reason to be confident

A Ukrainian soldier in a bunker in his battle position in the direction of Bakhmut, Donetsk Region, UkraineFebruary 20, 2024.

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When Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, the staunch resistance put up by the country’s armed forces and overwhelming Western support for Kiev – along with some apparent military extravagance by Moscow – raised hopes that Ukraine’s outnumbered and outgunned military could defeat the invading forces.

Fast forward two years and hopes of a Ukrainian victory look dim and increasingly hollow, as do Western pledges to support Ukraine “as long as necessary”.

As it stands, billions of dollars worth of US military aid remains unapproved with further struggles likely as war and funding fatigue builds ahead of the US presidential election – a vote that could lead to the installation of a less sympathetic administration in the Ukrainian war needs of.

On the battlefield in Ukraine, meanwhile, the front lines have been largely static for months, except for recent gains made by Russian forces in the east of the country.

Kiev continues to insist it is not given the tools to fight Russia as effectively as it could, and there have been reports of declining morale among frontline forces facing shortages of ammunition and personnel. Internal political infighting and the replacement of popular military chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi have also fueled concerns about military strategy going forward.

“This year is the most difficult year for Ukraine so far in this war, partly because of the concern over the replacement of Zaluzhnyi and the retreat from Avdiivka, but mainly because of the huge uncertainty about the level of Western aid and help,” James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Chatham House think tank, said on Monday.

“I think for Ukraine, there’s really little difference between a president who can’t provide lethal assistance and a president who won’t provide lethal assistance. And for Ukrainians this is essentially one and the same thing, and it is an existential question. Putin doesn’t gamble on everything he can [Republican presidential hopeful Donald] Why does Trump think he can win whatever the outcome of the US election in November,” Nixey said.

“In other words, Putin senses weakness, as he has done so often in the past, and he is absolutely right. Whether his confidence is justified remains to be seen, but at least he more or less knows what he has in store. summer, or this time of year or even after, and Ukraine just can’t say the same thing.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens as then-US President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in Helsinki, Finland in 2019.

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While the West will likely be dominated this year by domestic political infighting ahead of US, UK and EU parliamentary elections, “Russia faces none of these constraints,” Nixey said, noting that Moscow was “ready to do great harm to himself in the pursuit of victory.”

Russia certainly looks hot as the war enters its third year, its confidence boosted by recent advances – last week’s capture of Avdiivka was its most significant victory in nine months, followed by smaller territorial gains this week – and the purge of political opponents at home ahead of next month’s presidential election.

Needless to say, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to win the vote easily, particularly given that most of his critics are in self-imposed exile, banned from political participation, imprisoned or dead, the most recent being Alexei Navalny who died in a remote prison sentence of the Arctic. colony last week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles while visiting an aviation factory on February 21, 2024, in Kazan, Russia.

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While the fortunes of the war are unpredictable, political analysts note that Russia has as much stake in what happens in the war as the West.

Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO and special envoy to Ukraine, told CNBC that he had found there was “a lot of concern about the West and the US, in particular” during his talks with regional officials and military commanders in Ukraine. .

“Will we provide the levels of military and economic support to Ukraine that we did, and that it continues to need? Because without that, they’re worried that Russia has more resources, will continue to push to the front, continue to buy drones and missiles and fire them into Ukrainian cities, and so this war continues as it is—not necessarily with massive casualties but as has — and they’re not getting their land back,” he said Thursday.

Russia is counting profits

In the early months of the war in Ukraine in the spring of 2022, Russia’s military strategy and tactics were criticized and often ridiculed, particularly when Russian forces had to beat a hasty retreat on the northern front after a failed attempt to reach the capital Kyiv.

In the aftermath, Russian forces were widely seen as poorly equipped, poorly trained and disorganized, but defense analysts noted that the Russian military has adapted and that a more structured, coordinated and reactive armed force emerged last year.

No one is laughing at Russian military tactics now, with its forces either entrenched in heavily fortified defensive positions that fended off a Ukrainian counteroffensive last summer or launching offensive operations, mainly in eastern Ukraine.

Analysts note that what matters to Moscow is how Avdiivka’s victory looks to the Russian public ahead of the election — and what message it sends to the West. That is, that Russia is in the long-term war and is determined to achieve its goals in Ukraine, no matter the cost.


As such, Russia occupies nearly a fifth of Ukraine’s territory and has shown it can mobilize hundreds of thousands of men to fight at will, highlighting another advantage it has over Ukraine, which has been loathed by the need to mobilize more civilians to fight.

“I think as long as Putin is in power, the war continues,” Volcker noted. “Because he doesn’t care how many Russians he kills, he’ll just keep flying wave after wave. [of personnel] on the front lines and kill tens and tens and tens of thousands. And he doesn’t care. Therefore, as long as Putin is there, this war will continue,” he said. CNBC has reached out to the Kremlin for comment and is awaiting a response.

Ukraine’s military has called for an additional 500,000 personnel to be mobilized, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was reticent, describing it as a “sensitive” issue. The mobilization was a “hot potato thrown between the government and the military” that could no longer be avoided, according to David Kiritchenko, an analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“What is clear is that Ukraine has no choice but to mobilize more people. Men and women who fight in intense battles for 23 months suffer severe fatigue and heavy casualties.” write down.

“The mobilization controversy comes at a time when most authorized U.S. military aid is nearly exhausted and Congress has yet to approve a new aid package.”

“Ukraine has had to halt many of its military operations due to weapons shortages and the situation on the frontline looks grim. For now, at least, the battles are largely attrition, which favors Russia. However, there is no indication that Ukraine will end its resistance,” Kirichenko said.

Members of the “Paragon” military unit, part of the “Tymur” military intelligence unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, prepare rifles during firing exercises at an unspecified location in Ukraine, Monday, January 29, 2024.

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That sentiment is echoed by Ukraine’s leadership with Zelensky repeatedly saying Ukraine will fight to win every last inch of its territory, including Crimea annexed in 2014.

For now, there is little chance of a political settlement to the war, analysts say, with neither side at a point on the battlefield where it feels it has the upper hand in any peace talks.

Despite the adverse conditions under which Ukraine is fighting, and the political uncertainty this year, Kiev is certainly not missing out. Asked what would happen if international military aid to Ukraine dried up, Volcker said Ukraine would “go into guerilla status.”

“They would go underground, there would be resistance. It would be very different to the organized defense we see today, but they will continue to fight.”

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