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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


Twenty-two months have passed since Russia's large scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia's president Vladimir Putin has a swagger in his step and Ukrainian officials acknowledge growing challenges. It would be easy to think that Ukraine's prospects of victory are fading. In fact, though, Putin is exaggerating Russia's successes and Ukraine's supporters need to use the current moment as a rallying cry to help Ukraine overcome its present challenges.

Putin's (limp) shock and awe

Earlier this week Putin told his defence ministry: 'All attempts... to deliver a military defeat on us, a strategic defeat, were frustrated by the courage and resilience of our soldiers, [...] the increased power of our armed forces, and the potential of our domestic industry and defence production capabilities.' Ukraine's counteroffensive had little to show, he crowed, and western weapons were not as impressive as Ukraine's backers pretended.

Putin's assessment of the situation on the ground overstates Russia's position, however. He said: 'We can say with confidence that our troops hold the initiative.... we are doing what we think is necessary, and what we want to do.' But defence analysis shows that Russia has barely made any territorial gains in recent weeks, only that it is effectively holding the territory already occupied. Russia made 'marginal' advances this week near Kupyansk and Synkivka, both in the Kharkiv region, according to the Institute for the Study of War. The same analysis shows Ukraine regaining ground in the south in Kherson region. But compare the frontline today with the beginning of the year; it has barely moved.

If that is Russia doing what it wants and thinks necessary, then it is at odds with what Putin said a few days earlier in his annual phone-in and press conference, when he insisted that the Russia's war aims were unchanged. The war aims, as stated at the beginning of the February invasion, were expansive: 'denazification', 'demilitarisation' and the neutrality of Ukraine. Russia had earlier demanded that NATO withdraws from eastern Europe entirely.

At this point in the war nothing is certain about its outcome. The situation is in a 'deadlock' and either warring side could gain the initiative. Ukraine can only do so with external help, however. Russia has already massively increased its defence budget and retains the possibility of full mobilisation in 2024 (presumably after Russia's presidential election is out of the way, or else that would serve as a focal point for street demonstrations against mass conscription).

Zelenskyy's cri de coeur

Ukraine's president held his own annual press conference at the beginning of the week. He confirmed rumours that the armed forces are seeking to mobilise half a million men. That is a huge number with several consequences. It would take a great number away from work in factories and offices, with attendant economic challenges, and it would be politically risky given some recent decline in support for Zelenskyy. (The decline in support ought not be exaggerated since some sources suggest it remains high: 77% of Ukrainians trust Zelenskyy according to a December poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, down from 90% in May 2022. In November, the Economist reported a less favourable poll. In any case, the president's ratings still exceed their pre-war levels considerably.)

It is risky, more importantly, because Ukraine has the spectre of its own presidential election to contend with. The March ballot is postponed since there is a state of martial law in Ukraine but not everyone is pleased about that. The mayor of Kyiv, Vitaly Klitschko, stirred the pot by labelling Zelenskyy's recent leadership as 'authoritarian'. Klitschko is not someone Zelenskyy wants to get into a fight with.

That only added to concerns surrounding continued western support which have already revealed ructions within the Ukrainian leadership. Zelenskyy was reportedly unhappy about the commander of the armed forces, Valeryi Zaluzhnyy, writing in the Economist that the battlefield stood in 'stalemate' at the beginning of November. With its counteroffensive having failed to bring triumphal headlines, as well as an admission its armed forces have had to scale back some operations because of ammunition shortages, Ukraine could certainly benefit from some good news right now.

The future's shadow

Putin, near the end of his speech to the defence ministry, turned on 'spineless' European politicians and media which he says are in hock to American organisations. He has little time for European leaders since he thinks they are only ever pursuing Washington's agenda. He presumably thinks that, if his forces can hold out through 2024, then Donald Trump could well return to the US White House and that it will be game over for Ukraine. While Trump did brag that he would resolve the conflict 'in a day', he may not have a free hand to cut a deal with Putin. The Russian leader should not therefore count his chickens even if Trump wins in November (as I expect he will).

Trump's inherent conviction that Putin would be satisfied with a negotiated outcome and adopt a non-expansionist foreign policy is difficult to imagine post-February 2022. Russian officials have outlined far-reaching goals for altering the European security order in their favour: officials reiterated the call for NATO to withdraw its presence from eastern Europe, only reining in the rhetoric in the face of setbacks on the battlefield. Putin's strategy follows Catherine the Great who said, 'I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them' (cited in Thomas Graham, 2023, p.60).

Even if Putin himself believes that he would be happy being handed control of sizable chunks of Ukraine (which would contradict the announced war aim of rolling NATO back from eastern Europe), the appetite grows with the eating. It is far easier to imagine reading history books twenty years from now that say something along these lines:

The Americans elected Trump for a second time. One of his first foreign policy moves was to end all aid to Ukraine and cut a deal with Putin, convinced it was in America's interest to see the war ended. It brought a pause in hostilities, briefly, since Ukraine reluctantly accepted the terms, recognising US support was indispensable to its ability to prosecute the war. Throughout 2025 Trump claimed he was right all along: 'Putin is a good guy at heart,' he said in his State of the Union address in January 2026. He spoke too soon.

A week after Trump's address, Belarus's dictator died in office and Russian officials realised that their influence in Belarus was at risk. The Kremlin tried to install a new leader in Minsk, but protesters took to the streets in large numbers. Putin ordered his troops into Belarus and hailed 'the reunification of historical Russian territory'. Putin insisted: 'This is the last territorial demand Russia has to make of Europe; I assure others they have nothing to fear.' Poland announced a full mobilisation the next day and Russia, once the situation in Belarus was stabilised two weeks later, moved its soldiers to seize the Suwalki Gap. Within days, NATO was embroiled in a war with Russia.

European leaders have stepped up with individual military aid packages as the EU-wide package stalls. Denmark and Sweden, for example, have pledged to supply additional armoured vehicles. Denmark is also asking its parliament to approve an additional €1bn in military aid. But Europeans need to raise more keenly to Putin's challenge and show more spine if they wish to avoid a scenario such as the one described above.

Putin concluded his speech at the defence ministry by claiming that Russia alone could guarantee Ukraine's 'sovereignty and territorial integrity'; it requires contortions of logic to make that argument about a state you have annexed territory from. Putin sounds over-confident of success, but that is his vulnerability right now – if others are willing to strike at it.

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Image credit: Photo from the Lebanese civil war by James Case from Philadelphia, Mississippi, U.S.A. - Checkpoint 4, Beirut, Lebanon 1982, used under creative commons licence 2.0, Tinted by me.

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