Commander in Chief of Ukraine’s armed forces Valery Zaluzhny admitted last week in the pages of The Economist that the war with Russia has become a stalemate and there will “most likely” be no breakthrough. It has been clear for months that Ukraine’s much hyped summer offensive has been a massive failure, and military leadership is finally acknowledging the reality. But at a press conference days later Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sternly rejected Zaluzhny’s assessment. Evidently he’s still hanging on to the notion that victory is just around the corner.
He pointed to the fact that talk of stalemate was widespread last year before the Kharkiv offensive. “A few military tricks, and you remember, the Kharkiv region was liberated,” he said.
But things have changed dramatically since then, for the Ukrainians as well as the Russians. Incidentally, a closer look at the Kharkiv offensive reveals the Ukrainian success was due mostly to luck and Russia’s poor defense rather than tactical skill.
In fact if one objectively looks at Ukraine’s biggest “victories” of the war — Russia’s pullback from Kyiv and northern Ukraine in March and April 2022, the Kharkiv offensive in September 2022, and Russia’s evacuation from the right bank of the Dnieper in the Kherson region in November 2022 — it’s easy to come to the conclusion none of them were the result of Ukraine’s military talents.
And the situation has only gotten tougher for the Ukrainians after a full year without any major successes. An October 30 article in Time magazine highlights the Ukrainian army’s worsening problems with recruitment and desertion, mounting battlefield losses, omnipresent corruption, and growing difficulties in keeping up Western support. It centers on the waning confidence of many around the president. Zelensky himself is singularly convinced of Ukraine’s eventual victory however, and he seems to be one of the few. One adviser is cited saying of the president, “He deludes himself. We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.”
After considerable fanfare the author of the piece clarified that all his sources were current aides and advisers to Zelensky, noting he did not talk to the outspoken former insider Alexey Arestovych.
Since leaving the presidential administration in January, after claiming a Russian missile that hit an apartment block in Dnipro could have been knocked off course by Ukrainian air defense, Arestovych has been labeled a traitor and a criminal. In turn, he’s become a harsh critic of the way the war is being conducted and recently called Zelensky a dictator who is “divorced from reality.” Last week Arestovych announced his intention to run in the next presidential elections. He is also currently under surveillance by Ukraine’s special services for advocating negotiations with Russia.
Owing to his adept use of social media and comforting predictions of victory, Arestovych once had the highest approval rating of any Ukrainian official apart from Zelensky. But he fell out of favor by the beginning of this year, and in July openly floated the idea of making territorial concessions to Russia in exchange for peace and NATO membership. With the summer offensive now an undeniable disaster, he’s decided to step things up, announcing his own presidential run. Like his old boss, Arestovych is a native Russian speaker and a former actor. He’s also a veteran of military intelligence, and nowadays an amateur psychologist. He could end up as a formidable rival to the incumbent.
Reality is quickly catching up with Zelensky, his differences with Zaluzhny and the boldness of Arestovych prove it.
If he definitively cancels the elections scheduled for March 2024, and continues to disregard Zaluzhny and others, he may be running the risk of being forced out of office.
The Ukrainian president is not the only one still deluding himself though. Zelensky’s delusions didn’t come out of nowhere. He was fed them by Westerners, and none more so than Americans. Ukrainian victory was always a pipe dream. One only has to look at the difference in size and industrial capacity between Russia and Ukraine to know that. But the obvious truth hasn’t gotten in Washington’s way. These are the same people who thought removing Saadam Hussein would weaken Iran.
Zaluzhny says the war has just now entered a stalemate, but that determination could have been made long ago. It was apparent in the opening months of the war that neither side would win an absolute victory. And it has long been understood that the conflict would end in a negotiated settlement. But the Biden administration worked to undermine peace talks in both Belarus and Turkey in spring 2022 and later rejected the advice of General Mark Milley when he suggested negotiations this time last year.
Despite all logic, and with the world shifting focus to the war in Israel and Gaza, President Biden doesn’t seem to be giving up on the delusion of Ukrainian victory even now. He’s just requested Congress approve an additional $61 billion in aid for Ukraine, a sum equivalent to half of what the US has given Kyiv over the last 20 months. It’s as if these people aren’t familiar with the definition of insanity.
For all the rumors Western governments are pushing Zelensky to the negotiating table, Biden’s attempts to equate Vladimir Putin with Hamas terrorists, and his plans to send tens of billions more dollars in aid to Kyiv, show just how uninterested his administration has in changing its strategy.
Jack Stevenson holds a BA in history. He recently started a Substack called Foreign Entanglements.