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Zelensky is fighting two wars – against Russia and to win over the West

Ukraine’s coming counter-offensive is the best chance to prove to its supporters it can still win.

By Katie Stallard

From the moment the first Russian tanks crossed the border in February 2022, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has understood that he is fighting two wars. There is the military battle to repel the Russian invaders. Then there is the political campaign to rally international partners and secure supplies of weapons and economic support. Both struggles are intricately linked, and both are about to enter a critical phase.

Ukraine is preparing to launch a counter-offensive. Twelve newly formed combat brigades of around 4,000 soldiers each – nine of these units having been trained and equipped by Western militaries – will join the fight. They will be bolstered by a massive infusion of hardware and ammunition, including British Challenger and German Leopard 2 tanks, French AMX-10 armoured reconnaissance vehicles and American M2 Bradley fighting vehicles. The UK confirmed on 11 May that it has also sent Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles. The front lines have not moved significantly since November, when Russian troops retreated from the southern city of Kherson. The coming campaign is Kyiv’s best chance to show that this war can still be won – and to persuade the West to hold its nerve and keep supplying weapons.

Failure to do so could feed the perception that the conflict is becoming a war of attrition and “likely heading toward a stalemate”, as a leaked US intelligence assessment from February warned. This would lead to questions about whether Western support can and should be sustained at its current levels, and pressure on Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow. It would also fuel Vladimir Putin’s apparent belief that if he can just draw the war out for long enough, then Western unity and Ukraine’s will to fight will eventually crack.

There are signs that initial probing operations have begun. On 12 May Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine said that they had reclaimed around two kilometres of territory around Bakhmut in recent days. The city has limited strategic significance but has acquired tremendous symbolic importance, with both sides suffering heavy casualties in what has become the longest battle of the war. Russia’s Ministry of Defence admitted that some of its forces had withdrawn, or as the spokesman put it, were redeployed to “more advantageous positions”.

[See also: Spinning the story of war]

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Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, which has led the Russian battle for Bakhmut, accused Russian military units of abandoning their positions, leaving his own forces exposed. It was “a rout”, not a “regrouping”, he complained in an audio recording shared on social media. In increasingly hysterical videos since the start of May he has attacked the Russian military leadership and threatened to withdraw his fighters from the city.

Yet while Ukraine’s recent gains around Bakhmut – and Prigozhin’s tantrums – suggest a degree of disarray among the Russian lines, the challenge ahead for the Ukrainian military is still daunting. Over the last six months Russian forces have dug in across long stretches of the front line in southern and eastern Ukraine, constructing extensive defences including trench networks, mine fields and concrete anti-tank barricades known as “dragon’s teeth”. The northern approaches to Crimea have been heavily fortified. Newly mobilised troops have been deployed to shore up depleted units. The battles ahead are more likely to resemble the long, gruelling slog to take back Kherson in November than the stunning collapse of the Russian lines in the Kharkiv region two months earlier, when Ukrainian forces reclaimed around 6,000 square kilometres of territory in a matter of weeks. Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian defence minister, cautioned in early May against “waiting for something huge” from the new campaign, which he said could lead to “emotional disappointment”.

Still, Ukraine has defied expectations before. At the start of the conflict, when Kyiv was expected to fall within days, Zelensky’s fortitude in refusing to flee the capital and the bravery of the Ukrainian citizens who came forward to defend their country en masse inspired an outpouring of international support. The comedian-turned-president, once dismissed as a political novice, turned out to be a resolute wartime leader and a highly effective orator. He delivered powerful appeals around the world, tailoring his speeches to each audience so that he invoked Churchill in his address to the UK parliament and Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks for the US Congress, eliciting tearful ovations and crucial economic and military aid.

The Ukrainian military’s gains on the battlefield, combined with the atrocities uncovered in each town liberated, propelled new deliveries of Western arms. Not only could the Ukrainian forces fight back against Russia: they could win. Political support fed military success, and vice versa. The same will be true of the next campaign.

The stakes for the counter-offensive could not be higher. Ukraine needs to show that it can still advance and that Western weapons are making a difference. Neither Zelensky nor his military is standing still. On 14 and 15 May, the president flew to Rome, Berlin, Paris and London, securing promises of missiles, attack drones and air defence systems. Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, vowed to be a “key part” of the “fighter jet coalition” that Ukraine is assembling. Zelensky knows that there are tough battles ahead – both on the military and the political front. But if there is one thing we should have learned by now it is this: never underestimate Ukraine.

[See also: Ukraine might win its war – but it won’t help the West’s wider struggle against autocracy]

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List