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Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Editor of POLITICO Europe.
Wars do not take place according to political timetables. And in the run-up to Ukraine’s counteroffensive, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his best aides have strove to explain this reality both to the nervous Allies, impatient for military progress, and to their own people, eager for the big counterattack to kick off and to receive good news from the front lines.
On the eve of the long-awaited counteroffensive, which began last week – later than expected – Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov was concerned that expectations were « definitely overheated ». « Everyone wants another victory, » he said, warning allies to temper their hopes so as to avoid later disappointment.
The concern here is that falling short of expectations could lead to a reduction in international military assistance and renewed, often oblique, pressure to engage with Moscow in negotiations. “They want the next win. It’s normal, these are emotions, » Reznikov added.
But the impatience for a decisive blow against Russia arises not only from emotion but also from political calculations.
A long war risks Western fatigue, depletion of arsenals and erosion of unity, especially with China, Brazil and South Africa touting dubious “peace” plans. And despite public pledges to support Ukraine « for as long as necessary, » Washington officials earlier this year warned their counterparts in Kiev that they must make major battlefield gains soon, while weapons and aid from the United States and European allies continues to grow.
With the United States heading into what is likely to be an exceptionally hot and flammable presidential election season – to say the least – Congress’ high level of security and economic assistance may be difficult to maintain, they warned. And according to Ukrainian lawmakers, in recent talks with US State Department and National Security Council officials, questions about commitments and future applications were dismissed, with the response often being « let’s see how the counteroffensive goes. »
Former Deputy Prime Minister Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze told POLITICO that these talks left her concerned about the « continuation of the same level of US support for Ukraine after this financial year » – which, for the US federal budget United States, it’s September.
Similarly, there are also signs of war weariness and wariness in Europe, both among politicians and the public, with Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in Zelenskyy’s office, complain this week: “I understand that sitting thousands of kilometers away from Ukraine we can talk about ‘geopolitics’, ‘settlement’ and the undesirability of escalation for months. And allow the fury of the ‘Russian world’”.
Significantly, even in Poland – one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies – the attitude towards Ukrainian war refugees is deteriorating. According to a survey conducted by researchers from the University of Warsaw and the Academy of Economics and Human Sciences, the percentage of those who strongly support aid to refugees has dropped from 49% to 28% over the past five months.
So, the political clock is ticking and it doesn’t necessarily match the pace of war.
Zelensky has had to strike a difficult balance in recent weeks, offering the prospect of striking a decisive blow against Russia to bolster Western confidence and optimism and keep the flow of equipment and weapons, while also emphasizing that the counter-offensive is very it probably won’t be able to achieve the stunningly rapid success of last fall’s push in Kharkiv.
Kharkiv’s success helped keep the Western Allies on the side, triggering a cascading collapse of Russian defenses and a messy rout, but it also unnecessarily colored expectations, adding to the clamor surrounding the current counter-offensive, which Kiev has been keen to calm down. . However, Ukrainian officials are keenly aware of Western fears about a protracted war of attrition.
But Ukraine also does not want to be pushed into hasty moves that could lead to serious and costly casualties, which could then undermine military morale or dash Western hopes and have major geopolitical repercussions, a senior Ukrainian military official in the condition told POLITICO. of anonymity. « This is not like Kharkiv, » he said. “We have to be cautious. The Russians have learned and prepared, and their defensive lines are formidable: we have no men to waste, no equipment. Progress will need to be incremental. »
And incrementalism is the new watchword.
In his nightly speech, Zelensky noted on Monday that “the battles are fierce, but we are moving forward, and this is very important. Enemy losses are exactly what we need.
Similarly, according to Ben Hodges, former US Army commander in Europe, this « offensive is incredibly important for the future of Ukraine ». « Kiev’s top military leadership has, to date, followed a conservative strategy of eroding Russian formations over time, gaining ground incrementally, avoiding major risks and limiting Ukrainian casualties as much as possible, » he said. he wrote for the Center for European Policy Analysis.
“The offensive has clearly begun, but I don’t think the main attack. When we see large armored formations joining the assault, then I think we will know that the main attack has indeed begun,” he added.
While the main action is still to come, however, as Zelenskyy pointed out, the going is clearly tough.
And his Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar made it even clearer, saying on Telegram: “The enemy is doing everything to keep the positions they conquered. He actively uses assault and army aviation, conducts intense artillery fire. During the offensive, our troops encounter continuous minefields, which are combined with anti-tank ditches. All this is combined with the continuous counterattacks of enemy units on armored vehicles and the massive use of anti-tank guided missiles and kamikaze drones”.
The Ukrainians believe they can, and will, strike a mighty blow with NATO military-trained brigades supplied by Western allies. And Kiev officials believe they can do better than the « moderate territorial gains » projected by the Pentagon, according to leaked information US intelligence documents.
But they also need patience from their allies.