How Ukraine Is Really Doing

Bianca Echa

How Ukraine Is Really Doing

The early euphoria of Ukraine’s underdog battle against Russia has evaporated, both abroad and at home. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent firing of his much-lauded top general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the architect of Ukraine’s initial defensive brilliance, underscores that the besieged country is increasingly desperate for a refresh. There’s no end in sight to Russia’s war on Ukraine and, two years in, hope is waning that one will materialize.

The controversial sacking—motivated by a balance of personal, political, and military factors—comes as Russia’s assault continues undeterred by Western sanctions and after the fizzling of Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive. As both a cause and an effect, morale has accordingly waned and the world’s attention wanders. While Ukraine continues to sort of win by not losing outright, the country is beginning to show the profound consequences of 24 months of war.

On one hand, Ukraine’s remarkable refusal to give up the fight is extraordinary in itself. Unity of purpose and collective commitment, both summoned and symbolized by Zelensky, buttressed the country during the first year. Western aid, money, and weapons enabled a staunch defense.

Ukraine has reclaimed about half the territory formerly held by Russia, but the hard-fought military slog was both unglamourous and deadly. U.S. experts estimated in August that 75,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed of its original 200,000 fighting force. The failure of the 2023 counteroffensive has also made it harder for many to maintain their optimism and brush off their personal suffering. Recent polling suggests the average Ukrainian’s absolute commitment to the fight is softening. In January 2023, just 29% of Ukrainians wanted or were willing for Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war with Russia. By November, this number was 42%.

Read More: Inside Ukraine’s Plan to Arm Itself

The discontent can be seen in the growing number of military-aged men caught trying to sneak out of Ukraine to avoid the draft. Some have paid thousands to human smugglers to be driven across the western border, sometimes hidden in upholstery. In August, Zelensky fired all military recruiters for taking bribes from those trying to dodge military service. But the inconvenient truth is that tens of thousands are believed to have done so.

A slate of recent scandals in Ukraine is not helping domestic morale either. That includes a $40 million arms procurement corruption scandal. Another involves five officials at the state-owned nuclear company Energoatom accused of misappropriating $2.65 million from a U.S.-backed project. More telling, a Member of Parliament from Zelensky’s own political party was caught forging medical documents to get permission to leave the country, only to be spotted at a family vacation in the Maldives. Another MP, a member of Zelensky’s party until 2021, was discovered to be on vacation in Barcelona with his girlfriend. Each of these episodes erodes the collective commitment to the war, and to the vision of a modern and democratic post-war Ukraine free from corruption.

Nor are the economic realities in Ukraine helping. Well over $54 billion of damage has been inflicted on residential buildings, leaving a housing crisis. The overall economy has weathered the storm better than expected, particularly in Kyiv. But average inflation is over 21%, unemployment is above 15%, and remittances are dropping fast. Russia’s economy is also defying expectations, buoyed by handsome oil and gas profits—$596 billion since the Feb. 24, 2022 full-scale invasion—and there are precious few indications that Western sanctions are forcing moderation on President Vladimir Putin.

There are increasing concerns about the state of Ukrainian democracy and rule of law, too. Most obvious is the indefinite postponement of elections—parliamentary elections should have been held by Oct. 29 but weren’t, and Zelensky’s presidential term will expire in April 2024. Martial law has meant a curbing of liberties, economic freedoms, and bureaucratic and legal procedures. This includes the merger of all national television channels into one platform, the banning of all opposition political parties with alleged links to Russia, capital constraints that prevent the export of money, and various nationalizations of companies. However well justified by wartime necessities, these measures are beginning to chafe.

Read More: Inside Volodymyr Zelensky’s Struggle to Keep Ukraine in the Fight

On the international front, support for Ukraine is drying up. An August CNN poll revealed that a majority of Americans now believe the U.S. has done enough to support Ukraine and shouldn’t send more aid. A November Gallup poll found similar results. Although the E.U. numbers are more promising, political standoffs in both the U.S. and the E.U. have stymied help.

Officially, Western governments remain committed to Ukraine. But they are feeling domestic pressure amid war in the Middle East, the multiplying effects of climate change, civil unrest and coup d’etats mushrooming around the globe, and the natural human tendency to lose focus over time.

All of this speaks to the challenging situation for Ukraine, but it must be viewed in context. The country has been invaded, has suffered catastrophic damage, has been forced to fight round-after-round of crippling battles with a vastly larger opponent. But it has kept its head up. Yes, cracks are beginning to show. Yes, the most likely outcome of the war is increasingly believed to be a return to the post-2014 invasion status quo of simmering hostilities, but spread out over more Ukrainian territory. And yes, morale is softening both in Ukraine and abroad. Yet Ukraine’s fight remains just, and it continues to surprise and inspire much of the world with its determination.

Despite major challenges, Zelensky continues to hold his country mostly together. The worry is that a failure to deliver a win in 2024, like the ones seen in the war’s earliest days, may further depress spirits within Ukraine and appetite for support outside. It remains absolutely clear that the cost of letting Russia prevail in its war on Ukraine will be vastly higher than the cost of continuing to support Ukraine, but it is equally clear that Ukraine will fight on heroically even as it runs out of men, money, and munitions. Two years into the war, it is hurt but far from down.

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