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Experts: As Ukraine conflict enters crucial year, advantage may lie with Putin

For the past couple months, talk of Ukraine's possible defeat by Russia has grown in the West. Experts say Russia has gained an advantage, but the war is far from over.

(CN) — After 674 days of fighting, the war in Ukraine can be called a stalemate, but the scales may be tipping favorably toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war machine bent on capturing large segments of Ukrainian territory.

The cataclysmic events in Ukraine are at what many experts on both sides of the conflict say is an apex — and tipping point — in a still-uncertain war that looks set to go on for at least another year, and possibly much longer, with neither side ready for peace talks.

“Next year is going to be a challenging year,” said Michael Kofman, a prominent Western expert on Russia's military and the war.

“To some extent, Russia has some of the material advantage on its side,” he said in a recent analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

After a disappointing year when it failed to break through Russia's defenses on territory Moscow has occupied, Ukraine is now on the defensive, husbanding a dwindling flow of aid from the West and mobilizing younger men toward the front lines, Kofman said.

“If the right choices aren't made both in Ukraine but also very importantly here, Ukraine could begin losing the war and people need to be clear about that,” he said.

War-ravaged Kyiv's success rests with Congress passing a vital-but-stalled $61.4 billion aid package, Kofman said.

“Ukrainians are going to fight on, but it will be an increasingly desperate fight” without substantial flows of Western aid, he said.

Combat along 620 miles of front lines in eastern Ukraine has left upwards of 500,000 soldiers from both sides dead or injured, according to estimates. Meanwhile, more than 27,500 civilians have been killed or injured, according to the United Nations.

In geopolitical terms, the stakes in the war have only gotten higher since Moscow's huge gamble to go to war over Ukraine has not backfired. Indeed, the opposite seems to be happening: The war seems to be fortifying Russia.

“There have been a lot of victory laps that Putin has been taking,” said Michael Kimmage, a Russia expert and historian at the Catholic University of America, speaking in the same CSIS analysis. “They really have been pouring it on thick in the Russian media that the West is crumbling; Ukraine is on its last legs; and Russia is on the verge of achieving victory.”

In truth, Putin and Russia have a lot to crow about. Despite suffering humiliating defeats early in the war and getting severely punished and sanctioned by Western and global institutions, Russia has survived remarkably well.

“In hindsight, we underappreciated how successful Russia would be,” said Maria Snegovaya, a Russia expert at Georgetown University, in the CSIS analysis. “We see that Russia is adjusting very successfully to sanctions.”

For Western and Ukrainian leaders, one of the most ominous developments has been Russia's successful transformation toward a war economy. It now appears to be winning the arms race.

Russian defense spending has nearly doubled and accounts for about 6% of gross domestic product. The Kremlin reports a 26% increase in the production of combat vehicles, aircraft and ships.

Tanks, light-armored vehicles, artillery shells, long-range missiles, drones and multiple-rocket-launcher systems are rolling off Russian assembly lines at much higher rates than before the war, Snegovaya said.

Russia is “doubling down in this war,” she said.

This frantic arms production is fueled by profits Russia continues to get — in spite of losing virtually all its lucrative trade with the European Union — for its oil, natural gas and coal exports.

In a bruising disappointment for the United States and its allies, most non-Western powers — China, India, South Africa, Brazil and others — eagerly replaced Western buyers of Russian goods and refused to go along with sanctions against Moscow.

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In this sense, Kimmage said Russia has “liberated itself from its dependence on the West.”

The situation on the battlefield is not going well for Ukraine either.

In the biggest setback yet for Ukraine and its NATO backers, Russian defenses held out against a major offensive by Ukrainian forces over the summer and autumn. The series of attacks left Ukraine with virtually no territorial gains and heavy losses.

In the wake of the failed Ukrainian offensive and the distraction caused by the eruption of war in the Middle East, panic over Ukraine has begun to appear in the West. A string of news reports in Western media from the front lines have depicted devastating losses and a gruesome reality for Ukraine.

In capitals, policy debates are raging over what strategy to take.

“It's a curious moment where we can kind of sense how high the stakes are,” Kimmage said.

A defeat in Ukraine would seriously undermine NATO, cause a loss of credibility for the U.S. and give Russia more room to exploit trouble spots on the periphery of the EU, he said.

Kofman said the West must not allow its support for Ukraine to drop.

Early in the war, he said many in the West succumbed to a misleading notion that Putin had made a major blunder by invading Ukraine and would be easily defeated.

“Some people early on had a sort of 'mission accomplished' take on where we were in the war: That Russia had been strategically defeated, that the war was a strategic failure for Russia,” Kofman said. “History will be the judge of who was strategically defeated and how to assess that.”

He said the West must not allow Russia to become emboldened by a win in Ukraine.

“We'd be much better off managing an embittered, dangerous, but significantly weakened Russia that feels that it's been defeated and you know you've effectively defeated them,” he said.

But the mantra coming from American and European leaders that they will back Ukraine's war effort for “as long as it takes” is getting quieter.

The U.S. and EU have provided Ukraine with more than $200 billion in economic and military aid, but how much more aid will be supplied is in doubt.

In Washington, the $61.4 billion aid package has stalled because Republicans are showing less and less enthusiasm for the bogged-down war. Some kind of military aid package may likely pass, but support for Ukraine is obviously waning.

A similar picture is forming in Europe. At a December summit of EU leaders, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a Putin ally, blocked a 50 billion euro ($54 billion) economic package for Ukraine. Ukraine relies on such funds to pay government workers, soldiers and basic operating needs.

On the battlefields, Kofman said Ukrainian forces simply don't have the ammunition they need. “People should appreciate that there is already a lot of shell hunger at the front line.”

In July, at the height of the offensive, Ukraine had a two-to-one advantage in artillery over Russian forces, but now Russia has a three-to-one advantage, he said. Ammunition production has not sped up nearly enough in Europe, though America has done much better, he said.

In recent weeks, Russia has gone on the offensive and Ukrainian forces have retreated in places.

Just before Christmas, Kyiv lost the town of Marinka, and its troops are struggling to hold onto Avdiivka, a strategic city Ukrainian troops have held since the conflict first broke out in 2014. Both Marinka and Avdiivka are located near Donetsk, the eastern Ukrainian city under Russian control.

The mood in Kyiv is growing desperate with strong currents of discontent, intrigue and infighting poisoning politics in the Ukrainian capital. Increasingly, internal criticism is directed against President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and a split has emerged between him and Ukraine's military chief, Army Cmdr. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi.

In Russia, meanwhile, support for Putin remains steadfast and dissent rare, in part because families of soldiers killed and wounded in the war receive generous payments, Snegovaya said.

She said Russia's war-driven economy has actually led to a substantial increase in millionaires.

“Putin is feeling pretty comfortable with the public mood,” she said.

Still, Russia faces huge challenges in the war, such as replenishing its depleted troop levels, and it will be hard for it to achieve substantial territorial advances, the experts said.

“If Russia doesn't make meaningful gains in Ukraine, which is maybe the most plausible outcome at the moment,” Kimmage said, “this victory lap that Putin is taking, it starts to look less and less credible.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics

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