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Ukraine, already strained by war, braces for Russian southern offensive

As Ukraine girds for a brutal winter, there are signs Kyiv's army and political leaders are strained by serious problems: a wrecked economy, gas shortages, a lack of weapons and internal divisions.

(CN) — After more than five months of war, Ukraine continues to fight hard against Russia's invasion, but there are signs that Kyiv's forces and political leadership are strained by serious problems as the country girds for a brutal winter and the possibility Russia will push to capture more Black Sea territories.

On Thursday, hopes for Ukrainian victories before the end of the year in the southern territories along the Black Sea were dampened by reports that Kyiv's forces may need to postpone a counteroffensive until next year due to a lack of Western weapons.

Additionally, in recent days Russian forces and allied pro-Russian Ukrainian troops have increased their attacks on Ukrainian defenses in the bloody battlefields of Donetsk, an eastern region where the worst of the fighting is taking place.

Ukrainian defenses of several towns and cities there are coming under immense artillery assaults while Russian forces push for control of Kharkiv, which lies to the north. Russia has made small, but potentially key, advances in recent days around Bakhmut, a city of about 72,000 people located between Donetsk and Luhansk, the main cities in Donbas which have been controlled by separatists since 2014.

The front lines in Ukraine run for about 1,550 miles from the northern border with Russia near Kharkiv all the way to the Black Sea in the south. Combat is fierce at many places along this “line of contact.”

Both sides also continue to launch missiles into civilian locations. Thursday and Friday were both awful days with reports that eight civilians were killed by Ukrainian shelling in the center of Donetsk city and that Russian shelling killed eight people in Toretsk, a city under Ukrainian control.

More than 350 children have been killed since the Russian invasion started on Feb. 24 and that number grew on Thursday after an aspiring 12-year-old ballerina was killed with her grandmother in the attack on Donetsk.

But it's not just the situation on the battlefield that is worrisome for Ukraine. The country is broke and reliant on Western funds to keep the country running for basic needs. In recent days, Kyiv has issued promises to desperate soldiers, teachers, pensioners and others who depend on public funds that their money is coming.

In April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country needed about $7 billion a month in support to make up for losses incurred by the war.

Ukraine is receiving vast sums of aid, but still the country is struggling with millions of refugees, skyrocketing inflation, gas shortages due to Russian cuts, a devastated economy and a plethora of other problems brought about by the war. Already before the invasion, Ukraine was one of Europe's poorest and most corrupt countries.

At the same time, ferocious political tensions inside Ukraine are emerging. Across the Europe Union, meanwhile, the political atmosphere risks becoming acrid as the bloc reels from gas shortages caused by Russia's move to cut off supplies in retaliation against the EU for imposing a regime of sanctions that amounts to economic warfare against Russia.

In recent weeks, Zelenskyy's government has taken a number of controversial steps as it clamps down on dissent and tries to consolidate its power. He's targeted some of the richest and most influential oligarchs, accused his own government members of treason and pushed laws to weaken labor rights, allow mass privatization and crack down on critical media outlets.

Ukraine's image has suffered setbacks in recent days too.

On Thursday, Amnesty International issued a report that criticized Ukraine's army for using civilian buildings – including schools and hospitals – as military bases and for launching attacks from civilian areas. Such tactics are deemed to illegally endanger civilians and civilian infrastructure.

A mother pushes her child in a carriage through a puddle after a rainstorm in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The report confirmed complaints made by Russia from the outset of the war about Ukrainian tactics. Some military analysts have said that Russia's invasion has mostly targeted military units and that it cannot be described as indiscriminately bombing civilians. Over the course of the past five months, Russia has repeatedly said it struck Ukrainian forces using civilian infrastructure.

Ukraine loudly condemned the Amnesty report as “creating a false balance between the criminal and the victim,” as stated by Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister.

Ukraine has suffered other bruises too. In July, Kyiv recalled its ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, after he criticized Germany for hesitating to support Ukraine militarily while also praising Ukrainian leaders who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

Last week, Zelenskyy stirred up a lot of animosity in Ukraine after he and his wife Olena posed for a controversial Vogue cover shoot that used the war as a backdrop. The magazine sent Annie Leibovitz, a high-profile photographer, to do the shoot in Kyiv.

Zelenskyy, who faces his own corruption allegations over tax evasion after revelations through the Pandora Papers, came into politics as an actor who won over Ukrainian voters in 2019 after he starred in a show where he played a fictional teacher who unexpectedly becomes Ukraine's president by vowing to crack down on corruption.

In winning the presidency in a landslide with more than 70% support, one of Zelenskyy's main promises was that he was going to put an end to the simmering war between Ukrainian and pro-Russian sides in the country's east. Zelenskyy, though, was unable to carry out his promises and turned instead to backing the military campaign to recapture eastern parts of Ukraine.

But Ukraine's biggest worries may be on the battlefield.

Oleg Zhdanov, a prominent Ukrainian military expert, said on his YouTube channel that the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the south has been postponed, as reported by Strana, a Ukrainian news outlet. He blamed the slow delivery of advanced Western arms.

At the same time, the Financial Times ran a story citing an unnamed Ukrainian official who said it was possible the counteroffensive against Russian forces in Kherson, a Black Sea city that fell to Russia early in the invasion, may not take place until next year. The official said Ukraine does not even have 30% of the weapons it needs for a large-scale counteroffensive.
While Ukraine builds up its strength and awaits more Western arms, officials in Kyiv say they are bracing for a new offensive by Russian forces in the south, where Moscow is amassing equipment and soldiers.

The Kremlin is likely keen to capture Odesa, the pivotal port city, and thereby cut Ukraine off entirely from the Black Sea. Such a move, though, would be strenuously resisted and it could prove beyond Russia's military abilities, which have been seriously weakened by a war that has dragged on.

Zhdanov, the military expert, said Ukraine is bolstering its defenses in the southern regions. He said Russian forces may threaten to capture the southern cities of Kryvyi Rih, Zaporizhzhia and Mykolaiv, but he claimed the “probability of a breakthrough is practically zero.”

Mykolaiv stands in the way of a Russian advance on Odesa and Kryvyi Rih and Zaporizhzhia are positioned to the north of Russia's newly captured territories along the Black Sea, including the major cities of Kherson and Mariupol.

By capturing Odesa, a city with historical significance for Russians, Moscow also would achieve the objective of creating a contiguous territory along the Black Sea between the breakaway pro-Russian region of Transnistria in Moldova and Crimea, the large peninsula Moscow annexed in February and March 2014 in order to safeguard Sevastopol, the naval seat for its nuclear-armed Black Sea Fleet.

The current war in Ukraine can be traced back to the Crimean annexation, which was a cataclysmic response by a furious Moscow over fears that Ukraine was becoming a NATO member following the violent overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during the so-called “Maidan Revolution.”

Yanukovych was the corrupt oligarchic but democratically elected president who refused to turn Ukraine away from Russia's sphere of influence and embrace a pro-European Union and pro-NATO stance. Moscow accused Washington of being behind what it considered a coup against Yanukovych. The U.S. accused Yanukovych of turning Ukraine into an anti-democratic authoritarian regime.

Following months of mass protests and the violent storming of government buildings in Kyiv, Yanukovych fled to Russia, allegedly taking with him vast sums of money.

On Thursday, Yanukovych and his son, Oleksandr, were slapped with new sanctions by the EU “for their role in undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”

The EU accused Oleksandr Yanukovych of doing business with pro-Russian separatists in breakaway eastern Ukraine.

Following Yanukovych's ouster, Ukraine slid into what was in many aspects a civil war fought over the future of the country.

Broadly speaking, it began as a conflict between those who wanted to maintain ties with Russia and those who wanted to de-Russify Ukraine and build the nation around the Ukrainian language, culture and historical figures.

The conflict, though, has been driven more specifically by an intense rivalry between nationalists on both sides.

Ethnic Ukrainians make up a majority of the population in Ukraine but are most prominent in western Ukraine. Ethnic Russians are a minority who make up about 17% of Ukraine's population of 44 million.

Ethnic Russians are most prominent in eastern Ukraine, which were territories that historically fell under the Russian empire. Western Ukraine, by contrast, was for centuries under Polish and Lithuanian rule and people in this part of Ukraine have long viewed Russia as an imperial brute.

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

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