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Breaking Ukraine's Stalemate: Why Western Fatigue is an Existential Threat to Kyiv

Updated: May 23

As the war of attrition between Moscow and Kyiv approaches its second anniversary, international attention continues to wane. Dwindling Western support continues to sabotage Kyiv's prospects of declaring victory in the near future, if not at all. 


Their diverted attention underscores a sea change in Western foreign policy revealing significant fractures within the leadership structures of both the United States and its European allies.


The conflict started with Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine in February 22nd, 2022. Declared a "special military operation", the stated justification revolved around the supposed necessity to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine, fuelled by concerns of alleged genocide against ethnic Russians in the Donbas. Caught off guard, the West initially underestimated the military capabilities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), culminating in several Russian advances across multiple axes. However, despite these gains, the Kremlin fell short of crippling Ukraine's ability to resist the invasion. 


The West, having just witnessed the annihilation of the Kyiv column to the northwest of Ikankiv, were emboldened and supplied Ukraine with "whatever is needed, for as long as is needed" to stop the Russia from achieving its initial goal. Following these events, the AFU launched a series of decisive counteroffensives. Their efforts resulted in the expulsion of Russian forces from the Kyiv Oblast, the recapture of significant territories during the Izyum offensive, and, notably, the Kherson counteroffensive, forcing the Russian MOD Shoigu to reluctantly announce the withdrawal of Russian forces to the left bank of the Dnipro.


However, Ukraine has a substantial dependence on military aid, meaning none of that was achievable without Western support. Zelensky continues to plead for ongoing provisions, but now often to no avail, having just recently addressed Congress to tackle the deadlock caused by fierce Republican opposition to continued assistance. This plea followed on from a previous classified meeting, where Zelensky opted out due to a 'last minute hiccup', There is growing discontent within the Ukrainian leadership given the West’s cold feet. 


The ongoing attempts by Russian forces to encircle the flanks of the Avdiivka, a position fortified since 2014, reflect a deteriorating situation in the Ukrainian high command. Especially, since the capture of the strategic heights to a coke plant east of the city, the loss of fortified positions in the southern outskirts, and the expansion of Russian control in the northern outskirts of Stepove near the railways.


In Zaluzhnyi's column for The Economist, he emphasised the dangerous predicament Ukraine finds itself in, lacking sufficient artillery shells to sustain effective counter-battery fire, having depleted personnel reserves, and issues with rampant corruption. The article caused anger in Ukraine's leadership, with Zelensky publicly rebuking Zaluzhnyi as being "overly pessimistic". But Zaluzhnyi’s claims are fair.  


Ukraine's counteroffensive has failed. Growing fatigue both at home and abroad, mounting losses across the front, and tightened pressure by the Russian army is beginning to take its toll on public morale. Recent polls suggest a drop in public approval for continued war from 70% last year to 60% this year. The number of Ukrainians seeking a negotiated settlement to the conflict has risen to 31% this year from last year's 26%.


In hindsight, Ukraine has improved its internal production capabilities, utilising commercial drones for military purposes. However, the demand for artillery shells far outweighs any breakthrough Ukraine has had with its domestic drone capability. Nevertheless, even that is being eclipsed by Russian electronic warfare and larger industrial output.


Economic sanctions have only partially affected Russia's will to fight. Apart from stirring public discontent within Russian society and weakening Moscow's industrial output, sanctions have not prevented Russia’s assault across the frontline.


Fundamental to the military disparity which favours Putin, is a lack of Western support. According to Kiel's research, there has been a sharp decrease in Western support since July of 2023, with commitments not even reaching the 5-billion-dollar threshold as of December. 


The media also plays a role, shaping Western military aid. Media organisations influencing sentiment in politics by constructing public opinion, ultimately effecting the types and number of weapons provided to Ukraine. As the conflict fades from mainstream attention, critical developments risk being overlooked. Public awareness remains vital for sustaining Western support, with media portrayal influencing the flow of Western-supplied weaponry into Ukraine's stockpiles.


Before October 7th, the media echoed the talking points of pro-Western officials, criticising Putin's invasion and condemning so-called sympathisers. Accusations against Iran regarding the armament of the Russian army helped stoke anger in the West. Media coverage during Moscow's winter campaign featured Shahed drones flying over residential areas, contributing to the Western supply of air defence systems. The polity responded to the people and vice versa. Perhaps it was cynical in the same way that the lack of aid is now; attention diverges and so does policy.


Delayed aid deliveries, political deadlocks, and the current conflict in Palestine have led to problems on the Ukrainian battlefield. Of the 1 million artillery shells pledged by the EU, only 250 thousand have been delivered. Even North Korea reportedly reached the threshold of 1 million artillery shells before the EU did and in a much shorter time frame. Ukraine is struggling and its survival is contingent upon the willingness of Western powers to supply Kyiv with the necessary weapons to fight.


As the conflict continues, the balance of power tips in the Kremlin's favour. Western support and the media’s influence in incentivising that support emerge as decisive factors in this multifaceted conflict. The international community must focus on the region, as choices made in the coming months will shape the conflict's trajectory and have enormous implications for global stability.

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