After dueling speeches, the war's focus will return to the battlefield for a decisive year
WARSAW, Poland — After months of stalemate and a week steeped in symbolism, the second year of Russia’s war in Ukraine will begin with Kyiv, its allies and the Kremlin all holding their breath for new military offensives that could dramatically change the trajectory of the conflict.
Despite missile attacks that have punctuated the winter lull and fierce fighting on the eastern front lines, there is a sense that this may have been the calm before the storm. Both Russia and Ukraine have been planning fresh campaigns to seize territory, infusing President Joe Biden’s extraordinary covert trip to the war zone with new urgency.
The looming battles may reveal whether Moscow — after a year of military missteps that denied President Vladimir Putin the quick victory many anticipated — has been able to successfully regroup and correct course. Yet intensified fighting could also pose new challenges for the Western alliance propping up Ukraine, as key partners gather this week in Poland on the eve of the war’s anniversary.
“He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now,” Biden said of Putin at the presidential palace in Kyiv on Monday, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at his side.
Zelenskyy, addressing the Munich Security Conference last week, warned that Russia “can still destroy many lives.”
“That is why we need to hurry up,” Zelenskyy said. “We need speed.”
Ukraine, readying a potential push to retake territory in the east and the south, has spent the winter months training its fast-growing military in advanced weaponry and preparing for deliveries of even more lethal arms. In Germany, U.S. troops are training Ukrainian forces in “combined-arms warfare” using artillery, tanks and armored vehicles, while in the U.K., British forces are teaching Ukrainians to fly NATO-style fighter jets and command Challenger 2 tanks.
Russia, too, has tried to exploit the winter letup, using the time to mobilize hundreds of thousands of conscripts, prisoners-turned-mercenaries and other troops in a bid to replenish a military force severely depleted by a year of war. The U.S. Defense Department estimates Moscow may have already lost half its battle tanks.
Now, as the Kremlin aims to show the fight is not over, it appears to have set its sights on capturing the remaining Ukrainian-held areas of the eastern Donbas — an area Putin has already claimed to have annexed but does not fully control.
All the while, Ukraine’s backers from Brussels to Washington are closely watching one another for signs of whether support for Kyiv is waxing or waning, whether U.S. Republicans will balk at continued military aid as the war drags on, whether cold feet in Paris or Berlin may renew a push for peace and who will move first to provide even deadlier weaponry amid persistent fears of escalating the conflict into a world war with nuclear-armed Russia.
Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu of Estonia, a NATO member on Russia’s doorstep, said Western allies remain in lockstep with Ukraine’s position that it must not bargain with Moscow for its own sovereign territory — resolve he said he hoped would persist in year two.
“But we have to admit that without stronger and more vital Western countries’ support, Ukraine will not win,” Reinsalu told NBC News.
Fast advances in Russia’s offensive could increase concerns about the Western alliance’s staying power as the war enters its second year. To Putin’s chagrin, Western fears that the war’s mounting costs and reverberations from economic sanctions imposed on Russia would erode support for Ukraine have so far not been borne out.
In Kyiv, Ruslan Stefanchuk, the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, said the more pressing concern should be that “Ukrainian soldiers who defend Europe with their shields don’t get tired.”
“Otherwise, all other European people and nations will have to get tired of the war,” Stefanchuk said, suggesting that if Ukraine is defeated, other Western militaries would be forced to fight Russia themselves.
Yet the war’s economic toll continues to climb, as Europeans struggle through a winter of record-high energy bills and a cost-of-living crisis attributed partly to the war. In the U.S., a group of Republicans in the newly GOP-controlled House is calling for an immediate stop to U.S. assistance to Ukraine, as a new Associated Press-NORC poll shows support among Americans for arming Ukraine has fallen from 60% in May to just 48% this month.
“We know that some of the people, especially the Republicans, are a little more hesitant in terms of the amount of help provided to Ukraine,” Adrian Kubicki, Poland’s consul general in New York, said in an interview. “This is actually our job, our diplomatic job: to convince them that this is the only choice and there is no alternative.”
In hope of staving off any further fatigue, Biden and other Western leaders gathering in Warsaw this week are aiming to drive home the stakes of continued investments in Ukraine’s defense, arguing that a Russia unchecked in Ukraine will be a Russia undeterred elsewhere.
Yet early success in Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive, quickly liberating large areas of Russian-held territory, could further embolden Kyiv to insist that 100% of its land be returned before the war can end. That is a position that many Western officials say is morally and legally justified but that could nevertheless complicate any path to an eventual diplomatic resolution.
Kyiv has consistently defined victory as the complete liberation of every inch of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders — including Crimea, the peninsula that Russia seized and annexed in 2014.
Any defeat in Crimea would be profoundly humiliating for the Kremlin, raising fears that a serious threat to Russian control there could lead Putin to escalate the war even further. And although the U.S. insists Ukraine has every right to fight for Crimea and has not opposed Ukrainian strikes against Russian targets there, it has notably stopped short of predicting Kyiv will be able to liberate the peninsula, now a heavily fortified hub for Moscow’s military.
“No matter what the Ukrainians decide about Crimea, in terms of where they choose to fight, etc., Ukraine is not going to be safe unless Crimea is at a minimum — at a minimum — demilitarized,” U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace this month.
Regardless of whether Ukraine opts for an ambitious gambit to liberate Crimea or a more modest offensive elsewhere, there is no doubt that Ukrainians begin the war’s second year feeling emboldened by their survival, having bested early predictions that their military and their democracy would quickly collapse.
In the Ukrainian village of Ivanchukivka, five months have passed since families ran into the streets on a sunny September day to greet Ukrainian troops, cheering the end of Russia’s occupation of the Kharkiv region before the winter freeze largely hardened the front lines.
Dmytro Shevchenko, 33, a DJ before the war, stood in the middle of a small, elderly crowd gathered in a semicircle in the snow at the town’s entrance, waiting for bread, medicine and basic necessities still painfully scarce in Ivanchukivka even months after liberation.
“Even with this horrible situation, even this war, they stay here,” said Shevchenko, now a volunteer worker, adding that he is more confident in his people now than ever before. “We feel the unity. It’s a feeling that I really can’t describe.”
Josh Lederman reported from Warsaw and Raf Sanchez from Ivanchukivka, Ukraine.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com