Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sat down with The Associated Press and gave a stark assessment of the course of this nearly two-year-old full-on conflict and its future.
“We have a new phase of war, and that is a fact,” Zelensky said in northeastern Ukraine after a morale-boosting tour of the region. “Winter as a whole is a new phase of war.”
Asked if he was satisfied by the results of the counteroffensive, which has bogged down with little progress being made, he gave a complex answer.
“Look, we are not backing down, I am satisfied. We are fighting with the second (best) army in the world, I am satisfied,” he said, referring to the Russian military. But he added: “We are losing people, I’m not satisfied. We didn’t get all the weapons we wanted, I can’t be satisfied, but I also can’t complain too much.”
He gave a frank appraisal of last summer’s counteroffensive.
“We wanted faster results. From that perspective, unfortunately, we did not achieve the desired results. And this is a fact,” he said. His comments to the AP came a few days after he said in his nightly address that Ukraine needed to build up its fortifications amid the stalled counteroffensive.
In regards to not getting all the weapons he wanted, he added that it limited the size of his military force and precluded a quick advance. That's even though the U.S. alone has provided more than $43 billion in military aid since the beginning of Russia’s full-on invasion.
Zelensky, though, isn’t dwelling on the past but is focused on the next stage — boosting domestic arms production.
A sizeable chunk of Ukraine’s budget is allocated for that, but current output is far from enough to turn the tide of war. Now, Zelensky is looking to Western allies, including the U.S., to offer favorable loans and contracts to meet that goal.
“This is the way out,” Zelensky said, adding that nothing terrifies Russia more than a militarily self-sufficient Ukraine.
When he last met with U.S. President Joe Biden, members of Congress and other top officials, he made one urgent appeal: Give Ukraine cheap loans and licenses to manufacture U.S. weaponry.
“Give us these opportunities, and we will build,” he said he told them. “Whatever effort and time it will take, we will do it, and we will do it very quickly.”
Zelensky also said he fears the Israel-Hamas war threatens to overshadow the conflict in Ukraine, as competing political agendas and limited resources put the flow of Western military aid to Kyiv at risk.
A recent AP poll in the U.S. showed nearly half of Americans think too much is being spent on Ukraine. An increasing number of Republicans are not in favor of sending more aid, and it is not clear if or when a request from the White House for additional aid will be approved by Congress.
When asked about this, Zelensky replied bluntly that “the choice of Americans is the choice of Americans.”
But he argued that by helping Ukraine, Americans are also helping themselves.
“In the case of Ukraine, if resilience fails today due to lack of aid and shortages of weapons and funding, it will mean that Russia will most likely invade NATO countries,” he said. “And then the American children will fight.”
The static battle lines have not brought pressure from Ukraine’s allies to negotiate a peace deal with Russia.
“I don’t feel it yet,” he said, although he added: “Some voices are always heard.”
Ukraine wants to “push the formula for peace and involve as many countries of the world as possible, so that they politically isolate Russia,” he noted.
Faced with a dilemma about how to provide enough troops to maintain the fight, Zelensky has had a plan to draft more men into the army on his desk since June. However, he has yet to sign it.
Instead, Zelensky last week “asked his government and top brass for a more comprehensive package, one better tailored to a nation exhausted by a war and preparing for another winter of fighting,” Bloomberg reported. “It again put off the blueprint, approved by Ukraine’s parliament, to lower the draft age during war for men with no military experience to 25 from 27.”
“The law should have taken effect – the parliament fully backed it,” Roman Kostenko, a lawmaker on the parliamentary defense committee, said in an interview. “Conscription is taking place with difficulty now.”
As the year draws to a close, Zelensky says he and his staff are working to figure out what Russia will do in 2024 as the war heads into its third year with no end in sight.
"The head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine presented a report on possible Russian actions and the international situation for the next year at the staff meeting," he said. "We are analyzing all possible scenarios, and there must be our Ukrainian scenario for 2024. Specific operations with entirely specific justifications that will give Ukraine entirely specific results."
In his address, Zelensky also thanked "everyone helping defend our positions – building fortifications, mining the paths that occupiers try to use."
It seems that 646 days into this war, he is preparing his nation for an even longer slog ahead.
Before we head into the latest from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can catch up on our previous rolling coverage here.
As has been the case for months now, there has been little progress on the battlefield. Russia is continuing to try and encircle the embattled Donetsk city of Avdiivka, but has not accomplished that yet despite a very high cost in troops and equipment. The weather is not helping, as you can read about here.
There are also claims Russia has captured Marinka, a small Donetsk town that has long been a battleground. The War Zone cannot independently verify that.
Bakhmut, meanwhile, remains a bloody hell as you can see in this video below.
Here are some key takeaways about elsewhere on the front lines from the latest Institute for the Study of War assessment:
Russian forces conducted multiple series of missile and drone strikes on Ukraine that struck civilian infrastructure on November 29 and 30.
Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian military bureaucracy is impeding Russian drone usage and acquisition among Russian forces operating on east (left) bank Kherson Oblast amid continued complaints about weak Russian capabilities on the east bank.
Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast but did not make any confirmed advances.
A Ukrainian military observer stated that Russian authorities’ plan to form two tank battalions in about four months using equipment from two long-term weapons and equipment stores indicates a lack of combat-ready weapons and military equipment.
s we noted above, progress on the battlefield has been slow in recent weeks, with Ukrainian forces’ forward movement limited to just one mile in some areas and a handful of miles in others. The slow pace of the war looks like it will continue. Western intelligence assessments do not expect significant movement on the frontlines in the coming months, two Western officials and a senior US military official told CNN.
In the nearer term, Western intelligence agencies expect Russia to expand its bombardment of civilian infrastructure, including electrical facilities, in an attempt to inflict further suffering on the civilian population during the cold winter months.
A lack of air power continues to hinder Ukrainian efforts on the ground. F-16 fighter aircraft promised by NATO are not expected to arrive soon enough, or in significant enough numbers, to alter the battlefield dynamic for some time. Some estimates expect it will take well into next year before that firepower could have an effect.
In a plea for more and continued aid from its allies, Ukrainian parliament member Kira Rudik told CNN it is getting tougher to stay optimistic "without enough weapons and ammunition."
On Friday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry (MoD) said together with the Ministry of Strategic Industries, Ukraine "will increase the production of missiles, ammunition, weapons and military equipment several times next year."
The main focus will be "production of air defense equipment - from conventional portable anti-aircraft missile systems to air defense systems with a range of more than 100 kilometers (such as the Koral air defense system)" the MoD said on Telegram Friday.
"In addition, the approved budget for 2024 provides that about 175 billion hryvnias ($4.8 billion) will be allocated for the purchase of missiles and ammunition, so that our Defense Forces can adequately resist Russian aggression," Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine, Lieutenant General Ivan Havrylyuk, said on national television.
Ukraine will have to wait until next year before it receives its first shipment of U.S.-donated Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB), adapted to strike at a nearly 100-mile range. This summer, delivery was said to have been extended until fall. This clearly did not happen.
People familiar with current timing say delivery to the U.S. by Boeing, the prime contractor for the GLSDB, will take place in late December, according to Reuters. After that, the Pentagon will need several months of testing before the weapons are sent to Ukraine.
A Pentagon spokesman told Reuters that "we anticipate providing this key capability in the early 2024 timeframe after successful verification," another term for testing.
Because the contract to begin production of GLSDB was signed in March, according to a Pentagon statement to Reuters, delivery was forced towards year-end. Production required government-furnished materials, so contract signing constrained its start.
Ukraine's state security service (SBU) reportedly carried out sabotage action on rail lines in eastern Russia along the Chinese border.
Successive explosions are said to have happened on trains running first through a tunnel and then on a bridge in Russia's far east, the BBC reported.
Russia has reportedly begun an inquiry into a "criminal case of terrorism" after the attacks on the Baikal Amur line running to the border with China.
The extent of the damage has not been verified by the BBC.
Ukrainian sources said that the intention was to "disable" an important piece of infrastructure that the Russians sometimes use for military purposes.
A modernized Ukrainian BMP-1TS has appeared on the battlefield, which you can see in this video below. It features a Spear combat module, which includes a 30 mm automatic cannon, a 117 mm KBA-30 automatic grenade launcher, and a Barrier anti-tank guided missile system with R-2 laser-guided missiles, designed by Ukrainian companies.
Reportedly the first combat engagement of a donated Leopard 1A5 tank in Ukraine was recorded on drone video posted on social media. The tank was damaged and abandoned by its crew, according to the Oryx open source tracking group.
You can watch a full platoon of Ukrainian Leopard 2A4 tanks, outfitted with large numbers of Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor (ERA) tiles, cruising through Donetsk Oblast in this video below.
An Italian M109L 155mm self-propelled howitzer was recently spotted in Ukraine. Video that emerged on social media shows it firing while sporting a version of the cartoonish toothy grin Ukrainian forces like to paint on some of their weapons, most notably the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS
A Russian Su-24M Flanker is seen in this photo carrying a FAB-500M62 aerial bomb with UMPK, or Unifitsirovannyi Modul Planirovaniya i Korrektsii, meaning unified gliding and correction module. As we previously reported: “The wing kits allow for Russian aircraft to launch indirect attacks on targets that would otherwise put them at to great of risk to do so directly due to Ukraine ever-evolving anti-aircraft defenses.”
The Russian Military Informant milblogger said on its Facebook page, which posted the image, that it showed the first instance of an Su-24M carrying one of the UMPK-fitted bombs. While we cannot confirm that, our previous coverage from July included a photo of one with such a munition.
Decoys have a role to play in this war, as you can read in our report from earlier today about an incredible fake rendition of a Ukrainian Su-25 Frogfoot. Now it appears that Ukraine has developed one to look like a Leopard 2A4 tank.
Russia also makes use of battlefield decoys.
An Russian T-90M tank was recently spotted rocking an unusually heavy "cope cage" along with dozens of Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor tiles. As you can see in the images included in this story, a lot of the metal additions designed to thwart various threats to armor, especially drone attacks, are smaller and lighter and lack ERA. Our report on the emergence of ERA installed on Russian cope cages can be found here, although that was a far less substantial installation.
At 58, Ariah Ben-Yehuda continues to fight on behalf of Ukraine. The Israeli citizen served with police back in his homeland, but came to Ukraine to fight Russians, according to Euromaidan Press. He was wounded three time in Ukraine, but is now back on the front, the publication reported.
And finally, combatants have to find solace where they can, and in the case of these Ukrainian troops it's food. Specifically salo, smoked pork fat served on black break with spring onion.
This is a developing story. We will update it when there is more news to report about Ukraine.
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