View from Washington: Ukraine crunch coming – Zelensky on the rocks?

11:28 03.11.2023 •

President Zelensky

In more ways than one, Ukraine is facing a crunch that could topple the Zelensky government, notes Stephen Bryen, a former Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology.

Ukraine's situation has worsened since the failure of the much advertised Ukrainian "counter" offensive. Focused mainly on the Zaphorize area, but also including renewed emphasis on trying to return to Bakhmut, the entire enterprise stalled. Ukraine suffered huge casualties and equipment losses with almost nothing to show for it. Even the fighting in Bradley square, aimed at breaching the Surovikin defenses, failed.

It is now getting worse as the Russians begin their own offensive, some of it focused on Avdiivka, on the Krasny Liman area, and Kupyansk. Virtually every report indicates important Russian tactical successes despite Ukraine throwing in reinforcements. The Russian operations appear to be an effort to create effective borders for Donetsk and Luhansk while possibly preparing for even deeper thrusts elsewhere.

According to Sergey Shoigu, Russia's Defense Minister speaking on October 25th, "We have received systems that have shot down 24 aircraft over the past five days."  Shoigu did not say what the "systems" were or where they were operating.

It isn't clear how many Mig-29's remain in Ukraine's inventory, but probably only a handful.

The Russians also destroyed at least three, perhaps more, Leopard tanks. The 14 US supplied M-1 Abrams tanks so far have not been seen in combat and could be a strategic reserve for Ukraine's army. Ukraine has admitted that the Abrams, like the Leopard's, are vulnerable to Russian killer drones such as the improved Lancet, and also can be destroyed by artillery and mines.

The second crunch coming for Ukraine is all about money.  In the US House of Representatives, the Republicans are separating aid for Israel from aid for Ukraine and intend to take legislative action on money for Israel ($14 billion) perhaps in the first week of November. They will take up Ukraine assistance separately, but it isn't clear what a Ukraine package will look like. although the amount of money, $61.4 billion, will be subjected to heavy scrutiny and the funds reduced.

Congress may also want an exit strategy for Ukraine. Up until now, no exit strategy has been proposed, but given the state of the US economy and the rising loss of confidence that Ukraine can prevail against Russia, it is likely demands for an exit strategy could be built into the money bill for Ukraine.

Zelensky is already reportedly having problems with his generals. There are two parts to this problem. The first was the long delay in launching the counter-offensive, angering Pentagon and White House officials who wanted it done as a show of strength against the Russians and as a way to secure NATO support going forward. The US, UK and NATO prepared elaborate battlefield scenarios and simulations, helped train the Ukrainian forces, equipped at least three brigades with Western equipment throughout, yet the Ukrainian army leaders feared the assaults might not be successful and that they lacked essential weapons. Finally, the offensive got started last June and failed by September, confirming the worst fears of Ukraine's military leaders (and draining the country of thousands of combat-trained soldiers.)

Zelensky obviously knows he could be replaced and fears that a deal might be made between the Russian and Ukrainian military. That may explain why Ukraine's domestic intelligence service (SBU) attempted to kill Oleg Tsaryov, a former Ukrainian legislator who US intelligence said was being groomed to replace Zelensky last year when Russian forces attempted a takeover of Kyiv. Tsaryov was shot twice and was found unconscious in Yalta.  Ukraine says he is a traitor and he is on a list of other traitors. There have been a number of assassinations carried out by Ukraine's SBU targeting Zelensky opponents.

The timing of the shooting of Tsaryov, an obviously high value target, suggests that Zelensky in anxious to liquidate potential challengers. Inside Ukraine he is also clamping down, arresting opponents such as Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian billionaire and banker, on charges of fraud.

If the military situation continues to deteriorate and the US Congress walks back at least some of Ukraine's money, Zelensky's tenure may have reached an end point. Zelensky could be on the rocks.


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