Ukraine on the defensive as Russia war enters third year

AFP , Saturday 24 Feb 2024

Ukraine on Saturday marked two years since Russia's war, entering a new year weakened by a lack of western aid while Russia is emboldened by fresh gains.

Ukraine
File photo: Ukrainian servicemen evacuate injured comrade at the frontline close to the Dnipro near Kherson, Ukraine. AP

 

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a "special military operation" at dawn on February 24, 2022, many expected Moscow's victory within days, but Ukraine fought back, forcing Russian troops into significant retreats.

But Ukraine has suffered setbacks with the failure of its 2023 counteroffensive. The Russian army has in turn built up a position of strength thanks to booming war production, while Ukraine's troops are short of manpower and running low on Western-supplied ammunition for artillery and air defences.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that decisions on arms supplies must be "the priority".

Saturday's anniversary will see visits by Western leaders including EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who praised Ukraine's "extraordinary resistance" as she arrived in Kyiv.

But the overall picture remains bleak for Ukraine due to the US Congress blocking a vital $60 billion aid package. This has come on top of delays in promised European deliveries.

US President Joe Biden renewed calls for Republican lawmakers to unblock the additional funding, warning that "history is waiting" and "failure to support Ukraine at this critical moment will not be forgotten".

'War is our life'
 

Russia is attacking hard in the east, with the destroyed town of Maryinka near Donetsk the latest hotspot after it captured the heavily fortified town of Avdiivka on February 17.

Ukraine's economy has also been hit by a border blockade by Polish farmers that Kyiv says threatens exports and has held up deliveries of weapons.

In Kyiv, the mood was grim but still defiant as people said they had grown accustomed to wartime conditions.

"For women of Ukraine, this is our heartache -- for our husbands, for our children, for our fathers," said nutritionist Olga Byrko in Kyiv.

"I would really like this to end as quickly as possible."

Yuriy Pasichnyk, a 38-year-old businessman, told AFP Ukrainians "have learned to live with it... now the war is our life".

And 51-year-old Kostyantyn Gofman called for "more weapons so that we can drive this evil spirit out of our land and start rebuilding our Ukraine".

Ukraine needs almost half a trillion dollars to rebuild towns and cities destroyed by Russia's war, according to the latest estimate by the World Bank, European Union, United Nations and Ukrainian government.

Ukraine has estimated that around 50,000 civilians have been killed.

'Running out of shells'
 

Neither side has given numbers for military deaths and injured, while both claim to have inflicted huge losses.

In August 2023, The New York Times quoted US officials as putting Ukraine's military losses at 70,000 dead and 100,000 to 120,000 injured.

Leaked US intelligence in December indicated that 315,000 Russian troops had been killed or wounded.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Moscow's forces in occupied Ukraine, the army said on Saturday, telling them "in terms of the ratio of forces, the advantage is on our side".

He was also briefed on Russian troops "continuing their advance" after taking Avdiivka.

On the eastern front, morale is low as outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian troops are ceding ground to Russian forces.

"We are running out of shells and the Russians keep coming. Lots of our comrades are injured -- or worse. Everything is getting worse and worse," said one soldier near Bakhmut, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Britain announced Saturday a new £245 million ($311 million) defence package to help boost the production of "urgently needed artillery ammunition" for Ukraine, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisting in an earlier statement timed to the anniversary that "tyranny will never triumph".

Moscow has massively ramped up its arms production and received drones from Iran, while Kyiv says it has confirmed Russia's use of North Korean missiles.

Zelensky said in December the military wanted to draft up to 500,000 more troops. A bill to broaden mobilisation has caused wide public fear.

The conflict has thrown Russia into even greater isolation from the West, with the United States and its allies imposing a slew of sanctions.

Biden announced even more sanctions against Russia Friday, vowing sustained pressure to stop Putin's "war machine", while also seeking to impose a cost for the death last week in a Siberian prison of Putin's most vocal critic, Alexei Navalny.

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, warned his Russian counterpart early Saturday not to "count on any fatigue from Europeans" over the war, pledging that France's support for Kyiv "will not waver".

Putin, however, has brushed off the fallout and hailed Russian troops as "true national heroes".

On the streets of Moscow, most people told AFP they back the soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

"I'm proud of our men," said 27-year-old Nadezhda, an environmental engineer.

"Of course I am anxious for them, but it's a pleasant feeling that they are doing great, they are out there fighting for our country."

One of the few to give an alternative opinion, was Konstantin, a drama teacher working as a waiter, who said: "I'm against any war. Two years have passed and it annoys me that people can't talk to each other and are still at war."

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