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News / Nation & World

Putin waits for Western support for Kyiv to wither

Aid remains stuck in U.S. Congress as war in enters third year

By The Associated Press
Published: February 20, 2024, 6:00pm
3 Photos
FILE - Soldiers of Ukraine&rsquo;s National Guard 1st Brigade hold combat training in northern Ukraine on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023. As the Kremlin watches for more signs of crumbling Western support for Ukraine, the Russian military has pressed attacks in several sectors in a bid to drain Kyiv&rsquo;s reserves and deplete its munitions.
FILE - Soldiers of Ukraine’s National Guard 1st Brigade hold combat training in northern Ukraine on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023. As the Kremlin watches for more signs of crumbling Western support for Ukraine, the Russian military has pressed attacks in several sectors in a bid to drain Kyiv’s reserves and deplete its munitions. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File) (iryna rybakova/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

When the invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, some analysts predicted it might take as few as three days for Russian forces to capture the capital of Kyiv.

With the war now entering its third year, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be trying to turn that initial failure to his advantage — by biding his time and waiting for Western support for Ukraine to wither while Moscow maintains its steady military pressure along the front line.

Putin’s longer timeline still has its downside, with the conflict taking a heavy toll on Russia by draining its economic and military resources and fueling social tensions even as the death of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny serves as a chilling reminder of the Kremlin’s ruthless crackdown on dissent.

Putin has repeatedly signaled a desire to negotiate an end to the fighting but warned that Russia will hold onto its gains. Earlier this month, he used an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson to urge the United States to push its “satellite” Ukraine into peace talks, declaring that “sooner or later, we will come to an agreement.”

Some recent developments have fed the Kremlin’s optimism.

Aid for Ukraine remains stuck in the U.S. Congress while NATO allies have struggled to fill the gap following Ukraine’s underperforming counteroffensive last summer. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decision to dismiss his popular military chief, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, disappointed many in the country and worried its Western allies.

And Donald Trump, who has repeatedly claimed that he would negotiate a quick deal to end the war if elected, recently spooked NATO by saying he could allow Russia to expand its aggression in Europe if alliance members fail to increase their defense spending.

Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center said a possible Trump return to the White House would serve Putin’s goals.

“He sees Trump as a figure likely to wreak destruction and believes the consequences of a second Trump presidency would be to weaken the West and deprive Ukraine of the support it needs,” Stanovaya said.

Steady series of strikes

As the Kremlin watches for more signs of crumbling Western support for Ukraine, Russian forces captured the eastern stronghold of Avdiivka over the weekend after a fierce battle in which Ukrainian forces reported an increasingly desperate shortage of munitions. The seizure set the stage for a potential Russian push deeper into Ukraine-held territory.

“While no large-scale offensive is currently taking place, Russian units are tasked with conducting smaller tactical attacks that at minimum inflict steady losses on Ukraine and allow Russian forces to seize and hold positions,” said Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the Royal United Services Institute. “In this way, the Russians are maintaining a consistent pressure on a number of points.”

Amid the battles in the east, Russia also has sought to cripple Ukraine’s defense industries with a steady series of strikes. It has used long-range cruise and ballistic missiles as well as Iranian-made Shahed drones to saturate and overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses that are experiencing a growing shortage of munitions.

“In terms of Russian industry’s capacity to support ongoing operations, Russia has significantly mobilized its defense industry, increasing shifts and expanding production lines at existing facilities as well as bringing previously mothballed plants back online,” Watling and Reynolds said. “This has led to significant increases in production output.”

They also note that Russian arms industries continue to depend on Western-supplied components, arguing that tighter enforcement of sanctions could disrupt this.

Some Moscow analysts acknowledge, however, that the Russian military is facing multiple challenges.

Retired Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the former chief of the military’s General Staff, admitted that Ukrainian air defenses has effectively barred Russian warplanes from Ukrainian airspace and often make it risky for them to operate even over Russian-controlled territory. Baluyevsky said in a recent article that Western-supplied artillery are superior to Russian systems.

Western officials and analysts note that while the 930-mile front line has remained largely static with neither side making significant gains, Ukrainian forces have launched bold missile and drone attacks deep behind the line of contact, raising the costs for the Kremlin and challenging Putin’s attempts to pretend that life in Russia is largely unaffected by the war.

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