With the war in Gaza reverberating around the world, it is hard to hear anything above the noise. Yet an interview with Ukraine’s commander-in-chief last week came through loud and clear, sparking both an internal crisis in Kyiv and an international debate on the future of the conflict.
General Valery Zaluzhny is the man leading the Ukrainian war against Russia’s invasion. For him to voice publicly that the fighting had reached a stalemate was astonishing, even shocking. Yet that was his conclusion: “Just like in the first world war we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” he said. “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”
It was a surprising admission, which unsurprisingly brought an immediate rebuke from Ukraine’s political leadership. “This is not a stalemate,” said Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, clearly concerned by the characterization and its impact on Western support.
It was also a rather obvious statement about the current situation. That the Ukraine war is at a stalemate has been clear for weeks, yet it has taken the Gaza war to make that reality clear.
Ukraine’s spring counter-offensive was meant to be a military storm that would finally shift the tide of battle. From the beginning it was plagued by a lack of equipment and when it finally got started in the summer, it spluttered rather than shocked.
Before the counteroffensive began in June, Ukraine had managed to regain territory from the Russians, mainly around Kharkiv in the east and Kherson in the south.
But since the operation got underway, progress has been slow-going. Across the almost 1,000 kilometers of heavily fortified front line, there has been practically no change. Zoom out from the map of the vast territory occupied by Russian forces, and the areas Ukraine has regained are mere specks. The New York Times estimated last month that the total area retaken by Kyiv across this entire year of fighting is smaller than the capital Kyiv itself. That’s a lot of pain for little gain.
This lack of movement has dispirited Ukrainians and their supporters. Allies have paid an enormous price for backing Ukraine through two bloody years and one freezing winter. Both the US and European countries have given around $80 billion each in military and financial assistance. At least five countries, including Denmark and Norway, have given the equivalent of 1 percent of their annual GDP, just to keep Ukraine fed and fighting.
Across the world, the fallout from the Ukraine war has been astonishing, with disrupted supply chains causing a spike in prices, a lack of food and political unrest. The Global South was placated by the argument from the West that the Ukraine invasion represented a fundamental change in the rules of the global order, and some pain was necessary to rectify it.
Then came Gaza, and as Palestinian casualties mounted and Western leaders struggled to even pronounce “cease-fire,” the exceptions to global rules offered to Western allies became clear.
But the Gaza war hasn’t made clear the Ukrainian stalemate for that reason. Instead, the sheer focus from Western politicians on Zelensky shielded Ukraine’s leadership from the flagging campaign. Zelensky’s energetic diplomacy meant that most weeks saw him address one event or another, visiting or being visited by Western politicians. The reality of the war was lost in a whirlwind of cameras and soundbites.
Now, with Gaza taking up the world’s political attention, the lack of front pages about the Ukraine war somehow makes the reality starker. When the politics was in constant flux, it was easy to ignore the frozen battle lines. Now, it is harder to ignore, hence why the splits within Ukraine have become clearer.
There are signs that Western allies are beginning to search for a way out.
Reports in the US media, based on anonymous sources, have suggested the topic of peace negotiations have been broached with Ukraine at the highest level.
For now, the official line continues to be that the West, and especially the United States, will stand by Ukraine as long as the country needs help. In reality, though, Washington has priorities of its own, and a contentious and fractious election cycle is looming next year, at which President Joe Biden’s handling of the Ukraine conflict will be an important part of the debate.
That makes Biden himself one of the weakest links in the diplomatic chain that leads to a Ukrainian settlement. He has now staked his personal reputation on two deeply controversial wars, neither of which show any sign of ending soon.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin will be happy to see Biden’s likely opponent Donald Trump return to the presidency – which means there is almost no chance that Russia will negotiate while the US election campaigns are in full swing. Far better to keep the front lines frozen and let Biden take the blame.
If there is no reason for Moscow to end the conflict, then the battle lines could be frozen for at least the next year.
Zelensky has staked his political life on being an uncompromising wartime leader. As it becomes clear Ukraine’s army cannot deliver victory – when even the head of the army says so – it won’t be long before Ukraine’s allies look to put their faith, not in a wartime leader, but in someone who can deliver peace, possibly at any cost.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. X: @FaisalAlYafai