“I am happy to be here today and to see you,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said as he presented medals to combat troops near the eastern front during a ceremony close to the city of Kupiansk in the war-battered Kharkiv region on Monday. 

However, for months Ukraine’s battlefield momentum has been stalled. Zelensky recently replaced much of the military leadership in the most significant shake-up since the war began. He, for example, parted ways with popular army chief Valery Zaluzhny credited with the Ukrainian’s army stunning success in holding out against a vastly more powerful Russian military at the onset of the war which is seen as a sign of the first serious split within the leadership.

Further, a controversial bill making its way through parliament contains stiffer penalties for draft dodgers and lowers the age of service. The military says it needs up to half a million people to boost their dwindling ranks and reprieve exhausted frontline troops.

In addition to this, Ukraine’s forces at the weekend withdrew from Avdiivka, a town in the Donetsk region that had been fiercely contested. Avdiivka had become a new symbol of Ukrainian resistance during Moscow’s months-long onslaught on the town which it had been trying to take since a Russian-backed rebellion began in eastern Ukraine in 2014. But the outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainians were eventually forced to pull out of the ruined town, where under 1,000 residents remained out of a pre-war population of around 30,000.

The conquest of the town by Russian troops may not be strategically significant, but it could be exploited by the Kremlin for propaganda purposes ahead of the Russian presidential election in March, according to experts from the US Institute for the Study of War. 

The last time Ukraine had to give up a town or city was after the battle of Bakhmut in spring 2023, a battle which also lasted for months.

Analysts: Only ramped up Western support for Ukraine can change shifted momentum 

After two years of war in Ukraine, there is no prospect of negotiations to find a breakthrough as Russian President Vladimir Putin, emboldened by the erosion of Western support for Kyiv, girds for a long conflict. Analysts and diplomats say 2024 will be another year of war because Ukraine is determined to keep on fighting to recapture territory, while Putin will only be satisfied with Kyiv’s full surrender.

A Republican holdup on US military aid and Europe’s inability to ramp up weapons supplies fast enough contribute to a sense of uncertainty and gloom in Kyiv. 

In an effort to shore up support from European partners, Zelensky recently visited leaders in Paris and Berlin and signed security agreements with both. A month prior, the Ukrainian president secured a deal with the United Kingdom and is currently in talks with Italy. He appealed for the US Congress to approve a stalled military aid package in a meeting with US Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference.  

On the other side, Putin had made increasingly bullish statements, declaring in December that Ukraine “does not have a future” and – in a recent interview with controversial right-wing US talk show host Tucker Carlson – that a strategic defeat of Russia is “impossible by definition”.

European leaders increasingly recognise that if Putin is allowed to win in Ukraine, he could then be tempted to test NATO’s defences. “We have a ‘Russian problem’ ahead of us and for us it’s a huge challenge,” said European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. French president Emmanuel Macron warned last month that Europe’s priority must be to “not let Russia win”.

Security and military support is currently the most important, said the Slovenian State Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, Damir Črnčec, at a recent round table organised by the Centre for European Future.

At the Munich Security Conference, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said: “We must ensure that on Saturday, when the war has lasted two years, Ukraine receives more deliveries. Specific deliveries on the ground. It’s about ammunition, artillery, long-range missiles, drones and more for the coalition of F-16 aircraft.” She also said that words would not solve the situation. 

Analysts say only drastically ramped up Western support for Ukraine as it runs out of munitions can change the momentum. “It is a race by both sides to rebuild their offensive capacity,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for New American Security (CNAS). “If the Western funding does not come through, if Russia gains some sort of advantage, then they have the possibility of making some more gains,” she said. “The momentum has shifted.”

“The Bulgarian Government and the parliamentary majority in Bulgaria will continue to support Ukraine and its people, both through national efforts and through international forms of cooperation, EU and NATO structures, for as long as necessary,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov said in Paris on February 21.

Tensions at the Poland-Ukraine border 

In a sign of possibly increasing European disunity in their stance to support Ukraine at all costs, Polish farmers have been trying to block lorries carrying Ukrainian grain. Their dissatisfaction is directed against EU agricultural policy, but also against the import of cheap agricultural products from Ukraine. 

Roads into Poland, an EU member, have been an export lifeline for Ukraine, which is also relying on imported Western military aid to be transported through Poland. Zelensky called on the Polish government for a meeting to resolve the issue. 

Poland is one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters in the war and Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on Thursday that border crossings with neighbouring Ukraine would be considered “critical infrastructure” to safeguard the passage of aid to the war-torn country. Tusk refused to meet at the border but a meeting will be held on March 28 in Warsaw. 

EU: Keeping “the pressure high on the Kremlin”, resilient Russian economy 

The European Union has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia in the two years of its war and has so far put some 2,000 officials and entities on its blacklist. On Wednesday, the EU agreed to a new round of sanctions on Russia, after having recently approved a new 50-billion Euro package of assistance. Welcoming the decision, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on X that the latest salvo of sanctions keeps “the pressure high on the Kremlin”. 

EU representatives in Brussels signed off on the package, which targets persons and organisations linked to the Russian government and the Russian invasion. Almost 200 people have been included in the 13th package, top EU diplomat Josep Borrell said. The package also includes measures to clamp down on sanctions evasion, he said.

The latest measures are directed at the Russian weapons industry’s access to components to manufacture drones, EU diplomats said. Companies in the bloc would not be allowed to sell goods and technologies with military connections to Russia. The sanctions agreement now goes to EU capitals for final legal approval. Persons and organisations will then be listed in the EU Official Journal to take effect on Saturday. 

Despite the economic punishment, Russia’s economy has remained resilient and the Kremlin has managed to ramp up military production.  

According to an analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) which was shared with CNN, Russia made a record 37 billion Dollar of crude oil sales to India last year, refined and then exported to the United States in the form of petroleum products worth more than one billion Dollar. The Kremlin’s federal revenue jumped to a record 320 billion Dollar in 2023 and is set to rise further.

But one reason for some optimism in the West may come from Russia’s own domestic weaknesses. Its economy is firmly on a war footing, there are signs of public fatigue with the duration of the conflict and it has suffered astronomical losses.

Shrouding losses in secrecy

The human cost of the war in Ukraine, two years after the Russian invasion, is in the hundreds of thousands but the exact toll is unknown, with both sides shrouding their losses in secrecy, and Russia covering up civilian deaths in areas it has conquered.

The BBC Russian Service and news outlet Mediazona said on February 21 that they had confirmed the identity of around 45,000 Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine since the invasion began. It included only the names of soldiers publicly identified in open-source data – mainly obituaries – and warned that the real toll could be twice as high.

The Ukrainian army estimated on February 20 that it had killed or wounded more than 405,000 Russian troops since the invasion. In December 2023, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that his troops had killed or injured 383,000 Ukrainian soldiers.

On Monday in Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that at least 23,000 people are missing in Ukraine and that their fate is still unclear. They may have been arrested or abducted or died – or relatives lost track of each other when fleeing the conflict, the ICRC said.

By the end of January, the ICRC had helped 8,000 Russian and Ukrainian families obtain information about the fate or whereabouts of their missing relatives, the organisation reported.

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.

Editor’s note: Update on Ukraine military paragraph, adding of further information.