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Russian advance to key Ukrainian cities draw fears of major Russian wins, raises calls for peace

Russian territorial claims to Ukraine are likely to present complications for any potential peace agreement as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has thus far rejected the prospect of conceding ground to the Russians. Potential Russian advancements on the battleground are not going to make it easier.

Published: December 2, 2023 11:27pm

With winter setting in and eastern Ukraine coated in snow, Russian offensive activities near strategic settlements have prompted concerns of a broader offensive that could potentially redraw the war map and have substantial implications for any potential peace negotiations as Congress mulls approving additional financial and military aid to Ukraine.

Thus far, reported Russian gains have been confined to the longstanding theaters of the war, namely the Kharkiv and Donetsk Oblasts (provinces). The Russians have maintained a military presence in both regions throughout the conflict, though of the two, Russia has only officially annexed Donetsk. Russia officially annexed the Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson Oblasts late last year, staging referendums to legitimize the move, though Russian forces did not control all of the territory in those provinces at the time and the international community largely rejected them as fraudulent.

Russia's territorial claims to Ukraine are likely to present complications for any potential peace agreement as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has thus far rejected the prospect of conceding any ground to the Russians.

A Gallup survey published in October revealed that 60% of Ukrainians wanted to keep fighting until Kyiv won the war, which 91% defined as reclaiming all lost territory, including Crimea. Thirty-one percent of Ukrainians wanted to negotiate peace. Notably, the survey questioned Ukrainians from July through August, meaning the survey period predated the failure of Ukraine's major counteroffensive effort.

Unsurprisingly, support for continuing the war was strongest in the Ukrainian North and West while the areas closest to Russia, the South and East, were much more likely to favor a negotiated settlement. Russian gains from a prospective offensive would almost certainly come at the expense of these regions and potentially result in their integration into the Russian Federation.

Amid reports of Russian advances, former Trump advisor Walid Phares on Tuesday suggested that the Russians expected the conflict to end at the negotiating table and aimed to seize as much land as possible prior to sitting down with Ukraine to maximize its leverage in the ultimate peace deal.

"When we compare the current war of in Ukraine, between Ukraine and Russia, we compare it to at this point in time, to a static war, meaning like World War One, the last three years of World War One in France," he said on the "Just the News, No Noise" television show. "On the Western Front, the British and French were basically in a situation of moving 20 kilometers, you know, withdrawing for 20 kilometers until the American forces came. And then that was the push against Germany," Phares said.

"In Ukraine and Russia, we have seen since the standardization of the front, the first year basically, that not much has happened in terms of gaining territory. The Russians actually withdrew, if we all remember from the suburbs of Kyiv, all the way to Russia," he continued. "They made the only progress they made, which was significant was, you know, the coast, the Sea of Azov. Now since then, Ukrainians were on the offensive; it was a slow, methodical offensive."

"Then the Russians took advantage of the fact that world's attention has turned to the Middle East, as you know. And when that happens, there's little incentive in the West, first in the United States Congress, but certainly now... in Europe," Phares went on. "Those forces would not want to engage in a massive confrontation are, you know, whispering in the ears of Zelensky and others, such as Germany and other countries, you know, Hungary... that it needs to stop."

"The Russians understand that message that it needs to stop. We need to gain as much land before it stops," he concluded.

"There is a weakness, a really fundamental weakness in the Ukrainian ability to hold the front," former Assistant Secretary of State Bobby Charles said Wednesday on the "John Solomon Reports" podcast, citing analysis from the Institute for the Study of War. "I sit on a couple of boards," Charles said, "and I talk with with good, good and really seasoned people, people far more seasoned than I am, about how tactics ultimately add up. Quantitative changes become qualitative changes how tactics add up to a strategic failure, or a strategic decline or strategic slide."

Charles likened the situation to a game of tug of war, saying "it can be even and then there starts to be a pull one way, and stopping that pull becomes far harder than it was to just maintain where you were."

In recent days, Russian forces have conducted offensive moves on the edges of Avdiivka, in Donetsk, and Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv Oblast. The former has been a key Ukrainian citadel since the start of the war. Situated to the North of Donetsk city and alongside the old Donbas War ceasefire line, the fortress town has thus far held out against the Russian Army, but in recent weeks Muscovite forces have moved to encircle the city, occupying positions to the East and North of Avdiivka while seizing an industrial zone to the South and threatening the city's remaining supply route to the West.

In the Ukrainian East, Russian troops have conducted assaults on the outskirts of Kupyansk. The city fell to the Russians early in the war, though the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) reclaimed it during a September 2022 counteroffensive. While Russian troops have yet to enter the city proper, Russian think tank Rybar has reported assaults on the outlying settlement of Sinkivka, though it remains unclear whether Kremlin forces have established any permanent presence there as of press time.

On the edge of Bakhmut, Russian forces have reportedly also occupied much of Khromove village, a settlement to which Ukraine had clung even after the Russians managed to largely eject the AFU from the city proper. The development represents a significant advance in what had been one of the bloodiest theaters of the war from late 2022 until well into the middle of this year.

Seizure of those positions, in particular Avdiivka, could have significant implications for the Russian war effort as they could potentially serve as supply hubs and allow Moscow to push the AFU further out of the East.

Western enthusiasm for continued Ukrainian operations has fallen considerably in recent months, especially in light of the outbreak of fighting between Israel and the Hamas terrorist group, which has drawn western attention away from Eastern Europe.

Kyiv's war effort is heavily dependent on western support, especially in terms of supplies. With U.S. aid to Kyiv nearly running out, President Joe Biden has asked Congress to approve a $106 billion aid package, including $14.3 billion for Israel and $61 billion for Ukraine. 

An AP/NORC survey released in late November showed that 45% of Americans believed the U.S. was spending too much on Ukraine aid while 38% said Washington was spending "about the right amount."

While support in Congress for providing Kyiv with aid remains relatively high, Republicans have called for separating aid to both nations and have previously approved a stand-alone package for aid to Israel, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., shut down in the upper chamber. The White House and Senate leadership favor approving aid to both countries in a single bill while Republicans specifically hope to tie Ukraine aid to U.S. border security reforms.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, on Sunday told NBC that he saw little prospect that Congress would approve Ukraine aid by the end of the year.

"I think it would be very difficult to get it done by the end of the year and the impediment, currently, is the White House policy on the southern border," he said. "The White House in this package making — including it as a national security package, recognizing that the southern border is a threat, put in funding, but it’s going to need policy changes."

"I don't think you have to be a wizard to see it," Charles said of long-term American support for Ukraine. "We only have so much money, and we're not, we're not going to be in the business of, you know, [putting] endless money into a boat that's got a big hole in it... which is why Democrats are beginning to join Republicans in their skepticism and the absence of an endgame, recognizing that."

The United States is not the only nation questioning continued support for Kyiv, and some European nations, such as Slovakia, have outright terminated military support. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico in late October stated that "I will support zero military aid to Ukraine... An immediate halt to military operations is the best solution we have for Ukraine. The EU should change from an arms supplier to a peacemaker."

Poland preceded Slovakia in that regard, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki saying in September that Warsaw is "no longer transferring any weapons to Ukraine because we are now arming ourselves with the most modern weapons," according to the Associated Press.

In Germany, meanwhile, the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz has remained publicly supportive of Ukraine, but reports have emerged in recent days that his government, in conjunction with the United States planned to pressure the Ukrainians to cut a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the conflict.

German tabloid Bild, citing anonymous German government sources, described a plan by which Washington and Berlin hoped to push Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the negotiating table by merely providing enough supplies for the AFU to hold its current lines rather than renew its own offensive to oust the Russians.

"Zelensky should reali[z]e that it can’t go on like this," one unnamed source told the outlet. "He needs to, of his own free will, turn to face his nation and explain that there is a need to negotiate." The Telegraph (UK) highlighted that neither Berlin nor Washington had commented on the claim. Germany, last week, did announce another a $1.42 billion aid package to Ukraine that included ammunition and air defense units, Reuters reported.

Recent reports have suggested that Zelensky is ill-inclined to negotiate, or even acknowledge the significant barriers to Ukraine reclaiming most of its territory. A bombshell Time magazine report in late October featured unnamed aides to the Ukrainian leader suggesting that his advisors were concerned over his apparent inability to assess the situation on the ground.

"He deludes himself," one of his "closest aides" told the outlet. "We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that."

The report further detailed Zelensky's frustrations with the stalled counter-offensive and pointed to instances of military officials pushing back against his orders to advance.

"We’re not moving forward," one aide said. "They just want to sit in the trenches and hold the line. But we can’t win a war that way."

In early November, Ukrainian commander-in-chief Gen. Valerii Zaluzhny told The Economist that "Just like in the first world war we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate... There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough."

Zelensky subsequently rejected his top general's assessment saying "[e]veryone is tired. There are different opinions... but this is not a stalemate," Politico reported.

The public contrast between Zelensky and Zaluzhny's characterizations of the war prompted considerable speculation as to mounting internal tension between the government and the military. Ukrainian Parliament Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk on Tuesday denied that there existed any discord within the Ukrainian government, saying "[t]here has never been a single case of tension between the political and the military leadership." He further described all such reports as "Russian propaganda."

With the Ukrainian front-line positions deteriorating, international support fading, and the civil and military leadership reportedly at odds, the prospects for Ukrainian success on the battlefield appear limited. With Russian forces on the move, Zelensky is likely to contend with growing calls for peace with Moscow, some of which have already materialized.

"I think this probably is a good moment for third parties, perhaps a coalition of third parties to see if there isn't a way to intercede and create some kind... of a stable environment that... ultimately puts Zelensky in a place where he can claim some degree of victory," Charles said. The conflict, he added, has "demonstrated the hollowness of the Russian military. Their morale is down."

"So but maybe there's a mutual interest is I guess what I'm driving at to try to get to peace. And I'm a big believer that peace through strength is important," Charles continued. "But when you do get into a wartime environment, you either win outright, or you get to a point of advantage where you can negotiate to a solution. And I hope that's where they are."

Ben Whedon is an editor and reporter for Just the News. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter.

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