No peace in sight in the Eastern front

The official wording about the latest exchange of prisoners is revealing. Through centuries, Russians have been un at ease with POWs and, in this case, it is even more problematic because the war in Ukraine is still called a “special operation”. The Russian Ministry of defence described those men as “repatriated” personal. President Zelensky is in different position, and during his address on the day the prisoners came back he said “As soon as we accumulate, if you’ll forgive me the language, the appropriate stockpile of enemy resources, we exchange them for our Ukrainian defenders”.  But other Ukrainian officials and analysts have accused Russia of sending back some soldiers as a way to increase internal pressure on Zelensky to open more negotiated exchanges and to encourage growing discontent about the lack of rotation from the front or the unfairness of conscription.

Since the beginning of the winter, everyone expects the war to continue in 2024, and even 2025. But it is a different war for numerous reasons, first of all:  a change in the conduct of the war; the weight of a global “electoral year 2024” during which half the world’s inhabitants will go to the ballots, potentially swinging the pseudo or real alliances of many states with the Western and the non-Western current poles of geopolitics; the concurrence of other crisis threatening the stability of regions in which Ukraine’s friends have more vital interests.

The conduct of the war

Since the latest days of December, Russian forces have launched massive air attacks, including in Western Ukraine. It was first perceived as a retaliation following the sinking of a landing ship full of ammunition in Feodosia, in Crimea. But the campaign looks as a way to keep pressure on the population, to destroy dual infrastructures (energy, transport, communications), to test anti-aerial equipment already provided by Ukraine’s allies, and growingly to target the places where the F-16 and other arms would be dispatched. Ukrainians too changed gear. They have increased the production of modified drones and missiles, thanks to high tech specialists, skills in metal production, imports of electronic devices. On the operational level, they have created an efficient “new unified system of interaction”.

There is less attention on the ground, where the front is more or less stabilised, with soldiers still dying at a high rate, digging more trenches and defensive lines, waiting for the spring as they were doing a year ago. Again, Ukrainians are waiting for the delivery of decisive Western arms. In 2024, the attention is less focused on a Ukrainian counteroffensive, than in the deliveries of the first F-16 expected in the second part of 2024 and of aerial defence.

In the meantime, Ukrainian forces have been blurring the line between attacks on “occupied territory” and inside the Russian Federation itself. During the late autumn, the attacks on Crimea have been constant, sometimes spectacular; they became less shy of hitting military infrastructures or barracks in the Donbass; lately, they enlarged their previous incursions in Russia itself, sometimes hundreds of kilometers from the border and against civilian areas. The Ukrainians play well on the ambivalence of their Western backers. Confronted with the brutality of the Russian attacks, and taken over by a Schadenfreude to see Russia being cut to seize despite all its pretense, many share the view that Russians have to get a taste of war and to pay for supporting Putin’s regime. But, politically, it is more nuanced.

The political conduct

The Western narrative, justifying the financial efforts diverted from its citizens, is built around the moral obligation to help a democratic, civilised, society threatened by barbarian tyrannic Putin’s regime. This dividing line, and the importance of “values” to differentiate EU’s from Russia’s regime, can be blurred if Russian civilians are killed, and not only “by accident”. More importantly, nobody is ready for a frontal confrontation with Russia and the incursions into Russian territory might provide second thoughts about the much-expected deliveries of high-tech weapons. And that despite Ukrainian messages that they have used only national production to hit Russian territory. The change of gear in the conduct of the war is also putting into light the complexity of the Ukrainian structures of powers. Much has been said about the rivalry between president Zelensky and the chief of the armies general Zaluzhny. But they both do the job, one in the political field, the other in handling the defence of the country.  Both are aware of Western sensibilities about the regime and the use of arms. But lately, there have been growing signals of other men competing for attention, with diverging views on military operations. This include numerous interviews and publications in the media by heads of different components of the Ukrainian forces, up to now discreet, expressing their  opinions or revendicating some battle successes. The young Minister of defence, Rustem Umerov,  has been more present than he has ever been since he took over efficient and internationally Oleksy Reznikov, with an emphasis on his Tatar roots. There was also the televised birthday cake party of Kirilo Budanov, the head of the military intelligence, who is the proud organiser of audacious attacks on Russian fleet, on Moscow region, and of sabotage beyond the Russian front lines, even in the depth of the Russian Federation. He tends to reject a more cautious, and diplomatically sounder, approach as a Soviet heritage by older military leaders. Groups of his service are involved in sabotage in occupied territories and Russia, “treating” Ukrainian collaborators and Russians involved in “crimes against Ukraine”.

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