There is a subtle yet unmistakable sense of gloom in Kyiv at the moment, and not only because of the dark afternoons and plunging mercury of an eastern European November. A number of internal and external factors have combined to create perhaps the most downbeat mood about the prospects for a swift and decisive Ukrainian victory over Russia since the first weeks of the full-scale invasion.
“At the end of last year and beginning of this one, there was such euphoria. Now we see the other extreme, the down, and I guess we will see some ups and downs for some time to come,” said Bartosz Cichocki, who last month finished a four-year posting as Poland’s ambassador in Kyiv.
The much-anticipated summer counteroffensive has been thwarted by impenetrable Russian minefields and fortifications. There are rumours of tensions in Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s team, and of a rift between the president and his commander-in-chief, which were reinforced late on Sunday when Zelenskiy fired the head of Ukraine’s military medical forces and called for operational changes in the army.
The exhaustion of two years of fighting, the continued loss of life at the front and frustration at the slow pace with which western partners continue to provide weaponry have combined so that for the first time since the early stages of the war, some voices have quietly pondered the possibility of ceasefire negotiations, while accepting they would be risky and could benefit Russia.
Then there is the horror unfolding in the Middle East, which has taken attention away from Ukraine and slowed down flows of ammunition. There is also increasing “Ukraine fatigue” in western capitals, as well as the looming prospect of a second term for Donald Trump in the US, which could upend support from Kyiv’s biggest ally.
On Monday morning, the US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin arrived in Kyiv on an unannounced visit partly aimed at reassuring Ukrainian leaders of Washington’s continued support, but renewed funding plans for Ukraine are proving hard to get through Congress amid Republican opposition and there are fears that it will only get harder as next year’s election gets closer.
There are a few bright spots, too. On the battlefield, news that Ukrainian troops have dug into positions on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in the southern Kherson region, possibly opening up a path for a push towards Crimea, as well as Ukraine’s success targeting the Russian Black Sea fleet. Diplomatically, the EU’s announcement that it plans to begin membership talks with Ukraine brought much-needed cheer.
But as Ukrainians brace for another winter of potential Russian attacks on critical infrastructure, as well as the ongoing nightly terror from missiles and drones aimed at Ukrainian cities, the optimism of six months ago that the defeat of Russia and the return of Donbas and Crimea could be just around the corner has begun to fade.
“It won’t be the victory that we dreamed of and it will take much longer than we thought,” said Volodymyr Omelyan, a former minister of infrastructure who signed up for the territorial defence forces on the first day of the war and is a captain in the Ukrainian army.
Most people recognise that as long as Vladimir Putin is in the Kremlin, there is not likely to be any lasting peace, and any pause in the fighting would be used by Russia to rearm. Surveys show that the majority of Ukrainians oppose negotiations with Russia, especially if they would involve acknowledging lost territory.
At the same time, the exhaustion of those who have been at the front since the start of the conflict, the difficulty in mobilising new recruits and the failure of this summer’s counteroffensive to take back territory have led to some cautious voices suggesting that a change of tack is required.
“The choice is very simple. If we are ready to send another 300,000 or 500,000 lives of Ukrainian soldiers to capture Crimea and liberate Donbas, and if we get the right number of tanks and F16s from the west, we can do this,” Omelyan said. “But I don’t see the 500,000 more people ready to die and I don’t see the readiness of the west to send the type and quantity of weapons we would need.”
The other option, said Omelyan, would be “a ceasefire deal to make great reforms, become a member of Nato and the EU, then Russia will collapse and later we will take back Crimea and Donbas”.
That may be wishful thinking, however, and Zelenskiy has said any negotiations would only play into Russia’s hands, given that the Kremlin’s ultimate war aim remains the total subjugation of Ukraine.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, conceded that this was a difficult phase of the war but said this stage “requires the strongest and most difficult concentration” to keep going.
“Let’s be clear, there is no option for real negotiations. All it would be would be an operational pause. Russia would use this to significantly improve its army, carry out new mobilisation and then relaunch its war, with even more tragic consequences for Ukraine,” he said in an interview at the presidential administration in Kyiv.
Still, a recent interview with Zelenskiy by the journalist Simon Shuster, who has written a forthcoming biography of the president and has enjoyed unusually close access to his team, suggested that even within Zelenskiy’s inner circle there were people who doubted his messianic belief in Ukraine’s victory.
Shuster quoted a frustrated Zelenskiy aide who said the president was delusional about the prospect of victory on the battlefield. “We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that,” said the aide.
Conflict in the Middle East
The Hamas attacks on Israel and Israeli assault on Gaza in response have proved tricky for Ukraine in three ways. Firstly, the war in the Middle East has meant that for perhaps the first time since February 2022, Ukraine has not been the main foreign policy issue on most western leaders’ minds for a sustained period of time.
Secondly, it has meant a decrease in ammunition supplies to Ukraine, according to Zelenskiy, which has exacerbated an already crucial problem for the Ukrainian military.
Finally, there is the fallout from Zelenskiy’s decision to line up behind America’s hard pro-Israeli position on the Gaza conflict. He has described Hamas and Russia as “the same evil”. This has undermined a push by Ukraine to broaden alliances in the Middle East and elsewhere outside the west, which was a key part of the remit of the recently appointed defence minister, Rustem Umerov.
Podolyak admitted there had been a “chill” in relations with many non-western nations. “It has made it harder to make a broader coalition of support for Ukraine in the fight against Russia,” he said.
The looming prospect of a Trump second term
With just a year to go until the US presidential election, the potential return of Donald Trump, who frequently claims he would be able to do a quick deal to end the war, is an alarming prospect for many in Kyiv.
Publicly, officials say they are confident support from the White House will continue whoever is in charge, but privately there is concern about what a Trump presidency would mean. “It came up in every meeting,” said Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia who works with Zelenskiy’s administration on sanctions and met the president and other key officials in Kyiv in September.
Even without Trump in office, Republicans can frustrate the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy. Congress has been unable to pass a new bill on aid to Ukraine since September, with a chunk of Republicans opposed, meaning military shipments to Kyiv have been reduced. Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, travelled to Washington last week to meet Democrats and Republicans in the hope of underlining the importance of continued weapons deliveries.
The return of politics
For the first year of the war, Ukrainians were united behind Zelenskiy, in awe of his leadership during the crucial first days and unified in their national struggle against Russia. Naturally, as time has gone on that agreement has started to fray.
The president is acutely worried about the “Churchill phenomenon”, according to one informed source, of electoral defeat for a successful wartime leader. With presidential elections due next March, there had been some suggestion Zelenskiy might attempt to hold a vote, giving himself a new mandate before what may be a more difficult phase of the war.
These hints drew a strong response from many in civil society, who said it would not be possible from either a logistical or security perspective to hold elections now.
“Most developed democratic countries agree: you can’t have elections during wartime. Everyone should have one priority, to defend the state,” said Olga Aivazovska, the chair of the Ukrainian NGO Opora and an electoral specialist.
Zelenskiy eventually ruled out a vote next spring but, elections or not, there are now caveats to wartime unity. Opposition politicians say that when the war is over, questions about Zelenskiy’s preparations in the run-up to the invasion will be revisited. “Black PR” campaigns and kompromat are again spread through Telegram channels, where most Ukrainians get their news.
Zelenskiy’s approval ratings are still high but so are those of Valeriy Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief, widely seen as a possible future challenger for the presidency although he has never articulated any political ambitions.
When Zaluzhny recently gave an interview to the Economist calling the battlefield situation a “stalemate”, Zelenskiy and advisers criticised the use of the term. Podolyak denied there was conflict between the two men. “Zelenskiy is his direct boss, there cannot be a conflict by definition,” he said.
Cichocki, the Polish former ambassador, said it was clear that in recent months there had been an uptick in political jockeying. “Politics is back in Ukraine,” he said. “The original consolidation of one unified force fighting evil, it’s different now.”