Ukraine War Zelensky’s fight against war fatigue

As Russia enters its third year of aggression, Ukraine finds itself at a military impasse. The pressure on Zelensky is growing. Can he and the country win the battle in 2024?

For Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been scarred by almost two years of war, 2024 is likely to be a fateful year. Despite Russia’s invasion, the 45-year-old can proudly point to the start of negotiations for EU accession. But the victory over Moscow’s invasion that was promised a year ago is not in sight.

The armed forces’ counteroffensive to liberate the territories occupied by Russia is considered a failure. There is talk of trench warfare, a stalemate, a dead end in the second winter of the war. And solidarity in the West for the country, which is fighting for its survival, is also crumbling.

Russia still controls around a fifth of Ukraine’s territory. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the worst bloodshed in Europe since World War II. This means that the pressure on Zelenskyj to deliver results is growing, not only within the country itself but also internationally.

But Zelenskyj is combative. “Ukraine will not lose its strength and its freedom,” he emphasized at the end of November. “In the end, darkness will lose. Evil will be defeated,” he said in his Christmas message. The president warns against war fatigue or even a freeze in the conflict, because this will only help Russia become militarily stronger again.

Above all, despite increasing calls for negotiations, Zelensky remains determined to fight the conflict on the battlefield. He wants to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia if possible and weaken the country so much that it can never unleash such aggression again. “Russia’s defeat means security for Europe,” he said.

Difficult times for Zelenskyj – Kiev is struggling for further help

However, Zelensky and Ukraine continue to rely on international help to win. And that is dwindling – also because of the Gaza war, which is drawing a lot of attention from the USA and other allies away from Ukraine. The US presidential election next year is already casting a shadow over support for the war. Republican supporters of ex-President Donald Trump, who is aspiring to take office, are blocking the new financial and military aid packages for the country that are urgently needed in the defense fight.

The European Union is supposed to step in, but so far it has not been able to replace the USA either in terms of ammunition delivery or money. This worries the president. There are also problems at home, for example in the fight against corruption, in ensuring energy security in winter and in mobilizing soldiers for war. Commanders have long been demanding more personnel at the front to operate Western weapons. But Zelenskyj is hesitating – also because the required up to 500,000 soldiers will cost billions.

Just a year ago, the US magazine “Time” named Zelenskyj Person of the Year 2022. Former companions now attest to his high-handedness, resistance to advice and an increasingly authoritarian leadership style. In Ukraine, an “open liberal society based on the American model” is by no means emerging under Zelensky, said ex-advisor in the presidential office, Oleksiy Arestovych, recently. Rather, it resembles an “ultranationalist state” pumped full of US weapons.

In the fall of 2023, the “Time” cover story “The Lonely Fight of Volodymyr Zelenskyj” received particular attention in political Kiev. The research revealed the growing dissatisfaction with the president in those around him – and confirmed that the former actor was losing touch with reality and living in an illusory world. Zelenskyj feels betrayed by the West, which is not giving enough weapons to win the war; It was said that he would only give so much so that the country could survive.

Complaints about Zelensky in everyday life and political power games in Kiev

There is little to be heard about criticism of Zelensky in Kiev’s media; they demonstrate unity and submit to war censorship. Complaints about the head of state have long been heard in everyday life. Many Ukrainians continue to criticize Zelensky for downplaying the danger of war before the start of the Russian attack on February 24, 2022 and for having done nothing for a strong military beforehand. Despite US warnings about Moscow’s invasion, he let people fall into the open. Others are disappointed because Zelensky promised peace when he took office in 2019.

Ahead of the second anniversary of the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zelensky continues to insist on the implementation of his “peace formula.” The core of it is the demand for a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. Moscow rejects this as “unrealistic” because a withdrawal would be seen as Putin’s surrender. This is also why Kiev and Moscow are preparing for a continuation of hostilities in 2024.

While Putin is now running his war economy at full speed and is relying on hundreds of thousands of volunteers, Ukraine has long been considered unable to survive without foreign help. For his fight, Zelensky, who is considered a brilliant speaker and often inspires Western allies with his emotionality, also relies on the power of words. “If there is no victory, then there will be no country,” he said in November.

The former comedian does not accept criticism of his conduct of the war. He recently showed this when he reprimanded the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Valeriy Zalushnyj. Saluschnyj has long been said to have political ambitions. In Kiev it is said that the fight for power is already well underway again in the country that is striving to join the EU and NATO. Not only Saluschnyj, but also Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who accused Zelenskyj of mistakes and lies, could pose a threat to the president in an election.

Ukrainians show unbroken will to win

But the presidential election, which was actually planned for the beginning of March, has been canceled due to martial law still in force. At the beginning of November, Zelensky emphasized that “elections are not appropriate now.” Instead of political division, resources should be directed toward “our victory” over Russia. The belief in victory over Russia and a return to the 1991 borders appears to remain unbroken among Ukrainians at almost 70 percent, as surveys show. They reject a voluntary renunciation of territories.

After the successes of Kiev’s troops last year, the euphoria among some has faded. According to several surveys, around a third of the population believes that things in Ukraine are going in the wrong direction. Zelensky, for example, had television stations closed; he revoked the citizenship of unwanted compatriots. Martial law also gives him tools that are not only directed against the Russia-friendly part of the opposition. The right to demonstrate is restricted. Parliamentary debates take place behind closed doors due to security concerns.

“There can be no question of a balance of thought and freedom of expression,” complained MP Iryna Herashchenko on Telegram. The representatives of the second largest parliamentary faction of ex-President Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party are underrepresented on television at four percent and are usually only portrayed in a negative light, she said. Western supporters are also quietly warning Kiev to allow more media freedom again.

Kiev rejects compromises in the war with Russia

According to pollsters, all of this is having an impact on Zelensky’s approval ratings. According to polls, support for his policies was 42 percent in September – after 74 percent in April 2022, when Ukraine saw the first withdrawal of Russian troops near Kiev.

But the head of state continues to rule out compromises and asserts at every opportunity: “Nobody believes in our victory as much as I do.” He promises new plans for 2024 that would surprise and hit Moscow hard. And he hopes for new billions from the EU and the USA. The US F-16 fighter jets expected in the spring are primarily intended to help break Russian air superiority.

The head of Zelensky’s presidential office, Andriy Yermak, who is considered the éminence grise in Kiev, expects 2024 to be the “decisive year” for Ukraine. “The turning point of the war is approaching,” he emphasized in an interview with the TV channel 1+1. Jermak recently compared the war several times to a 100-meter run, in which 70 meters had already been covered. But the last few meters were the hardest, he admitted.

Russia, on the other hand, has long since prepared itself for a marathon that it wants to win at all costs. The “Politico” portal recently also reminded that Zelenskyj had not run away when the war broke out and that he also had what it took to be a “marathon runner.”