Ukraine is in for the long haul, even as calls grow to wave the 'white flag'

Besides internal squabbles in Ukraine and questions about its defences, there's still a need for more robust foreign support

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Istanbul on March 8. Getty Images
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It would be hard to imagine a worse start to 2024 for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The administration of US President Joe Biden’s $60 billion aid package for Ukraine that has sparked an election-year tug-of-war has been delayed in Congress for months. The resulting shortage of weapons and ammunition probably enabled Russian forces to take the eastern city of Avdiivka and nearby villages last month – Moscow’s largest territorial gain in a year.

That defeat has left American military advisers increasingly frustrated with Kyiv’s strategy of seeking to defend its territory in several theatres simultaneously. Ukraine’s second leading foreign backer, Germany, refuses to send its long-range Taurus missiles because, unlike those Ukraine has on hand, they can reach the Russian capital, potentially provoking Kremlin fury.

Amid internal squabbling and questions about Ukraine’s defences, Mr Zelenskyy last month replaced his top military commander, the popular Gen Valery Zaluzhny, which some say highlighted a disconnect in civil-military relations.

Russia, which has a major edge in population, was recently found to be tapping into an alternative troop source: thousands of South Asian men have reportedly accepted high-paying jobs in Russia and then, upon arrival, to their surprise, been sent to the frontlines. And despite the clear troop disadvantage and sagging morale, Ukrainians have been strongly critical of the government’s proposed conscription plan to draft up to half a million soldiers.

On the weekend, Pope Francis urged Kyiv to 'have the courage of the white flag', in reference to a possible surrender

Now, all of this may have convinced one of Ukraine’s most committed regional allies that it’s time to wave the white flag. After meeting Mr Zelenskyy on Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his country ready to host peace talks, citing the advantages of Ankara’s unique position.

Turkey has refrained from joining western sanctions on Russia, with which it has instead sharply boosted trade. It has maintained friendly ties with Moscow and already hosted two rounds of Russia-Ukraine talks: peace negotiations soon after the start of the war, which failed; and successful 2022 talks to establish a grain shipping corridor in the Black Sea.

Turkey has for months been working back channels to persuade Russia to release Ukrainian prisoners, for which Mr Zelenskyy thanked Mr Erdogan during his visit to Dolmabahce Palace along the Bosphorus. Yet with Ukraine’s fortunes at a low ebb, peace talks now would heavily favour Russia, which means Kyiv would much prefer to improve its military position first.

Turkey’s leadership is surely aware of this, so it is hard to know whether its offer was sincere or mainly a friendly nod to Moscow after approving an expansion of Nato. What is clear is that Ankara has little problem continuing to back Ukraine militarily: after gaining legendary status in the conflict’s early days, its top defence firm, Bayraktar, is currently building a drone factory outside Kyiv.

In Istanbul, Mr Zelenskyy met top defence officials and visited the shipyard where a Turkish firm is producing corvettes for Ukraine’s navy. “We have reached agreements on joint defence projects both at the government level and between companies,” he said on X.

Also on Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington to talk Russia-Ukraine, Black Sea security, Nato and more. Turkey-US ties have improved since January, when Ankara approved Sweden’s Nato bid.

Early this month, US ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake said Ankara had been more responsive to US requests to curb trade with Russia. Might this lead to closer bilateral co-operation in Ukraine, or for that matter in Syria or on Mr Biden’s ambitious new Gaza aid plan? Probably not, as the two still hold contrasting, if not opposing, policy positions.

But either way, Kyiv is in for the long haul. Ukraine’s innovative use of cheap drones, its Bayraktar factory and latest defence deals with Turkey, along with its citizens’ increasing commitment to crowd-funding military support, point towards a transition from prioritising procurement to self-reliance and domestic production with help from foreign firms.

This echoes Turkey’s defence development and is a wise defensive posture. But if Ukraine still aims to retake Russian-controlled territory, it will need more robust foreign support. How much can it expect in the coming months? And how deeply felt is western fatigue with Ukraine’s war effort? The messages have been mixed of late.

On the bright side, Ukraine looks set to add a major new asset to its arsenal by summer, American F-16 fighter jets. But on the weekend, Pope Francis urged Kyiv to "have the courage" to surrender, provoking sharp responses from Ukrainian officials.

The pontiff’s advice arrived just days after French President Emmanuel Macron refused to rule out the possibility of Nato troops on the ground in Ukraine. That seems unlikely, though Ukraine’s embattled leader still has a friend in the White House.

“There are no American soldiers at war in Ukraine and I’m determined to keep it that way,” Mr Biden said in his State of the Union. “But Ukraine can stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin if we stand with Ukraine and provide the weapons they need.”

Will the pleas of Mr Zelenskyy and his western allies be enough to spur redoubled military support this spring? Without it, 2024 could turn darker still for Ukraine.

Published: March 12, 2024, 4:00 AM
Updated: March 13, 2024, 10:44 AM