Ukraine’s Summer of Uncertainty

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Ukraine’s Summer of Uncertainty

LVIV – Andriy Kravchuk and Nazar Bihun want to make this a war between devices. 

Kravchuk and Bihun build drones for the Ukrainian armed forces as part of Ukraine’s vast volunteer war effort. They fundraise through Help a Hero, buy cheap parts from China, assemble first-person-view (FPV) drones, and ship them to the front lines. Kravchuk and Bihun expect these drones will be destroyed, maybe quickly. But hopefully not before they get footage or feedback, so they can tweak, troubleshoot, and test what might do the most damage to the enemy next time.

Russia, they admit, is trying to do the same. Russia countered Ukraine’s drone edge with electronic warfare, jamming Ukraine’s arsenal. Ukraine is jamming back, making the battlefield into a screaming match among different frequencies intended to confuse drones to death. So many jammers are howling over each other it can be difficult to launch drones. “It is a problem for them, it is a problem for us,” Bihun said. Even as they churn out drones, they are building and developing electronic warfare systems to deliver to the front.

Kravchuk and Bihun’s efforts are a reminder of how the war in Ukraine continues to evolve, as both Russia and Ukraine seek an edge, then try to turn that edge into an advantage before the other matches it. 

Right now, Russia has the overall advantage in manpower, equipment, and ammunition. The Kremlin is achieving slow and incremental, but significant gains, especially in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s offensive into Kharkiv has stalled, helped by the Biden administration’s decision to let Ukraine use advanced U.S. weapons for limited strikes inside Russia. But weeks of sustained Russian bombings have obliterated critical infrastructure and displaced thousands in the region. “The fear that people have has lasted for over 800 days,” said Ilya Gabrichidze, a program director for Project HOPE, who coordinates humanitarian aid in Kharkiv. 

Still, Russia hasn’t had a decisive breakthrough yet. Ukraine’s objective is to keep it this way. Survive the summer, then survive the rest of the year. 

What that looks like, after more than two years of war, is uncertain. Ukraine desperately needs more troops, but a wider draft is unpopular, which is deepening the divide in society over who is bearing the burdens of this fight. In Lviv, many people spoke of a kind of wearying limbo, feeling they can’t plan for the future until the war ends, but starting to feel that it might not be an ending they want. Added to that is a sense that Ukraine’s fate is not entirely its own. What happens in Donetsk, or Kharkiv, or Kyiv, may depend much more on a handful of voters in a handful of U.S. states. 

That worry is intertwined with the work of Kravchuk and Bihun, who saw Ukraine’s drone warfare as the bridge that helped Kyiv hold on as it waited for Washington’s weapons. Better to figure out now what the next breakthrough, or at least backstop, might be. If you fight a war with devices instead of people, they figure, you lose devices instead of people. “Our goal is to save lives,” Kravchuck said. “If we don’t, who will be using these technologies?”

Ukraine Is Still Standing, but on Shaky Ground

Ukrainian forces were exhausted after an unsuccessful counteroffensive last year. A shortage of ammunition and equipment, exacerbated by the long, long delay in U.S. weapons deliveries, helped Russia gain the initiative

“[Ukraine is] still standing,” said Jan Kallberg, Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and a Fellow at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. 

Ukraine has had to withdraw from positions under Russian pressure, though Kallberg attributes this to disruptions in the delivery of aid. “That said,” he added, “the Russians haven’t had any breakthroughs.”

Russia is concentrating its efforts on taking all of Donbas, where it is making steady advances. In late February, Russia captured the eastern city of Avdiivka, a strategic outpost for Ukrainian troops in its defense of Donetsk. Russia is pushing forward along this axis, as well as near Chasiv Yar, which is a very high city in Donetsk that would, if captured, give Russia an opening toward the key cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, and maybe all of Donetsk.

In May, Russia renewed attacks across the border toward Kharkiv just as Western aid was making its way to Ukraine. Moscow made some quick progress in the northeast, but it really sought to make the most of Ukraine’s manpower disadvantage by forcing Kyiv to commit reserves to defend the city, weakening its defenses elsewhere that Russia might exploit. 

Russia’s Kharkiv offensive ultimately pushed the Biden administration to tweak its prohibition on Ukraine using Western weapons to strike within Russia, at least near Kharkiv, which is about 20 miles from the Russian border. “As long as they were outside of the reach of Ukraine artillery, they were safe,” Kallberg said. Now Ukraine can apply pressure back. That has helped forestall Russia’s push here, with both U.S. officials and Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy saying Russia’s operation has fizzled.

The question now might be whether America and its allies will further loosen its constraints on Ukraine’s use of Western weapons against targets within Russian territory, or get rid of the prohibition altogether, which some argue gives Russia sanctuary to stage attacks as it pleases. At the very least, the United States needs to keep weapons supplies flowing. Over the past few weeks, the U.S. has rushed ammunition and other weapons to the front. But it’s not clear when, or if, it will start to reset the balance with Russia. 

“I wouldn’t say right now that we’re out of the period of vulnerability yet. It’s still going to be a very difficult year,” Michael Kofman, a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Endowment and expert on the Russian and Ukrainian militaries said during a panel discussion Tuesday. “And to be frank, this year is a relative window of opportunity for Russia. But so far, they’ve not made much of it.”

Russia has also battered Ukraine beyond the front lines with its relentless missile and drone strikes on critical infrastructure. Russia has used this strategy since the first year of the war, but this spring drastically escalated these attacks, which Ukraine struggled to intercept because it lacked the necessary ammunition for its air defense systems as U.S. weapons aid got dragged about in Congress. 

Zelenskyy said Tuesday during the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Berlin that Russian strikes have destroyed half of the country’s electricity-generating capacity. It has taken out about 80 percent of its thermal generation. He pushed for the West to deliver more air defense support, like those Patriot missile systems. On Wednesday, Ukraine shot down 29 of 30 Russian missiles and drones aimed at it, which, as the New York Times pointed out, show what a fresh batch of these systems can do, and just how reliant Ukraine is on them. 

That may deter future attacks, but so much infrastructure needs serious repairs to be brought back online. Ukraine already has rolling blackouts scheduled across the country, and it may become a more acute humanitarian and economic catastrophe when the weather cools. 

The Military Problem Is Also a Political Problem

Ukraine needs more fighters if it wants to sustain this war, but how to recruit them, or conscript them, is exposing new wartime fractures. 

Its troops are depleted. Many have been on the frontlines for more than two years, with few meaningful breaks. Ukraine does not release official casualty figures, but it is likely tens of thousands have been killed and more than 100,000 wounded, some more than once. These, of course, are physical injuries; the mental toll of this war is unfathomable.

This is unsustainable without new recruits, but Ukraine is struggling to enlist new soldiers. These are not the early days of invasion, where citizens rushed to service. People know they are signing up for a brutal trench war of indefinite length, with no small odds of being catastrophically injured or killed.

That has forced Ukraine to grapple with how to conscript more soldiers, trying to balance military necessity and democracy. After much debate, new mobilization laws went into effect in mid-May. It lowered the draft age from 27 to 25, and required eligible men to update their draft information, among other measures intended to expand the draft pool. It is also now enlisting prisoners, an uncomfortable echo to Russia’s own tactics. Women remain excluded from the draft rules. 

But terms of demobilization were omitted from the final bill, apparently on the objections of military officials who feared it would remove experienced soldiers from the front lines without any replacements. Lawmakers have said they will take it up in a separate bill, but that leaves many soldiers, and their families, without any end date to service.

On the day after the mobilization law went into effect, Terminy Sluzhby, a group demanding clear terms of service, gathered in front of the Taras Shevchenko monument in Lviv. There were just a few dozen protesters, some holding up a big banner that read: “Military-Not Slaves!” They were mostly wives, sisters, daughters, and parents of those serving. The national anthem played first, all standing at attention, their patriotism asserted before they listed their demands. “No limitation is the end of the army,” they chanted as they marched toward City Hall. 

These protests have been organized across Ukraine. Valentina Klymus, one of the Lviv coordinators, said they try to come out every two or three weeks, peacefully protesting until they see change. They also have a petition with President Zelenskyy. Klymus’s husband has served for more than a year, so she knows he has it better than most, she said. But still, he is tired, and devastated that demobilization was left out of the law. So are the men he fights with. “They are like there’s no hope of coming back,” she said.

One woman held a small sign at the rally that showed a picture of a dance club that said, in English: “We don’t have enough men to replace guys on the front line, but we have a lot of men that are having fun at the club.” It was the only nod at the economic divide of war, where the poor are largely seen as bearing the burden of the fight. The rich pay bribes. Everyone else seems to have a story of someone going out for milk, and then getting stopped by the military police.

Many military-age men I spoke to in Ukraine said they are willing to serve, and they expect they will have to at some point, they just want to delay the inevitable: they have a job, or they have young kids, they feel they are more useful here, fundraising, building drones or whatever is becoming Ukraine’s home-grown defense industry. Those arguing for demobilization guidelines argue that setting out clear service rules will increase recruitment; a 25-year-old can reckon with a sacrifice of two, or three years, but not an open-ended one.

However, Ukraine has not, and maybe cannot, make those guarantees. 

Lviv opened a recruitment center in a city building earlier this year, part of a pilot program to bring in more recruits. It shares a space with other city services, though its offices were pretty quiet on the Monday morning after the mobilization law went into effect. One man, who said his name was Artem, wanted to see if he could update his registration, but he only stopped in because he had something else to do in the building. Later, two guys, both in the early 20s, said they had made the decision to join the army. They wanted to fly drones. Most do. They think they will be less likely to die. 

“The people that come there, they understand that, sooner or later they will be connected to this work,” said Piskorksa Halyna, who works at the recruitment office in Lviv.  

Waiting on the World to Change

“Will Trump win?” was the question a lot of people asked, although it didn’t feel like a question, exactly. Maybe something closer to an accusation. Either way, it was a reminder of just how closely Ukraine’s fate is tied to America’s November election.

Weapons shipments never stopped during the months when Congress debated whether to give Ukraine aid that had overwhelming bipartisan support. The U.S. found creative ways to send what it could, and European allies continued deliveries, but nothing could fully replace the stockpile of U.S. weapons. Washington turned off the spigot, and now Ukraine is playing a costly game of catch up.

The future of that aid is uncertain, though the United States and its European allies are attempting to lock in some guarantees for Ukraine at what feels like a precarious moment for the country.

On Thursday, Biden and Zelenskyy signed a 10-year bilateral security deal that would provide weapons, equipment, and training for Ukraine. Other countries, such as Germany and the United Kingdom, have signed similar deals. A full U.S. commitment is symbolically and materially important. The only caveat is the other guy could tear it up. 

In addition to these security deals – Japan also got on board – the Group of 7 announced a new plan to use the profits from frozen Russian assets to finance an approximately $50 billion loan to Ukraine to help shore up its finances and repair critical infrastructure. Governments still have to agree to the details of the scheme, so this is more of a commitment to a plan right now. But the announcement looked very much timed to show a united Western front amid political convulsions in both the U.S. and Europe.

Besides the very possible return of Trump, Europe feels shaky after the far-right’s strong showing in France and Germany in the European elections. Many – though not all – of these radical right parties harbor pro-Russia sympathies, and a few might even be paid Russian propagandists. In Berlin on Tuesday, when President Zelenskyy addressed the German Bundestag, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) snubbed the speech.

Centrist majorities will still dominate the European Parliament, so it will probably still be business-as-usual on Ukraine, though far-right parties may feel empowered to play spoiler. Europe is also trying to build up its defense capacity, as Russia’s full-scale invasion has shifted how the continent thinks about its security. But that transformation is not happening by November. 

The U.S. also tightened sanctions on Russia, expanding penalties on Russia’s financial system. It also targeted Chinese companies that are still transferring chips and other parts to Russia, allowing it to maintain its war machine and build the missiles taking out Ukraine’s energy systems. 

This orchestrated show of solidarity on the global stage may be as much of a message to Ukraine as it is to Vladimir Putin that Western support is far from fraying, but it still may not be enough to guarantee Ukraine regains momentum in this war.  

“We have this constant feeling, and most of the people in Ukraine share it, that the West doesn’t want us to win this war, and they don’t want us to lose this war,” Bihun, of Help for Heroes, said. Otherwise, the West would remove any restrictions on Ukraine striking within Russia. Otherwise, they would have give Ukraine all the weapons it needed. “They just want us to survive.”

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