Zelenskyy struggles with resources and morale as the war revitalizes Putin

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy have arrived at two very different points in the war.

A year ago, Zelenskyy received a standing ovation in Congress and promises of billions in aid to help fight Putin’s invading army. The Russian president, meanwhile, appeared to shun the spotlight. His army was losing ground as he fended off challenges from within his own ranks. 

On Tuesday, the roles appeared reversed. Putin seemed confident and victorious at a Defense Ministry briefing, while Zelenskyy looked beleaguered at a hastily organized year-end news conference. 

The Russian leader sounded buoyant as he touted Russia’s war effort at the briefing, surrounded by his top military brass — a stark contrast to just six months ago when his grip on power and the country’s military leadership was threatened by a mutiny and Kyiv’s new counteroffensive was expected to drive the Russians back as far as their own borders. 

Putin’s display of confidence is hardly surprising, said Mark Galeotti, the head of the Russia-focused consultancy Mayak Intelligence. “Putin is in a stronger position now than he has been at any point since the invasion, so he has some reason to crow,” Galeotti, who has written extensively about the Russian president, said. 

Zelenskyy, meanwhile, is in a very different spot, he added, falling back on his tried-and-tested tactic of invoking a moral obligation by his allies to help Ukraine as he appeared to take a veiled stab at Washington.  

“I am sure that the United States of America will not betray us and that what we agreed with the United States will be fully implemented,” Zelenskyy told reporters. 

President Biden Hosts Ukrainian President Zelenskiy
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy with President Biden at the White House last week.Yuri Gripas / Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Joe Biden, one of Zelenskyy’s closest allies, has asked for $61 billion in new aid for Ukraine, but Congress has yet to greenlight it. Zelenskyy returned frustrated from a visit to the U.S. last week with no solid guarantees of more aid.   

Zelenskyy’s invoking the word “betrayal” is part of the “moral blackmail” strategy that has worked well for the Ukrainian leader for the last two years, Galeotti said, but it can only go so far and is starting to wear thin in the West. 

“I think it reflects the fact that not only was he disappointed by the outcome of his trip to the U.S., but it also left him looking weaker at home,” he said. “He is meant to be the miracle worker, who goes and suddenly is able to unblock these kinds of problems.”

In the early weeks of the war, Zelenskyy was celebrated for his relentless efforts to get the world on his country’s side. But his star power appears to be fading as war fatigue is setting in, nearly two years into the conflict. 

Ukraine’s armed forces surprised many last year after managing to not only hold back the Russians, but liberate some parts of Ukraine. It has led to high expectations for the counteroffensive launched by Kyiv in June, but the Western-backed campaign has largely fizzled out in recent months, with Ukraine unable to mount any breakthroughs. It has undermined the confidence of Ukraine’s allies that the war is winnable and has led to qualms in Washington and Europe about whether providing more aid for Ukraine is sustainable. 

It has also led to internal turmoil, with Zelenskyy appearing at odds with his top general, who said the war had reached a stalemate. 

Putin has tried to capitalize on the fact that the momentum for both Ukraine and Zelenskyy has faltered, Galeotti said, projecting his self-assuredness. 

On Tuesday, he said his troops were “holding the initiative” in Ukraine and have gained military experience that’s unrivaled globally. While Ukraine, he said, was suffering “heavy losses” and has largely squandered its reserves. 

He bestowed “Hero of Russia” medals on some of his troops later that day and shared a glass of sparkling wine with them, as he said he was ready to “go till the end” in protecting Russia (Putin has cast the war in Ukraine as Russia’s existential fight against the West.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to attend a ceremony to present Gold Star medals to Heroes of Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Dec. 8. Sergei Guneyev / Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Just six months ago, the Kremlin was faced with internal wrangling about how Russian military leadership was handling the war, culminating in the mutiny of longtime regime loyalist Yevgeny Prigozhin. 

Putin appeared weakened and stayed out of the public eye, but after the revolt was quashed and Ukraine’s allies started doubting the course of its counteroffensive, the Russian leader appeared reinvigorated, last week holding his biggest news conference since the war began and earlier this month announcing his bid for next year’s presidential election. 

“There is no denying that it has been a bad few months for Ukraine and that Putin, having survived the Prigozhin rebellion, is in a much better personal position than he seemed to be in the summer,” said Michael Clarke, visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London. 

Zelenskyy, despite the setbacks, is as determined as ever, Clarke said, with more than 60% of Ukrainians still supporting him, according to a recent poll. Albeit, that has dropped from 84% last year. 

The Ukrainian leader told the media Tuesday it has been a “difficult year” for Ukraine, but categorically denied that his country was on its way to losing the war. Kyiv is still set on liberating all occupied lands, he insisted. 

“He is certainly tired and facing some important internal opposition in Kyiv,” Clarke said. 

“Exactly the same had happened to [Winston] Churchill by 1943 — he was tired, irascible, and became increasingly unpopular with the public, leading to his defeat in the 1945 election,” he added. “But that didn’t actually detract very much from his effectiveness as a war leader.”