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Picture: POTUS (President of the United States) / X (formerly Twitter) US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy’s political future will be crucially affected by the decision taken by the US senate apropos US$ 60 billion in additional aid for Ukraine.

By MK Bhadrakumar and Peoples Dispatch

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s video conference with US senators on Tuesday is expected to be a turning point in the Ukraine war for three reasons. First, the Joe Biden administration has not written him off completely, and, more important, is not playing favourites in the game of thrones in Kyiv.

Second, the Biden administration hasn’t given up hopes that all is lost in the war.

Third, most important, the US is signalling to Europeans that it is not thinking of cutting loose and exiting Eurasia, a la Afghanistan.

In an article on Wednesday, Peoples Dispatch reports that on December 6, Senate Republicans blocked a procedural vote on a US$ 111 billion aid package introduced by Senate Democrats, which would have provided military aid to Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel. Republicans argued that it did not allot enough money to the US-Mexico border, the report says. Although the bill was blocked due to disagreements on border spending, the failure of this bill and the failure of an earlier US$ 105 billion spending package for both Ukraine and Israel reflects a dwindling enthusiasm among the US public for funding for the proxy conflict in Ukraine, the report says. – Peoples Dispatch

There is no question that the classified briefing by Zelenskyy is a do-or-die attempt by the Biden administration to persuade them that any cut-off in aid will have far-reaching consequences. The senate voting can also be fateful for Biden’s dwindling chances of securing a second term in the 2024 election.

Zelenskyy’s own political future will be crucially affected by the decision taken by the US senate apropos the administration’s US$ 60 billion in additional aid for Ukraine. To be sure, the White House is straining every nerve.

Shalanda Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a letter Monday to congressional leaders: “I want to be clear: without congressional action, by the end of the year we will run out of resources to procure more weapons and equipment for Ukraine and to provide equipment from US military stocks. There is no magical pot of funding available to meet this moment. We are out of money – and nearly out of time.”

Young held out a stark warning that the loss of US financial support would “kneecap Ukraine on the battlefield, not only putting at risk the gains Ukraine has made but increasing the likelihood of Russian military victories”.

She held out the grim prognosis that a Russian victory could cause the war to spill over into a broader regional conflict involving the US’ European allies. That may seem an exaggeration, as Russia has shown no signs of waging a continental war, but if Ukraine collapses, there is going to be a scramble by its western neighbours who have territorial claims on the country — the burdens of history.

Equally, the fate of the Biden candidacy will be sealed by the vicissitudes of the Gaza war rather than Ukraine war but that said, bad tidings from the war front can possibly augment the case for a new leadership in the White House. Simply put, everything adds up in Biden’s contest with Donald Trump.

Can US money make a difference to Ukraine’s depleted manpower? But no US money means no war. The European Union carries hardly any credibility as a replacement. Ten days from now, European leaders are holding a summit meeting (December 14-15) where “continued EU support for Ukraine and its people” is listed as the top agenda item.

The big question at the forthcoming summit is whether Hungary’s hostility will boil over as EU leaders deliberate on a historic decision to bring Ukraine into the group as well as to formalise a key budget deal to throw a EUR 50 billion lifeline to Kyiv. Prime minister Viktor Orban is demanding that the whole process should be put on ice until leaders agree to a wholesale review of EU support for Kyiv.

The point is, in principle, Orban can hold the bloc hostage as it is supposed to act unanimously on big strategic decisions. To compound matters, Orban is striking when Ukraine fatigue is going up in public opinion in many EU countries.

There are straws in the wind — the winner of the recent Dutch election Geert Wilders is vehemently anti-EU. Looking ahead, with a couple of more far-right leaders in Europe surging and a potential return of Trump, the EU’s mien won’t be the same again.

Much harder to predict is the state of play in Kyiv. Ukraine is notionally heading for polls in March 2024, as mandated by the constitution. But in early November, the US Department of State spokesman said that the Ukrainian constitution allowed the country to cancel elections. Subsequently, the parliament in Kyiv agreed that elections should be put off for as long as martial law remains in effect, plus for an additional six months after it is lifted.

Behind the scenes, though, a simmering power struggle between Zelenskyy and his top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny has burst into public view. Zelenskyy’s popularity has recently fallen below 65 percent and reports keep appearing that many army commanders do not see eye-to-eye with the tactics framed by him.

Zaluzhny’s assertion in an interview with The Economist magazine recently that the war is deadlocked drew a public rebuke from Zelenskyy who has been clipping the charismatic general’s wings — the latest being the replacement of one of Zluzhny’s deputies, the head of special operations forces General Viktor Khorenko.

According to the New York Times, “Speculation about tension between the president and the military’s commanding general over strategy and command appointments had been swirling in Kyiv for more than a year … US military officers who have worked with General Khorenko were surprised by the news of his ouster and described a close and effective working relationship with him, according to American military officials … The firing appeared to undercut General Zaluzhny’s authority.”

And all this, interestingly, coincides with a sensational piece by the well-known journalist Seymour Hersh in the weekend that “everyone in Europe is talking about” the secret peace talks going on between Zaluzhny and General Valery Gerasimov who runs the war for the Kremlin. Notably, TASS news agency reported on Hersh’s disclosure, which burnished its credibility — although the story bears the hallmark of an information war that is probably intended to complicate life for Zaluzhny.

Meanwhile, a riveting long read in the Washington Post on Monday in the nature of a post-mortem on the catastrophic failure of Ukraine’s much-vaunted “counter-offensive” against Russian forces, which has implied that Zaluzhny’s rejection of the Western military doctrine proposing a concentrated push toward a singular objective of reaching the Azov Sea coastline and his preference instead to make the formidable length of the 600-mile front a problem for Russia, ultimately diminished the firepower of Ukraine’s military at any single point of attack and diluted its fighting power, while the Russian defences that followed textbook Soviet standards held firm.

How the WaPo narrative dovetails into the power struggle in Kyiv remains to be seen. As things stand, the advantage goes to Zelenskyy and all indications are that Biden considers him a safe bet through the crucial 2024 period ahead while his own re-election bid accelerates.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.

This article was published on Peoples Dispatch