Putin Plays for Time in Ukraine With US, EU Focused on Mideast

Vladimir Putin is increasingly confident Russia’s military can outlast Ukraine as a second winter of war approaches with Kyiv’s US and European allies distracted by the deepening conflict between Israel and Hamas.

(Bloomberg) — Vladimir Putin is increasingly confident Russia’s military can outlast Ukraine as a second winter of war approaches with Kyiv’s US and European allies distracted by the deepening conflict between Israel and Hamas.

The Kremlin is convinced developments are moving in Putin’s favor and that he’ll be able to hold on to territories in southern and eastern Ukraine that his army seized in the invasion, according to three people with knowledge of the situation. 

Russia’s playing for time as Putin prepares for presidential elections in March, two of the people said. The aim is to secure territory Russia currently holds and, with neither side able to make a decisive breakthrough, wait for war fatigue in the US and Europe to mount and shift pressure onto Ukraine to seek a settlement.

Still, after returning from talks in China with President Xi Jinping, Putin traveled to Rostov-on-Don early Friday for a briefing at Russia’s southern military headquarters by army Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who’s overseeing the war in Ukraine. That’s after Russian military bloggers reported Ukrainian troops in the southern Kherson region had crossed the Dnipro river and taken back some occupied settlements in an apparent attempt to establish a bridgehead. The Defense Ministry in Moscow said Friday its forces had repelled the Ukrainians.

Ukraine intends to continue its counteroffensive through the fall and into winter even as weather conditions on the battlefield deteriorate. After amassing billions of dollars of armaments including tanks, artillery and missiles from its US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, it made only slow progress throughout the summer in pushing Russian troops out of heavily defended positions. 

That has added to difficulties in holding together the coalition of support for Ukraine’s defense. The US stripped out funding for Ukraine in a political wrangle over short-term spending to avoid a government shutdown, while the election victory in Slovakia of Robert Fico, a candidate sympathetic to Russia, underscored growing challenges for the European Union. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stoked security concerns among NATO allies when he held talks with Putin at a forum in Beijing this week, becoming the first EU leader to meet with him since an international arrest warrant was issued for the president in March for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. 

Fierce fighting is taking place along parts of the front line in eastern and northeastern Ukraine after Russian forces went on the attack near the cities of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region and Kupyansk in the Kharkiv region. Ukrainian army chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, who visited the front Thursday, said Russian forces continued to press on Avdiivka with new assault units, large numbers of tanks and support from aviation and artillery, though defending troops were repulsing the attacks.

Russia’s likely carrying out its “most significant offensive operation” since at least January with attacks “across multiple axes” in eastern Ukraine, the UK Defence Ministry said in an Oct. 17 intelligence update. 

Putin boasted to reporters in China that Ukraine’s latest assault in Kherson produced “no result.” Days earlier, he told state television that Ukraine’s months-long counteroffensive had “completely failed” and that Russia’s military had switched to “active defense” to improve its positions on the battlefield.

Ukraine rejects Putin’s claim and says its troops are continuing to make advances, including around the strategic city of Bakhmut. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who visited the Kherson region Friday, said in a phone call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that Russia had incurred “catastrophic losses” in a failed assault on Avdiivka. 

Russia may achieve some “tactical-level adaptations and successes” near the city, though they’re unlikely to lead to wider strategic gains, the Institute for the Study of War said in an Oct. 11 report.

To be sure, few in the Russian elite share Putin’s optimism and remain deeply gloomy about prospects for the war, seeing no way to halt the fighting.

Amid the spiraling crisis over the Israel-Hamas war, the US and other NATO allies say they remain committed to supplying weapons and aid to help Ukraine defeat Russia’s invasion that’s now lasted more than 600 days.

In an Oval Office address late Thursday, President Joe Biden appealed to the American people to support funding for Israel and Ukraine’s war efforts, warning that Hamas and Putin both pose threats to US democracy. The White House is sending a $61.4 billion funding request for aid to Ukraine to Congress. 

Zelenskiy said he thanked Biden in a phone call Thursday for providing long-range ATACMS missiles that were used for the first time this week to strike Russian-occupied airfields deep behind the frontline. Still, he acknowledged “a risk that international attention will turn away from Ukraine” because of the violence in Israel and Gaza in an interview with broadcaster France 2 this month.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin’s goals “will be achieved faster” if a US focus on the Middle East leads to a slowdown in arms deliveries to Kyiv. He visited North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week, and later refused to comment on US allegations that Pyongyang had delivered 1,000 containers of military equipment and munitions to Russia.

“Right now, maintaining the status quo suits Russia as they try to wait out the West,” said Dara Massicot, a senior fellow on defense and security issues in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Holding their positions is the minimum Russian forces want to do, but the Kremlin’s goals remain taking more territory.” 

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