With public attention wavering and facing the risk of dwindling support from its allies, even more trying times lie ahead for Ukraine. Foreign Editor David Pratt takes stock of where the war might now be heading...

UKRAINE. It’s going on two years now since the Russian invasion and start of the war. 

But lately, the news headlines have been crammed with horrific images from Gaza and Israel. The result is that the battlefields and sieges taking place in the likes of the Donbas and along the banks of the Dnipro River – as well as the continued suffering of Ukrainian civilians – seem to have all but dropped from sight.

In doing so, there is a real danger of course that it also drops from our thoughts. Or, to put this another way, ­already the war in Ukraine – Europe’s ­largest since 1945 – would appear to have undergone a shift in the way many ­perceive it in certain parts of the world.

That much was underlined by a recent study of the “geopolitics of emotion”, ­conducted by the European Council on Foreign/Relations (ECFR). The study was compiled just prior to the war in Gaza and reveals a worrying, if unsurprising, trend.

READ MORE: Africa is perfectly positioned to fight back against 'Global Britain'

In short, public opinion in large ­non-Western countries is more interested in when the war will end than in how it will end. Many too, it seems, in these parts of the world – namely the so-called Global ­South – also see the West and Ukraine as the major hindrance to peace.

They also believe that in the coming year, Russia will carry the day and that the battle between Moscow and Kyiv is simply a proxy for a showdown between Russia and the US.

A single survey like this obviously doesn’t convey the whole picture. The fact is that for some time now, there have been two camps when it comes to attitudes to the war.

The first is that of Western leaders who follow Ukraine’s line that the country’s territorial integrity needs to be restored. The second camp includes a large number of countries in the Global South who prefer to emphasise the importance of dialogue and an early cessation of violence.  But when viewed from Kyiv’s ­perspective, it nevertheless presents a worrying trend. For even if in Ukraine’s eyes the prevailing view from the Global South matters less than, say, that from Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, ­Warsaw and elsewhere among Ukraine’s allies, it should still be reason enough to give Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy even more sleepless nights than the many to which he has become accustomed.

The National: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to wounded Ukrainian soldiers during a visit at Staten Island University Hospital, in New York, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz, Pool)

For some time, Zelenskyy has been all too aware of how fickle support for Ukraine in the West can be. The ­Ukrainian leader knows that with a ­recent refocusing of Western attention toward the Middle East, he will have his work cut out in the coming months.

“Yes. A lot of people, of course, in the world are tired,” Zelenskyy admitted in an interview on NBC’s Meet The Press earlier this month, acknowledging the ­fatigue over the war.

He also admitted that “of course, ­Russia is very happy with this war”, ­recognising that recent events in the Middle East had taken the spotlight off Ukraine.

These concerns come even before ­factoring in the prospect of a looming US presidential election amid Republican ­opposition to additional American cash for Kyiv’s war efforts. Evidence of the ­extent to which the war in Ukraine and its consequences can be ­instrumentalised in domestic elections were all too ­apparent recently in both Slovakia and Poland, where support for Ukraine became ­contentious electoral issues. And while Western support has not yet cracked, the signs of a shift are ever-present.

READ MORE: Ruth Wishart: Politics needs some giants amid a shortage of talent

To that end, United States president Joe Biden has made a point of linking American support for Israel and Ukraine, ­saying both are vital for national security.

Earlier this month, Biden’s ­secretary of transportation Pete Buttigieg paid an ­official visit to Ukraine in an ­effort to ­reassure Zelenskyy that the US ­commitment has not wavered.

“The fact that I am here is one way to demonstrate that, in addition to the great concern and attention that we have toward what is going on in the Middle East, we have as much attention, focus and commitment as we have ever had right here to Ukraine,” assured Buttigieg, standing outside of St Michael’s Monastery in Kyiv.

But his remarks have done little to ­dispel the concerns of many ­Ukrainians who also look on as divisions over Ukraine have emerged in the European Union.

Cumulative EU budgetary support to wartime Ukraine is set to surpass that from the US this year. Europe – ­including the UK – may need to take on more of the financial and military burden if the US ­political situation worsens. But still, the EU says it cannot provide all the ­munitions it promised to Kyiv.

Zelenskyy has confirmed that ­deliveries of key artillery shells to his country have dropped off after the start of the ­Israel-Hamas war.

READ MORE: Andrew Tickell: 'Daddy' David Cameron is back – and as odious as ever

“Our deliveries have decreased … they really slowed down,” Zelenskyy recently told reporters, referring specifically to 155-millimetre shells that are widely used on the eastern and southern frontlines in Ukraine.

“It’s not like the US said: ‘We don’t give Ukraine any’. No! It’s just that everyone is fighting for [stockpiles] themselves,” he said. “This is life. I’m not saying that this is positive, but this is life, and we have to defend what’s ours.”

For the moment despite these ­logistical and supply setbacks, Ukraine ­continues to defend its land even if General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s popular ­commander-in-chief, himself ­acknowledged in a recent interview with The Economist that the war is at a ­stalemate.

“Just like in the First World War, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” he said. The general concluded that it would take a massive technological leap to break the ­deadlock. There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,”  Zaluzhnyi ­admitted.

The course of Kyiv’s counteroffensive has undermined Western hopes that Ukraine could use it to demonstrate that the war is unwinnable, forcing ­Russian president Vladimir Putin, to negotiate. But Putin appears hell-bent on ­pressing home with Russia’s full commitment ­undercutting what The Economist ­described as Zaluzhnyi’s assumption that he could stop Russia by bleeding its troops.

The National: Russian President Vladimir Putin will take part in in the Commonwealth of Independent States summit (Pavel Bednyakov, Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via AP)

However, some military analysts believe that Zaluzhnyi’s assessment belies an ­accurate description of what is actually happening on the ground. Among them is Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

“It strikes me as a description which is overly focused on terrain. And when you look at the rates of attrition on both sides and what is being lost and consumed, it’s a position that can’t be maintained ­indefinitely,” Watling said in a recent ­interview with the Financial Times.

“Stalemate would suggest that if we just left things as they were, it would ­remain the same. That’s not the case. It will ­remain the same for a period, and then you see non-linear progression as one side gains advantage or loses it.”

According to other military observers, the fighting is currently concentrated along an axis in the south that includes Robotyne and a push towards the city of Tokmak, which one Ukrainian ­general described as the “minimum goal” for the offensive.

Though once again winter weather that softens up the ground has become a ­major strategic factor, Ukrainian officials say that because they are conducting small-unit infantry attacks rather than large-armoured thrusts, they can keep attacking even as the weather deteriorates and changes the dynamic on the battlefield.

But as Zelenskyy has previously made clear, supplies of ammunition, especially shells, remain a challenge at precisely the moment when North Korean supplies of munitions begin flowing to Russia in ­substantial numbers.

Another area of heavy fighting is in ­Avdiivka, near Donetsk city, where ­Russian forces, their numbers swelled by reserves, are trying – and failing – to take a heavily fortified town that they ­surround on three sides.

Anton Kotsukon, spokesperson for the 110th separate mechanised brigade, said Russian forces were massed on three sides of Avdiivka.

“They are building up reserves. They’ve brought in about 40,000 men here along with ammunition of all calibres,” ­Kotsukon told national television. “We see no sign of the Russians abandoning plans to encircle Avdiivka.”

Russian forces, he told Reuters news agency, were “playing cat and mouse”, sending up “huge numbers” of drones while deploying artillery forces to secure a better picture of the town’s defences.

General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, head of Ukraine’s southern group of forces, said troops around Avdiivka were “stoutly holding their defences”.

Avdiivka has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. It was seized briefly in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists captured chunks of eastern Ukraine, but Ukrainian troops retook it and built up fortifications. Ukrainian forces regard ­Avdiivka as a gateway for future ­advances to recapture territory in the east – the large Russian-held town of Donetsk is 13 miles away.

A third area currently seeing some of the heaviest fighting is to the east of ­Kherson city, where Ukrainian forces in recent weeks have managed to establish and hold a beachhead on the south side of the Dnipro River – a tactical victory that has enabled them to funnel heavy ­equipment across the waterway. Ukraine’s military confirmed the advances in a statement on Friday without naming where they were.

“The Ukrainian marines, in co-operation with other units of the defence ­forces, managed to gain a foothold on several bridgeheads,” read the ­statement. ­Russia also acknowledged the Ukrainian ­presence for the first time.

Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson city a year ago, pushing the Russian forces across the Dnipro, where they fortified their positions. The wide waterway has become the frontline, given the difficulty for Ukraine to ferry men and equipment across the water under threat of Russian artillery fire.

But as the war enters another bitter winter, any moves on the battlefield come against the backdrop of both sides facing problems with troop numbers amid growing reports of many fleeing being drafted.One BBC report last week suggested that as many as 200,000 men may have fled Ukraine since the beginning of the war to avoid the draft. Meanwhile, many ­Russian men have already fled the ­country, though Russian defence ­minister Sergei Shoigu was at pains last month to point out that there were no plans for an additional mobilisation which could again start the exodus.

“The armed forces have the necessary number of military personnel to ­conduct the special military operation,” ­insisted Shoigu, still using the Kremlin’s ­description of the war.

Meanwhile, other reports from the ground tell of a wide-ranging campaign to force Ukrainians in occupied ­territories to become Russian, whereby they are ­denied healthcare and free ­movement unless they take up Russian citizenship.

But as winter takes its grip, it’s another kind of frozen conflict that many fear over Ukraine. Wars don’t always end in peace but can also end – of sorts – by way of stalemates often for decades. Korea and Cyprus respectively have had frozen conflicts for 70 and 49 years respectively.

As fears over wavering support for Ukraine grow among its Western allies, the conclusion is clear in that they must find ways both to speed up support for Ukraine and to lock it in for the future, in what some say is increasingly looking like a multi-year war of attrition.

For the moment, Ukraine’s recent ­successes on the battlefield are almost ­certainly not enough to dispel the ­growing sense that the war is becoming a lasting stalemate. To date, Western support has underwritten Ukraine’s efforts to ­defend itself. But it has done no more than that and so far has not been sufficient to ­enable a Ukrainian victory.

Next spring, as the winter recedes, Ukraine may be able to gain more ­territory early if the supplies of advanced ­weaponry come through that it needs to break the deadlock, something Zelenskyy would undoubtedly welcome.

“Nobody believes in our victory like I do,” declared the Ukrainian president in a recent Time magazine interview.  But at some point, even Zelenskyy may make the decision that it’s best to save whatever gains Ukraine has made and double down and consolidate that position.

These are trying times for Ukraine, a country that has already undergone almost two years of war. With Putin in no mood for any meaningful negotiations and barely a year to a US presential election where if it were to happen today, the candidate most likely to enter the White House would be Donald Trump, the times ahead are set to be even more challenging.

If indeed – as seems the case – that public attention and political priorities are shifting and risk the sidelining of ­Russia’s aggression, then next year could be Ukraine’s toughest yet in this war.