Two men embrace near the flags placed on Independence Square in commemoration of fallen Ukrainian soldiers, in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine, 30 October 2023 amid the Russian invasion.
© EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO   |   Two men embrace near the flags placed on Independence Square in commemoration of fallen Ukrainian soldiers, in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine, 30 October 2023 amid the Russian invasion.

Ukraine: war fatigue grows after counteroffensive fails

Daruieste Viata

Ukraine has entered a new phase of war fatigue caused by the prolongation of hostilities, but also by the failure of the counter-offensive, admitted even by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhnyi.  Despite encouraging narratives of resistance to the Russian military aggression, there are growing signals of a crisis among the military personnel, mistrust in the authorities, and society's difficult adjustment to a war that is lasting more than envisaged.

“We are at a  strategic turning point.  Everyone expected a sprint, but the war is turning into a marathon, requiring a different physical condition of the athlete and a different training," Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, told Ukrainska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), comparing war to sport.

War weariness, insufficient weaponry and lack of men. In order to find recruits, army commissariats are now in charge of approving even employment and marriage

The commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, told The Economist that the Ukrainian army could  run out of men if the trench warfare continues for several more years. While Zaluzhnyi talks about a personnel crisis that could become visible in the future if the West does not help Ukraine, more and more signals are being drawn in the Ukrainian information space, indicating the difficulties faced by Kyiv in terms of mobilization.

In an article published in Time magazine, American reporters speak of the failed initiative of the Ukrainian political leadership to launch an operation to liberate the city of Horlivka,  a strategic outpost in Donbass, which has not been under the control of the Ukrainian authorities since 2014. The military are said to have explained to the Kyiv leadership that an offensive in that direction is not possible, asking Zelenskiy's entourage the following questions: "Where are the weapons? Where is the artillery? Where are the new recruits?

When the slow pace of the Ukrainian counteroffensive is discussed, most of the time Kyiv blames the West, saying that the soldiers do not have enough weapons. Ukraine openly talks about the lack of weapons, refusing to mention in the internal information space about any personnel crisis, so as not to discourage the mobilization process.

It goes without saying that mobilization for an army that lacks ammunition, weapons and equipment is more difficult than when the army is a well-equipped one. Kyiv talks openly about the weapons issue, but refrains from mentioning that of war casualties.

In August this year, the Ministry of Defense in Kyiv amended the order regulating the criteria for the operation of the Medical-Military Commissions, by which it expanded the list of people who can be conscripted into the army. Men who were "partially fit" for military service were declared "fit". The Ukrainian press wrote that  men with hepatitis, with asymptomatic HIV,   with minimal mental disorders or tuberculosis will be called to join the army.

Depending on the severity of the mental disorder, the medical commission can decide whether the person will be conscripted. In September, Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed the order to check all decisions by means of which medical commissions  have declared  men as invalids  during the martial law period. The Ukrainian presidency has admitted that many heads of medical commissions received bribes to help some citizens avoid conscription.

According to Ukrainska Pravda, a number of pages and groups have appeared on social media, posting information about members of military commissariats walking around the streets. Some shops, neighborhoods or street intersections are avoided by men of draft age to avoid meeting the commissars.

There have also been scandals in the media regarding representatives of the state border services taking bribes in order to let some men out; moreover, the border service presents weekly cases of men trying to illegally reach EU states and escape mobilization, and there is also daily news of fugitives caught in forests or who drowned while trying to cross rivers to Europe.

Despite messages encouraging resistance and enlisting in the army, the number of applicants has been decreasing in the context of the prolongation of hostilities. Kyiv has reacted specifically to the changes occurring in society by tightening the legislation that relates to the economic, civil or social activities of men of conscription age. For example, employment, starting a business, enrolling in a college, registering a marriage or any other civil status documents must be approved by the military commissariats.  The solution found by the authorities in Kyiv aims to limit the possibilities for men to freely interact with the economic or social environment, bypassing the military commissariat.

Images of military commissars forcibly taking men to war  began to appear on social media, and Volodymyr Zelensky harshly criticized these methods on a television show. Amid these problems, the Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov resigned in September.

With an information space dominated by the government’s optimistic messages, Ukrainians find it hard to accept that the war is one that will last

In the context of the war, the information space in Ukraine has become increasingly uniform and dominated by official narratives. The messages directed against the aggressor state worked successfully over the past year and until the launch of the counter-offensive. Now, the Ukrainian state media is belatedly reacting to the changing nature of the war and the new currents of opinion in Ukraine. Messages encouraging resistance are not as compelling as they were a year ago.

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a number of TV channels have been broadcasting the same news bulletins, promoting a uniformity of information. According to a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, from May 2022 to October 2023 the  distrust in the national telethon grew  from 12 to 39 percent. On the one hand, Ukrainians increasingly want non-ideological information, but Kyiv still wants to use the telethon to counter Russian propaganda and encourage popular resistance. At the same time, the narratives of the independent media have become very close to the official ones, as newspapers and news agencies stand in solidarity with the official position of the state at war.

Since the beginning of the war, attention has been constantly drawn to Russian manipulation and disinformation and how it insinuates itself and can appear even in sources that, at first glance, have nothing to do with Russia. In addition, revelations about Russian agents infiltrating Ukrainian institutions, including the intelligence services, have regularly appeared in the public space, and there’s been regular talk of traitors or internal enemies of Ukraine. The result is that society has become more suspicious and distrustful when delivered narratives that contradict those telling of a quick victory against Russia.

One of the Ukrainian experts who predicted this phenomenon was Pavlo Kazarin, a well-known journalist born in Crimea, who was drafted into the army last spring. He wrote on Facebook in January 2023 that Ukrainian society risks falling victim to populist promises of a quick and definitive victory over Russia.  But, he says, the war seems to be "a long rain", a new normality, and a very tough one. From the trenches, he implored Zelenskiy and other policymakers in Kyiv not to peddle "cheap stories" about Ukraine's quick victory, the "Kremlin putsch," "Putin's oncological diseases" or "uprisings in Russian regions ". The war fatigue predicted by Kazarin at the beginning of this year has come true along with the growing slowness of the counter-offensive, on which both Ukrainians and Westerners had high hopes.

The journalist also wrote that. after the first weeks of "heroic selfies" by those voluntarily enlisted in the army, the fatigue is turning acute. Kazarin’s observations, as well as those of some political observers in Ukraine, refer not to the way Kyiv organizes its defense, but to how it communicates with its citizens, using techniques that have been the same since the beginning of the war. So the change in the paradigm of the war did not bring along a change in the way the authorities communicate with the citizens.

War fatigue is confirmed by sociologists. According to a Gallup poll, a year ago, 70 of Ukrainians  supported a war that would last as long as necessary to liberate all the territories. At the moment this point of view is shared by only 60 percent.

Ukrainian sociologist Sergey Radchenko believes that war fatigue is increasingly visible, and the citizens who live close to the front line are in favor of signing an armistice with Russia, while the majority opinion is different. Gallup also showed that every second Ukrainian faces various financial problems and has difficulty buying water and food.

Military analysts in Ukraine believe that the authorities in Kyiv must abandon political messages and promises of a quick end to the war, and return to an honest discussion with citizens. Dmitri Sneguriov, a renowned Ukrainian military expert, praised the Ukrainian army chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi for starting to call a spade a spade and to admit there are issues , recommending Zelenskiy to do the same and give up wartime political speeches.

Ukraine really is at a strategic turning point in the war, where the old political narratives are no longer as effective, and the new ones require enormous work to make the decision-making process transparent and to rely on sincerity and openness in the dialogue with the citizens. The goal is not at all simple to achieve because Russia will continue to bombard Ukraine both informationally and with missiles or drones. The honest and constructive statements of some Ukrainian officials will be used by the Russian media to create new propaganda messages. A war that takes place on land, in the air, on water and for the minds of men…

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