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Mykhailo Podolyak, a key adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in his office in Kyiv, Ukraine.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

In the grinding war for Ukraine, there’s a word nobody wants to hear, even as it’s whispered more and more often: stalemate.

The first nine months of the Russian invasion saw rapid conquests in the north, east and south of the country, then the reversal of most of those gains as Ukraine scored major victories in the battles for Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson. All that movement has since been followed by a war of attrition that, despite heavy losses on both sides, has left the front lines looking much like they did on New Year’s Day.

A Russian offensive at the start of the year saw hundreds of thousands of fresh conscripts – spearheaded by the Wagner mercenary group – deployed in the eastern Donbas region, only to sputter out after achieving the Pyrrhic victory of capturing the remains of the destroyed city of Bakhmut. In the aftermath, Wagner fighters turned their guns toward Moscow, effectively removing themselves from the battlefield with a failed mutiny.

Ukraine’s ballyhooed counteroffensive, which has involved tens of thousands of Western-trained troops as well as hundreds of NATO-standard battle tanks – but without any air cover – began in June with the hopes of reaching the shores of the Sea of Azov and cutting the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine in two by severing the so-called “land bridge” to Crimea. But so far the campaign has led to the liberation of only a few smaller towns and villages – most recently Andriivka and Klishchiivka, near Bakhmut – though Ukrainian officials insist the push is continuing.

“I’m very optimistic because I realize the task is to eliminate the second-biggest army in the world and to destroy all its capacity,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a key adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview Monday inside the presidential headquarters that concluded with air-raid sirens sounding over Kyiv for the second time in less than 12 hours.

“There have been significant changes to the front line. Moreover, there’s a cumulative effect. Russia has invested a lot of resources to building this fortification line – traps, minefields, et cetera. They invested a lot of resources, and now Ukraine is destroying these fortifications, which will lead to success in the next phase of this war.”

Still, the slow pace of the advance has led to criticism from Western officials – speaking on the condition of anonymity last month to The New York Times and The Washington Post – that Ukraine was misusing the training and equipment it had received from NATO allies. While the officials called for a faster, riskier thrust south, Ukrainian defence experts say attacking heavily fortified Russian lines without air cover would lead to unacceptably high numbers of casualties among Ukrainian troops who were already pushing through dense minefields while Russian helicopter gunships shot at them from above.

Ukrainians take slow, wary steps to rebuild as war with Russia rages on

Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has suggested that winter weather may soon force an end to the Ukrainian campaign. He has previously called for a negotiated settlement to a war he believes neither side can decisively win.

Mr. Zelensky, who is travelling this week to the United Nations in New York, where he is expected to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden, said in an interview with CBS that was broadcast Sunday that Ukraine will not consider any peace deal that leaves Russia in control of Ukrainian territory. He argued that letting Russia keep land it acquired by force will encourage further aggression by states around the world.

While in the United States, Mr. Zelensky will also be asking the West to keep sending military aid to Ukraine, a job that has been complicated by a corruption scandal in the country’s Defence Department that led earlier this month to the dismissal of Oleksii Reznikov, who had served as defence minister since before the start of the war. On Monday, all six of the deputy ministers who had served under Mr. Reznikov were fired, though Mr. Podolyak said that was simply “protocol” to allow new Defence Minister Rustem Umerov to appoint his own deputies.

“What’s even more important than what’s going on on the front line – despite the fact that’s important – is the narrative, how we discuss what’s going on on the front line,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at the Kyiv-based National Institute for Strategic Studies, which prepares reports for the President’s office.

Mr. Bielieskov acknowledged that there was some evidence the war is headed toward a stalemate. But calling it one now, he said, suits the Russian agenda, since Moscow, having lost the momentum on the battlefield, is interested in forcing peace talks that will allow it to keep the territories it has captured so far.

“There will be people in the Western media, in Western policy-making circles, who will say, ‘It’s a stalemate.’ There are these voices already, especially among the populist wing, who are saying, ‘Why are we investing in a stalemate?’ This is a problem that plays in Russia’s favour, unfortunately.”

Oleksandr Musiienko, a Kyiv-based military analyst, said that while hopes were raised too high ahead of the Ukrainian counteroffensive – with some believing the complete defeat of the Russian army was imminent – the campaign could still be seen as successful if the push south were to eventually lead to the recapture of Tokmak, a town 25 kilometres south of the current front line and on a key crossroads in the Zaporizhzhia region. Taking Tokmak would open the way to both the regional centre of Melitopol and the Azov port of Berdyansk. “If we liberate Tokmak before winter, it will mean Melitopol is nearby, and we are closer to destroying this land bridge to Crimea.”

A new Russian thrust toward the city of Kupyansk, in the eastern Kharkiv region, is seen as an attempt to draw Ukrainian forces away from their southern push. However, the assault on Kupyansk has also made limited progress so far.

The most significant gain either side has made in recent weeks has actually been in the Black Sea, where a pair of Palau-flagged cargo vessels on Saturday became the first craft to arrive in the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk using a new route that goes behind Ukrainian-controlled Snake Island and hugs the coastlines of NATO members Romania and Bulgaria to circumvent a Russian blockade.

Russia pulls out of deal that allowed safe exportation of Ukrainian grain through Black Sea

The two ships are due to load some 20,000 tonnes of Ukrainian wheat bound for Africa and Asia. The boats arrived just days after Ukraine struck the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, badly damaging a landing ship and a docked attack submarine with a combination of cruise missiles and explosive drones.

While Ukraine’s own small navy was destroyed at the start of the invasion, Mr. Bielieskov said Ukraine’s arsenal of anti-ship missiles and unmanned surface vehicles had raised the stakes to the point where Moscow would have to risk the safety of its own warships to keep enforcing the blockade. While Russia has continued to attack Ukraine’s grain infrastructure from the air on an almost nightly basis, there is now hope that Ukraine, one of the world’s top grain-producing countries, will be able to export at least some of this year’s crop.

“Russia somehow imagines that the Black Sea is their internal sea and they can do whatever they decide there, they can block civil trading ships,” Mr. Podolyak said. “Now Ukraine is effectively demonstrating that the Black Sea doesn’t belong to Russia.”

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