The 645th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was marked in Kyiv, as so many days here are, by overnight air-raid sirens and yet another funeral for a fallen soldier.
The situation is even grimmer along the 1,000-kilometre-long front line in the south and east of the country. A months-long Ukrainian counteroffensive that many had hoped would break through Russian defences has effectively ended after liberating only a few small villages. Now it’s the Russian army that’s again grinding forward.
Twelve months ago, many in Ukraine felt victory was not just possible but close. The invading Russians had been swept out of the eastern Kharkiv region. In the south, the city of Kherson had just been liberated, spurring excited talk of Ukrainian troops reclaiming nearby Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed in 2014.
Now, even those around the always-optimistic President Volodymyr Zelensky describe the mood in the country as “depressed.” The military setbacks have fed a creeping pessimism that, for the first time in the war, is creating cracks in Ukraine’s united front.
The most dangerous divide appeared earlier this month when Mr. Zelensky appeared to publicly clash with the country’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, over the state of the war.
Gen. Zaluzhny, in an interview with The Economist, used the word “stalemate” to describe the situation at the front line and compared it to the First World War. Mr. Zelensky later suggested that Gen. Zaluzhny was “tired” when he made those remarks. The President has stuck doggedly to his line that a Ukrainian victory is inevitable.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a top aide to Mr. Zelensky, told The Globe and Mail this week that there was no split between the President and his military commander – that their different takes on the war had been made into an issue by Mr. Zelensky’s unnamed political rivals.
“Unfortunately, politics has come back – and it has come back in a very harsh way,” Mr. Podolyak said in an interview at the fortified Presidential Administration building in the centre of Kyiv. “In this very depressed period, it’s very easy to elevate all these controversies, to amplify them.”
Mr. Podolyak said the focus on the supposed divide between Mr. Zelensky and Gen. Zaluzhny worked in Moscow’s favour by creating concern among Ukraine’s Western allies about the country’s leadership and its ability to win the war. He insisted that the President’s more upbeat interpretation of events was the correct one.
“If you look at the realities of this war, it’s more positive than the pessimistic comments and opinions,” Mr. Podolyak said, adding that Mr. Zelensky could see the “broader picture” beyond the situation at the front line. “He has access to more meetings and briefings and to more sources of information than the military command, just because of his role.”
But selling optimism is much more difficult in Ukraine in the winter of 2023 than it was in the spring of 2022, when Mr. Zelensky was widely credited with rallying the country to fight a war – one that many had thought unwinnable – with his defiant nightly speeches.
Polls show he is still the country’s most trusted politician, though that trust is slowly receding. An October survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) found that 76 per cent of respondents believed in the President, down from 91 per cent in May, 2022, with much of that decline occurring over the past six months. The public places greater faith in the military, which maintains a 94-per-cent trust rating.
Those figures have taken on new meaning since the disagreement between Mr. Zelensky and Gen. Zaluzhny. A separate poll conducted by the respected Razumkov Centre found that 52 per cent of respondents believed the country’s postwar leaders would come from the military, versus 23 per cent who said they would come from existing political parties.
Anton Hrushetskyi, the executive director of KIIS, said that while the split had the potential to become damaging, it was important to note that most Ukrainians still had confidence in both the President and the general. “We do not have two kings, where half the population trusts only Zelensky and half the population trusts only Zaluzhny. The majority of the population trusts both of these public figures, so therefore the majority of the population expect them to work like a united team.”
Hanging over it all is the fact that 2024 was supposed to be an election year in Ukraine, the end of Mr. Zelensky’s five-year term, which the former television comedian secured with an unexpected 2019 triumph over incumbent Petro Poroshenko. While two-thirds of Ukrainians accept that it’s impossible to hold an election while the country is at war – and millions of citizens are living either under foreign occupation or outside the country as refugees – Mr. Zelensky’s leadership will nonetheless be seen in a slightly different light when his official mandate expires.
Russia seems certain to highlight the fact it still plans to hold elections next year – albeit a stage-managed affair all but guaranteed to extend Vladimir Putin’s almost 25-year grip on power – while Ukraine is forced to put democracy on pause.
Liubomyr Mysiv, the deputy director of Rating Group, another Kyiv-based sociological research company, said it feels as though some unknown player – likely the Russian government or someone working with them – is using the looming end of Mr. Zelensky’s mandate to stir up thorny issues that had remained dormant since the start of the war. He pointed to resurgent social media arguments over the place of the Russian language in Ukrainian society as one example, suggesting it may be fuelled by bots. “It’s a very dangerous discussion, and obviously the Russians know very well how to use it.”
Mr. Mysiv said the gloomier mood in Ukraine was more about hard realities setting in than the public losing faith in its leadership.
“Really, I think that it’s a good thing that somebody said the truth, so that we don’t discuss this false hope that we will just win in a moment,” he said. “What we see is not depression, but understanding that this will be a long war.”
Polling conducted by KIIS suggests Ukrainians are ready for a longer war, with 80 per cent saying they’d rather keep fighting than make a peace deal with Russia that involves territorial concessions. But Mr. Hrushetskyi said a growing share of the population also believes Western support for Ukraine is fading and that international pressure to make “some peace deal with unacceptable positions for Ukraine” will grow.