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People visit graves of Ukrainian soldiers on the Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, at Lychakiv cemetery in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.YURIY DYACHYSHYN/Getty Images

Kyiv has been through a lot over more than 21 months of war, fighting off the invading Russian army and surviving the regular cruise missile attacks and electricity blackouts that followed.

But the political machinations in the Ukrainian capital in recent weeks nonetheless feel unprecedented.

What began with an apparent disagreement between President Volodymyr Zelensky and the country’s top general over how to describe the situation at the front line has descended into full-scale political combat, with Mr. Zelensky’s political opponents using the fray to resume criticizing him after almost two years of rally-behind-the-leader solidarity.

Bruised by Western media reports highlighting the growing dissent, the Ukrainian government’s Centre for Countering Disinformation turned its fire on foreign reporters covering the conflict here, warning Wednesday that unnamed English-language journalists were “preparing a disinformation campaign against the top military and political leadership of Ukraine.” The campaign, the centre said via its Telegram channel, was aimed at creating “a split in Ukrainian society.”

The apparent attempt to discredit foreign media came two days after Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko – a long-time opponent of Mr. Zelensky who has largely avoided directly criticizing the President since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion – warned the country was drifting toward authoritarianism. “At some point we will no longer be any different from Russia, where everything depends on the whim of one man,” Mr. Klitschko told Swiss television.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who tolerates no internal dissent and has jailed some of the few remaining foreign journalists in his country, seems to be on an upswing as his forces go back on the offensive in Ukraine. He made a rare foreign trip Wednesday to Dubai and Saudi Arabia, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the war in Gaza, before returning to Moscow, where he will host Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

The sense of disarray in Kyiv reached a new peak Tuesday when Mr. Zelensky pulled out of a scheduled video appearance before the U.S. Congress, where he was due to make an appeal for continued military support in the face of escalating Republican resistance. Mr. Zelensky cancelled at the last minute – just hours after his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, warned in a speech at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace that there was a “big risk” that Ukraine’s army would be defeated without continued U.S. support.

“We need so much to continue this aid. We need so much that Congress votes for and supports this package for Ukraine. Of course, it helps us to continue fighting and continue liberating our territories,” Mr. Yermak said in English, referring to a US$60-billion package of military aid that is being held up by Republicans in Congress who are seeking concessions from the Biden administration on immigration and border measures.

Staying optimistic in Ukraine is more difficult as the home front becomes increasingly divided

Mr. Yermak said if the U.S. aid is delayed, it will make it impossible for Ukraine to liberate the 17.5 per cent of its land under Russian occupation “and give the big risk to lose this war.”

In an interview with Fox News, Ukrainian Defence Minister Rustem Umerov said Mr. Zelensky had cancelled his address to Congress because of last-minute developments at home. “It’s a war, so the situation can change,” Mr. Umerov said, adding that Mr. Zelensky would appreciate the chance to address Congress again in the future.

However, one long-time Ukrainian political insider told The Globe and Mail he believed Mr. Zelensky had cancelled his address because he understood the Republican members had already decided to vote against the broader, US$106-billion supplemental aid request from the White House, which includes the US$60-billion for Ukraine, and Mr. Zelensky didn’t want it to appear that his speech had failed to make an impact. The Globe is not identifying the insider because, like many in Kyiv, he did not want to be identified amid the current political infighting.

If U.S. aid is indeed about to dry up, it will only increase the tension in Kyiv. Mr. Umerov said he viewed Mr. Klitschko’s remarks – which included criticism of how Mr. Zelensky had failed to prepare the country for war ahead of the February, 2022, invasion – as “the beginning of the political season.” The country is scheduled to hold elections next year, though they are widely expected to be postponed because of the war.

Mr. Klitschko’s warning about growing authoritarianism came shortly after the Presidential Administration appeared to criticize the country’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, for telling The Economist that the situation at the front line was a “stalemate,” comparing the “attritional trench war” to the First World War.

Mr. Zelensky has remained publicly optimistic about the course of the conflict, vowing again Wednesday that the country would persevere. “It is not easy now, but we are moving. No matter how difficult it is, we will get there. To our borders, to our people. To our peace. Fair peace. Free peace. Against all odds.”

But the warnings about international media from the Centre for Countering Disinformation – part of the National Security and Defence Council, which reports to Mr. Zelensky’s office – appeared to highlight a growing desire to control the message. The centre warned specifically about articles being prepared by “foreign journalists who have experience working in Russia, in particular during the beginning of Putin’s rule.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Mr. Zelensky, told The Globe in an interview last week that anonymous sources quoted in foreign media were damaging Ukraine on the international stage and creating conspiracy theories at home, “which become realities for us.”

Foreign journalists were hailed by the Ukrainian government early in the war, especially as they helped shed light on atrocities committed by Russian forces against Ukrainian civilians. Today, media access to the front line is under increasingly tight control, and officials who spoke freely with The Globe and other organizations during the first year-and-a-half of the invasion are now wary of having their names attached to what they say about the state of the war or the leadership of the country.

The criticism of foreign journalists comes as optimism about a quick end to the war has faded. A summer-and-fall Ukrainian counteroffensive failed to breach the main Russian defensive lines, and Russian forces now appear to have regained the initiative along the 1,000-kilometre-long front line. On Dec. 1, Mr. Zelensky ordered the rapid reinforcement of defensive positions all along the line.

The British Ministry of Defence assessed this week that Russia was now in control of “most of the built-up area” in Marinka, a shattered town in the southeastern Donetsk region that was once home to 9,000 people. Russian forces are also advancing in the nearby city of Avdiivka, which has been surrounded on three sides and is similarly destroyed.

A senior security source told The Globe this week that Ukraine badly needs its Western allies – including Canada – to keep their promises of more military aid as Russia continues to ramp up its own military production.

The source highlighted that Ottawa has yet to deliver any of the 50 Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) and armoured medical evacuation vehicles Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised as part of a new, $650-million aid package that was announced when Mr. Zelensky visited Canada in September. The Globe is not naming the Ukrainian security source because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.

Mr. Trudeau promised to deliver newly built LAVs that would be produced in London, Ont. The source, however, argued that Canada could send LAVs now, from its own stocks of military equipment, then keep the new ones once they’re built.

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