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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at press conference during the Ukraine Year 2024 forum in Kyiv on Feb. 25, 2024.Olga Ivashchenko/The Globe and Mail

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged Sunday that his country was losing ground as the Russian invasion enters a third year and Western support slows, a situation that could worsen unless the flow of U.S. military aid resumes.

In a press conference in Kyiv to mark the start of a third year, he forecast that the coming months would be difficult for his country, as stores of artillery shells and air-defence missiles run low and Russia pushes ahead with a counteroffensive. That assault recently forced Ukrainian troops to concede the shattered city of Avdiivka to the invading forces.

“Russia will prepare counteroffensive operations in early summer, or at the end of May if they can. They will prepare. We will prepare for their assault,” he said, adding that Ukraine was also planning its own offensive operations.

“Now is the most difficult moment for our unity, and if we all fall apart, from the outside and God forbid, inside, then this will be the weakest moment. It hasn’t happened yet.”

Mr. Zelensky said 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in action over the first two years of the war, the first time that figure has been made public. U.S. officials told The New York Times last year that Ukraine is estimated to have lost close to 70,000, with up to 120,000 wounded.

A critical turning point will be the U.S. presidential election, Mr. Zelensky said, when it becomes clear whether Joe Biden, a full-throated supporter of Ukraine, will get another term in the White House, or whether the presidency will return to Donald Trump, an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After the November election, “we will understand what will happen next,” Mr. Zelensky said.

A US$60-billion package of military aid for Ukraine that Mr. Biden requested has been stalled since late last year, with Mr. Trump’s allies in Congress thus far blocking its passage.

“Can you replace the defence capabilities of the United States? The answer is no,” Mr. Zelensky said. “I do have hopes for Congress. I’m sure there will be a positive decision, because otherwise it will leave me wondering what kind of world we are living in.”

But Mr. Zelensky said Ukraine would fight on regardless, dismissing suggestions that he should prepare his country for negotiations with Russia. Any peace that Mr. Putin would agree to would almost certainly involve ceding Russia the five southern and eastern regions of Ukraine he has ostensibly annexed.

Mr. Zelensky laughed off a question from The Globe and Mail about whether he would take a surprise phone call from the Russian leader. “He doesn’t have a mobile phone, and I don’t know how to use a telegraph machine from 1917,” Mr. Zelensky said, referring to the 71-year-old Mr. Putin’s aversion to modern methods of communication. “He won’t call me because he doesn’t want peace.”

Instead, Mr. Zelensky said he would promote Ukraine’s own 10-point peace plan – which calls for a complete Russian withdrawal from the approximately 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory it currently occupies – at a summit that Switzerland is set to hold in the coming months. The meeting is expected to take place without Russian representation.

Rather than negotiating a withdrawal, Mr. Putin’s troops are slicing away more Ukrainian territory. Mr. Zelensky said Russian forces were “exerting a lot of pressure” in the eastern Kharkiv region, with an immediate focus on capturing the strategic crossroads of Kupyansk.

The situation along the front line was particularly grim toward the end of 2023, Mr. Zelensky said, when shortages of artillery shells meant that Ukraine could only return fire once for every 12 rounds the Russians shot. That ratio had recently improved to six or seven to one, he said, but that was a long way from the near-parity Ukraine had achieved when it was able to liberate large swaths of occupied territory in late 2022.

“When we have a rate of one to one, we will definitely show the results,” he said.

The fall of Avdiivka – which had been on the front line since the outbreak of a proxy conflict in the Donetsk region 10 years ago – came at an astonishing cost to Russia. The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War estimated that Russia had sacrificed more troops capturing the ruined city, which had a prewar population of just more than 30,000, than the 15,000 soldiers the Soviet Union lost during its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But Russian forces have nonetheless followed their victory at Avdiivka with a widening offensive, with large-scale thrusts in several sectors along the 1,200-kilometre-long front line.

On Saturday, Russian troops were confirmed to have captured the village of Lastochkyne, several kilometres west of Avdiivka, as they pushed closer to the last remaining Ukrainian-held cities in the Donetsk area. On Sunday, Russia attacked the city of Kostiantynivka with guided bombs, destroying the local train station as well as a church.

At a forum preceding Mr. Zelensky’s press conference, Defence Minister Rustem Umerov said 50 per cent of the military aid promised by Ukraine’s international allies was not arriving on time.

“In the math of war, we’re losing to the enemy,” he said, pointing out that Russia’s military budget had expanded to US$150-billion this year, a figure equivalent to 75 per cent of Ukraine’s prewar gross domestic product. “Whenever commitments don’t arrive on time, we lose people, we lose territory.”

Though Mr. Umerov didn’t call countries out by name, Canada is among the laggards, with Ukraine still waiting for the arrival of an advanced NASAMS air-defence system that Ottawa announced in January, 2023, it would purchase on Ukraine’s behalf.

The federal government says it has already paid for the US$406-million system, which is made in the United States, but delivery has been held up pending the signing of a foreign military sales agreement between the U.S. and Ukraine.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a surprise visit to Kyiv on the weekend to show Canada’s solidarity with Ukraine and to sign a new security co-operation agreement that commits Ottawa to provide $2.7-billion in loans and military assistance in 2024.

The 10-year pact includes a clause that covers the possibility of a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine, followed by a new Russian attack. It obliges the two sides to “consult within 24 hours to determine measures needed to counter or deter the aggression.”

In the immediate term, however, Mr. Trudeau was unable to say when the next batch of Canadian weapons and ammunition would be delivered to the Ukrainian military. On Sunday, Defence Minister Bill Blair, who accompanied Mr. Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland to Kyiv, said they had asked Ukraine what was needed most.

“The questions we’ve asked is what can we get to you, because the need is urgent and we are prepared to be flexible in delivering to Ukraine what Ukraine needs,” Mr. Blair told reporters in Poland.

In his press conference, Mr. Zelensky applauded the majority of Canadians who still stood with Ukraine. He was responding to a question from The Globe about a recent Angus Reid Institute poll showing the number of Canadians who felt Ottawa was giving too much aid to Ukraine had doubled to 25 per cent – from 13 per cent at the start of the war.

“I agree that 70 per cent of Canadians are right, you have to give more,” he said.

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